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Integrate a PC into your home theater
You traded those VHS tapes for DVDs years ago, but now everyone's talking about digital video recorders (DVRs) and using TiVo as a verb. If you want to start time shifting--which means pausing and rewinding live TV, fast-forwarding through commercials, and watching this week's episode of Lost next week, for example--getting a DVR-capable cable box from your satellite or cable company or springing for a TiVo is probably the easiest way to go. || |
Set-top boxes like that are great, but if you want to avoid subscription fees and wield more control over your favorite movies and TV shows, a home-theater PC is the answer. While TiVo begins and ends with recording TV, and it does a fine job with that task, adding a PC to your home theater lets you access media files--from digital photos to videos to MP3s--all from the comfort of your couch (almost any Media Center PC comes bundled with a Media Center remote). And while it's true that some set-top DVRs include a DVD-recordable drive for archiving your favorite shows, those units cost almost as much as a new home-theater PC.
Mixing a PC into your home theater is starting to sound good, right? You're not alone. More and more companies have started selling living room-friendly systems. They look less like a standard midtower PC and more like a high-end home-theater component, and most run nearly silently and use Microsoft's Media Center OS
Your home-theater PC options, as we see them:
- Buy a new PC from your favorite manufacturer or electronics retailer. Get one with the Media Center version of Windows XP on it and make sure it has a TV tuner card for capturing signals from your cable or satellite box, and you're all set. If you have room in your home-theater setup to accommodate a standard midtower chassis, we've seen some fairly low-end PCs that are more than up to the task. For a more camouflaged look, either of these component-style systems comes highly recommended. In either case, you don't need to spend obscene amounts unless you also want your Media Center PC to serve as a gaming rig. Today's 3D games require high-end graphics, a powerful processor, and ample memory. Just recording and displaying TV isn't nearly as demanding, so you can get away with a middle-of-the-road configuration.
- Upgrade your current PC or an older computer you have lying around. You may have heard that you can get the Media Center version of Windows XP only preinstalled on a new machine, but that's a classic computing urban myth. In fact, almost any computer-supply retailer will be happy to sell you a stand-alone copy of the OS, with Microsoft's full approval. The OS will come as part of a hardware bundle, most likely with a TV tuner card, which you'll need anyway. This involves the potentially scary step of opening your computer's case and plugging in the card, plus installing a new operating system, but it's nothing too challenging for the average user.
- If you want to avoid the hassle of upgrading to a new operating system, there are plenty of third-party apps out there, ranging from free to a hundred bucks or so, that can handle all the same chores as the Media Center OS. Add a TV tuner card and remote control, and you have a Microsoft-free solution for your home-theater PC. For more on these DVR apps, direct your attention to tip 3 of this story.
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Senior associate editor
| ||Dan Ackerman covers the intersection of computers and home theater, from DVRs to DRM. He's written about technology, games, music, and nightlife for more than a decade, including stints as senior editor at UGO.com and editor in chief of Clubplanet. A former radio DJ with a couple of albums under his belt (look him up on iTunes), his work has appeared in publications including USA Today, Sync, and amNewYork. |