Practically any modern PC can handle the functions of almost every piece of hardware in a typical home theater: cable box, DVR, Blu-ray player, even stereo amplifier. What's more, the PC can do things that no cable box can--streaming Netflix movies, playing your entire music and photo libraries, burning recorded TV shows to DVD, and much more.
It all starts with a having a system that runs any version of Windows 7 other than Starter; all such versions of the operating system include Microsoft's powerful Windows Media Center software--a couch-friendly home-theater interface that beautifully complements your HDTV. Once you've made established the necessary connection (see "Stream Media From Your PC to Your HDTV" if you're not sure how to do this), you have the makings of a killer entertainment center. Now you just need a few accoutrements.
Add a CableCard for Cable TV
Windows Media Center has always had an Achilles' heel: It can't tune in premium or HD cable channels. Enter CableCards, which give you all the functionality of a cable box in the form of a compact card that slips into a special tuner. Until recently, though, it was hard to find one of those tuners to add to a PC.
But things are changing. Vendors like Ceton and Silicondust are starting to roll out user-installable CableCard tuners. Ceton's Digital Cable Quad-Tuner Card ($399), for example, lets you record up to four shows at once, including premium channels. Because it's a PCI Express card, you'll need an available expansion slot on your PC--and the skills to venture inside with a screwdriver.
We're also jazzed about the Silicondust HDHomeRun CableCard ($249), an external dual-tuner device that connects to your home network, enabling you to share premium-cable goodness with all of the Windows 7-powered PCs in your home.
While you're waiting for these tantalizing products to reach store shelves near you, you can tune in to over-the-air HD and/or basic cable channels by using any of a number of available tuners from AverMedia and Hauppauge. Two good bets: the AverMedia AVerTV Hybrid Volar Max and the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q.
Grab a Blu-ray Drive
Windows 7 lacks native support for Blu-ray movies, but that doesn't prevent you from installing a Blu-ray drive. A couple of caveats, though: Your video card needs to have the horsepower to run smoothly at 1920 by 1080 resolution, and it needs to have an HDMI port or HDCP-compliant DVI port. Otherwise, Blu-ray movies won't play.
Suitable software is another requirement. Both Corel WinDVD Pro 2010 ($60) and CyberLink PowerDVD 9 Ultra ($80) offer Windows Media Center integration, meaning that they add a Blu-ray option to the standard menu system. With such integration in place, you won't have to get out your mouse or keyboard and shut down Media Center just to play a Blu-ray movie.
As for the drives themselves, internal models are available from the likes of LG, Lite-On, Plextor, and Sony for less than $100. Any of these drives should be able to replace the DVD drive already installed in your PC. If you'd rather go external, drives from Plextor (like the PX-B310U shown above) and Velocity Micro are good bets; any of these models plugs easily into a USB port. Plan on spending closer to $200 for an external model.
Don't Skimp on the Speakers
No man-cave home theater is complete without a world-class (or at least den-class) audio system. Smaller rooms can get away with traditional speakers, but a larger room needs a amplifier/speaker combination. Either way, make sure that your PC has an SPDIF output so you can enjoy true digital sound. If it can't handle SPDIF, consider upgrading your sound card--an operation that can be as simple as plugging in a Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Amiga USB Sound Card ($40), which adds a digital output to any PC.
If you're outfitting a smallish room, the plug-and-play convenience of PC speakers such as the Logitech Z-5500 ($400) is pretty compelling. This 5.1-channel setup (translation: five satellite speakers and a subwoofer) pumps out an amazing 505 watts of surround-sound power--more than enough to blow your hair back (and forward again) during screenings of Inglourious Basterds.
If you want more power and versatility, you'll have to spring for a home-theater receiver--and of course, speakers to go with it. We don't have space here to look at the endless options and permutations available, but you should be able to find the gear and the advice you need at your local home-theater store. (Note: Any modern receiver you buy will have SPDIF inputs, the one essential criterion in making the media-center connection.)
Extend Windows Media Center With Your Xbox 360
If you'd rather not make a big, bulky desktop PC a permanent part of your living room décor, consider working instead with the Xbox 360 that's already there. Right out of the box, Microsoft's game console can double as a Media Center Extender, reproducing the entire Media Center experience--TV, music, photos, and all.
The interface looks and operates exactly as if you were sitting in front of your PC. And there's no added The only overhead is the one-time setup procedure linking Xbox and PC.
Unfortunately, you won't be able to watch Blu-ray (or even DVD) movies via your Xbox. (Thanks, DRM.) Also, you can't use PC speakers with an Xbox--so if you want killer audio, your only practical option is to add a receiver to the mix. And finally, your Xbox will need a wired connection to your home-network router; wireless just doesn't cut it, especially for streaming high-definition video.
Don't Forget the Remote Control
Ready to hit the couch? You still need one crucial accessory: a remote. We've long been partial to the Logitech Harmony One, which incorporates a color touchscreen for performing multitask activities (such as turning on the TV while switching the receiver to the proper mode). It works especially well with Windows Media Center, since many of its buttons map perfectly to the interface.
If your PC lacks an IR receiver, however, you'll need to add one. Our advice: Head to eBay and search for "Windows Media Center remote." For as little as $15, you should be able to find a bundle that includes a remote and a receiver. You can use the former if you want or stick it in a drawer as a backup.
Finally, if you own an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you can go the app route. For just $5, HippoRemote Pro provides full control over Windows Media Center. You don't even need an IR receiver--just a small Windows utility that permits your Apple device and your PC to communicate over your Wi-Fi network.
Have any Media Center PC tips of your own? Share them in the comments!
This story, "Make Your PC a Man-Cave Media Center" was originally published by PCWorld.