by Kevin Purdy - You can spend hours of time and hundreds of brain cycles analyzing and comparing pre-built set-top boxes, or wondering if Boxee or XBMC will run with your hardware. Or you can load up Windows Media Center on a tiny computer or laptop and start enjoying Hulu, your own files, and even other media centers on the side.
Windows Media Center doesn't get as much attention as it should -- it's a very developed, smooth, and media-friendly product. It comes pre-installed in Windows Vista and 7, in the standard "Home Professional" versions and on up the edition chain. There are plenty of Media-Center-compatible remotes, many of them starting at about $25. And because Windows is still the primary consumer operating system, you don't have to do half as much worrying about hardware compatibility. The only requirement on your end is a cable to connect your home theater PC or laptop to your HDTV, though those can also be obtained on the cheap.
Ready to roll? Setup is as simple as adding the Windows Media Center application to your "Startup" folder in the Start menu. If it's a computer you use for other purposes, your Media Center remote likely has a green button with a prominent Windows icon -- hit that, and Media Center will launch. Get familiar with its basic menu structure. Want to add more video, music, or pictures to your media center library? Set up your other computers to stream and trade files with that system using Windows 7's HomeGroup features.
A few more tips for a much better experience
Go ahead and install the early Falsh 10.1 release on your system, and grab Hulu's Desktop app. The Flash release will allow systems to use compatible video hardware to render streaming Flash video, which in turn makes your full-screen Hulu experience like watching basic television through Hulu's app. And when you want to jump into Hulu, you don't have to close down Windows Media Center -- install this handy Hulu Desktop Integration, and Hulu will show up as one of your main menu options in Windows Media Center. The same developer has also created Media Center plug-ins for Boxee and XBMC, which allow you to shut down Media Center, hop over to those third-party apps, then re-launch Media Center when you're done.
With this setup, anyone in your house can enjoy TV shows they missed on a big screen, view pictures, and listen to tunes in the living room, while the geeks can still indulge in open-source media apps. It's truly a wonderful time to have a computer under the TV.