March 15, 2010, 12:18 PM — 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.