These days, it’s common for people to have sophisticated home entertainment systems that include DVD players, TV tuners and Blu-ray players. But rather than managing so many gadgets, did you know that you can consolidate all of these standalone parts with a PC? You can, and it doesn’t even have to be complex or confusing.
All you need is a PC with Windows Media Center (WMC). After all, PCs can play all video and audio formats, including DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video. Your system can serve as a personal recorder for watching and recording videos, while savingthe files to your video library. You can also access all of your photos and your entire music library from your home PC. Essentially, PCs have become one-stop media shops.
Beyond this, PCs have excellent upscaling capabilities. WMC and its codecs can easily convert standard-definition content to a full, high-definition (HD) screen. You can also add a variety of applications and games to WMC, in addition to using it for watching trailers, streaming videos and listening to online radio.
So clearly, WMC has far-reaching and diverse capabilities. The first step to making your WMC is finding the right screen. In the last few years, there has been a proliferation of screens, like HD projectors, LCD (LED) TVs and plasma screens, in the market. But, ultimately, your selection depends on your preference and the size of your living room.
However, there are some factors to consider. If you need monstrous screen estate, go for a projector. It really is the best option if you watch movies or play games for long stretches of time, but they are too labor-intensive for casual, intermittent TV watching.
If you prefer a larger TV, like 50 inches or more, you should consider a plasma. For larger screens, it will produce much better black levels and a higher picture quality than LCDs. But, sometimes plasmas do not work as well in daylight, so make sure you can darken the room if you go this route. Finally, if you’re only interested in 46-inch displays or smaller, LCDs offer the best picture. Let your eyes and ears be the final judge.
The right PC
If you want your PC to play DVDs, your music collection or slide shows, then you can go with the Atom-based nettops. Unfortunately, the processors in the nettop machines are on the weaker side, but thanks to ION-based Nvidia graphics chips, nearly all of these machines are capable of handling 720p and 1080p HD video.
But don’t feel the need to fork over money for these new machines. Many people use older laptops or PCs for their media centers. If you use an older PC, make sure you have a dual-core processor with at least 2 GHz or a graphics card with H.264 hardware acceleration. This will be enough for your regular Blu-ray movie.
However, if you’re a heavy gamer, go for a Core 2 Duo, Core i5, or Core i7 machine. If you use this with a decent graphics card, you should get the most graphically-intense game running at full speed.
Software that works
If you’re serious about home cinema, Windows 7 Media Center is the way to go. Luckily, this is integrated into every version of Windows 7. Microsoft has been developing this media center interface for more than eight years, so it’s become a really solid solution for home theaters that are based on a single PC.
If you haven’t upgraded to Windows 7 yet, there are very good alternatives like XMBC. But the advantage of Windows 7 Media Center is that it’s an all-in-one solution and very compatible with a variety of TV tuner cards. It also does not require excessive fiddling to work.
For setup details, take a look at this post. There, you’ll find easy, step-by-step instructions,but I’ll leave you with a final pointer here: As part of the installation process, Windows will ask if you’d like to send anonymous reports about WMC’s performance to Microsoft. I highly recommend answering this with ‘yes.’ It hardly takes any time at all, and it will let WMC download cover art and, most importantly, the Electronic Program Guide that you will not want to miss while watching TV.