Is your current computer fast enough to handle being a Media Center PC? Your PC should be at least an Intel Pentium 4 3.0Ghz(or comparable AMD) processor with 1GB of memory, and at least a 200GB Hard Drive. More is always better, and if you've bought a computer in the last 6 months, chances are you have a dual-core processor, lots of memory and a large hard drive. Always check the minimum recommended specs for any Media Center software or operating system you plan on installing on your PC.
Media Center PCs have some essential hardware that will allow you to watch TV, listen to radio, or watch movies on your PC. A TV Tuner Card is an essential part of any Media Center PC. TV Tuner Cards come in two varieties, internal PCI or PCI-E cards, or external USB 2.0 TV Tuners. More than one TV Tuner card can be installed in a Media Center PC so that multiple recordings can happen at once, or you can watch one program while recording another. A Video Card with TV output is another essential piece of hardware. Most videocards will output S-Video or composite, but for HDTV owners you want to go with a card capable of outputting HDMI for true high definition playback. A Soundcard that can output dolby digital 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 is necessary for surround sound playback. A DVD Drive that can burn to DVD lets users archive recorded TV shows on their Media Center PC as well as watch DVD movies. Finally, while not an essential piece of hardware, an Over-The-Air HDTV Tuner, coupled with either an indoor or outdoor HDTV antenna, will allow you to receive Over-The-Air (OTA) HDTV channels to watch and record on your PC.
All that new Media Center hardware doesn't mean much without the software to run it. The choices for Media Center software can be boiled down to the Windows Media Center Operating System or Media Center software that runs on top of Windows XP (MythTV for Linux is not included in this discussion). Windows XP Media Center Edition is Microsoft's answer to TiVo and works pretty well as Media Center software. It launches as a seperate program in XP or can be set to launch automatically at boot up. Once in Windows Media Center you have access to all your recorded TV, movies, photos and music, as well as Live TV and a downloaded Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) for scheduling recordings. It works with any TV tuners you have installed to record TV. The new Windows Vista also comes with Windows Media Center software in the Home Premium and Ultimate versions. Other Media Center software includes ReplayTV Media Center, SnapStream's Beyond TV 4 and SageTV Media Center V5. All three install as a program in Windows XP and are similar to the Windows Media Center O/S. (See my reviews of SageTV and BeyondTV, as well as my profile of ReplayTV Media Center). All of these software packages offer a way to record and watch live TV as well as view movies and photos, and listen to music.
Add on to an existing PC or buy new?
When considering upgrading your current PC to a Media Center PC you might want to weigh the cost of adding additional hardware and software with buying a pre-configured system. Chances are your existing PC is a desktop tower that may have a somewhat noisy fan. Is that going to be ideal in a living room setting? There are affordable options available from different computer manufacturers for Media Center PCs that are designed to fit into an existing home theater set-up and that are no larger than a stereo receiver or VCR. You may want to investigate a pre-configured Media Center PC instead of upgrading an existing computer if your existing computer is either too slow to be a Media Center, too loud, or you are not comfortable adding hardware and software to a computer. (Check out my Top 10 Media Center PCs for more info).