Did your home theater system crash again while watching your favorite DVD? Just hit the reset button! Welcome to the age of the living room PC. That was hopefully a joke, not a foresight into the future.

Just how did the PC make its way into the living room? Let’s start at the beginning.

High-speed internet allowed us unprecedented access to music and movies. What first began as piracy quickly turned into an extension of the music and movie industries. It allowed content from around the world to be viewed by everyone. But, watching movies on a small computer screen and listening to music through tiny computer speakers doesn’t cut it for many people. So we run long S-Video and mini-stereo cables from the computer to the home theater receiver. This idea became popular enough that wireless streaming products appeared on the market. They allow media stored on the computer to reach your home theater anywhere in your house wirelessly. Most recently, the convergence of home theater and computer hardware has led to the development of the home theater PC (HTPC), also called the media center PC. These PCs allow our home theaters to perform tasks that were previously impossible.

You’ve probably heard of the HTPC by now, but what exactly is it? By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll be able to enlighten all your friends. Below we examine both the hardware and software aspects of all of the currently available HTPCs.

What exactly does a HTPC allow you to do? With a HTPC you can store any type of digital media including photographs, music and video. Photographs can be transferred directly from your digital camera to the HTPC and viewed on your television. Digital music, either ripped from your CD collection to the hard disk or downloaded from the internet, can be played back through the HTPC on your home theater speakers. Video transferred from your video camera, recorded from television or downloaded from the internet can also be viewed in your home theater with the help of the HTPC. The built-in tuner and hard disk allow you to record television just like a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) or TiVo. Any media stored on the hard drive can be recorded to a CD or DVD using the CD/DVD burner. Of course all of your regular music CDs and movie DVDs can be played in your home theater using the HTPC. You can also listen to internet radio and even surf the internet in your home theater thanks to a HTPC. Surfing the internet works particularly well if you have a high definition television, but it is not required. A HTPC can be connected to your home network. Media from other computers connected to the network can easily be transferred to your HTPC for enjoyment in your living room or home theater.

HTPC Hardware

A HTPC is basically a personal computer customized and fine-tuned on both the inside and the outside for the home theater. Modifying a typical PC to serve in your home theater is an option, however it is not an ideal solution. First of all, a regular PC doesn’t look anything like a home theater component. Its tall desktop design also doesn’t fit in your audio video equipment rack. Secondly, most desktop PCs are fairly noisy because they use one or more cooling fans. The last thing you want to hear in your home theater is the buzzing of a fan while you’re watching a movie or listening to music.

Most HTPCs combine styling that matches today’s home theater components with cooling systems that perform as quietly as possible. Some HTPCs don’t even use fans for cooling. Instead, they use water cooling systems or large heatsinks, making them almost completely silent.

A typical HTPC has a large hard drive for photos, music and movies, a built-in NTSC television tuner for receiving TV broadcasts, and a CD/DVD drive for playing and recording CDs and DVDs. Higher-end models have a second removable hard drive for storage, an ATSC tuner as well as high-end graphics and sound cards. Most HTPCs come with a remote control that allows easy access to most commonly used functions.

In order to perform all of the functions, HTPCs generally come equipped with Pentium 4 processors or AMD equivalent and 512 MB to 1 GB of RAM. This ensures smooth performance no matter what type of media the PC encounters.

The hard drives inside these systems are larger than of a typical PC to allow enough storage space for all of your photos, music and movies. Expect a HTPC to have 160 GB or more hard drive space. Of course additional hard drives can always be added if you run out of space. Some manufactures offer plug-and-play external hard drives that can be added to their system without opening the case.

Every HTPC has at least one NTSC television tuner. This is what allows you to pause, record and play television from cable, digital cable, digital satellite, or over-the-air TV, giving it all the functionality of a PVR. Some systems come equipped with dual NTSC tuners. Some even have ATSC tuners for receiving over-the-air high-definition channels.

A built-in CD/DVD burner gives HTPCs the functionality of a DVD recorder, plus more. You can record anything stored on the HTPC’s hard drive to a CD or DVD to take outside of your home theater or for archiving purposes. The CD/DVD burner also serves as a device for playing your music CDs and movie DVDs.

All HTPCs include a network port allowing them to connect to your home network. This connects the HTPC to the internet and allows you to transfer files between all of the computers on your network. A wireless network card may also be built in.

Higher-end HTPCs will include higher-end video and sound cards. If you plan to play computer games on the large display in your home theater you will definitely need high quality video and sound cards.

Most HTPCs come bundled with a compact wireless keyboard and mouse. The mouse is sometimes incorporated into the keyboard. HTPCs preloaded with Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition are usually referred to as Media Center. These Media Center PCs may also include a remote control that allows access to the common function used in this version of Windows. Surfing the internet, typing emails and more advanced functions still require a wireless keyboard and mouse.

Just like any new breed of product, HTPCs can get fairly expensive. They are certainly more expensive than regular PCs. Of course, if you’re familiar with computers you can always build your own HTPC. There are a number of companies on the internet offering so-called barebone HTPCs that include a base for building one on your own. Barebone HTPCs usually consist of the case, motherboard and memory, but may include more. An increasing number of companies are also offering just the cases suited for HTPCs – you choose all the components yourself. How you build your own HTPC is entirely up to your imagination.

HTPC Software

Technically, you could use the standard Windows XP interface on your home theater display. However, the idea behind HTPCs is that the on-screen interface should be clean, simple to navigate (preferably with a remote) and easy to see from your couch. Ideally everyone should be able to use the features of a HTPC, not just the technical aficionado.

Microsoft Windows XP Media Edition 2005 is just that – clean, simple to navigate and easily read from anywhere in your home theater. It is basically Windows XP Home Edition optimized with additional features for the home theater. It allows you to enjoy all of your digital entertainment – photos, music, TV, home videos and radio through its Media Center interface. You can also use the regular Windows interface for surfing the web, writing email and accessing all other software on the computer. The Media Center interface features large buttons and text that are easily read from across your living room. All digital media is played back through Windows Media Player 10. Movie Maker 2.1 lets you capture, personalize, and share home movies with over 100 transitions and effects, titles and credits. It also features built-in support for burning DVDs. This version of Windows also features enhanced digital photography tools ready to use right in your home theater. Perform basic edits, such as cropping and rotating, using Microsoft Photo Editor. With the use of a Media Center Extender, you can enjoy the Media Center experience on any television in your home. Once you have a Media Center PC set up in your home theater, connect a Media Center Extender to another television in your home and both televisions will have the functionality of a Media Center PC. Microsoft offers a Media Center Extender for Xbox that allows the Xbox console to access all of the digital entertainment media from the Media Center PC on the television connected to it. For a great interactive demo of Windows XP Media Edition 2005 visit www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter , click on ‘Product Information’ from the menu bar and then click on ‘See the Demo’ at the top of the page. It will give you a very good idea of the Media Center experience.

Windows XP Media Edition 2005 allows Media Center PC manufacturers to design their own remote controls to integrate into the system. Therefore, most Media Center PCs come with a remote control.

If a manufacturer labels their HTPC as a Media Center PC, it should come preloaded with Windows XP Media Edition 2005.

If using mainstream products is not your way of life, there are several HTPC software packages that run on the Linux operating system. Some of the more popular ones include MainLobby, Meedio Essentials, MediaPortal, Beyond PC, Sage TV and Snapstream Beyond Media. Most of these packages offer functionality similar to Windows XP Media Edition 2005 using their own interfaces.

HTPC Manufacturers

ABS Computer Technologies www.abspc.com

Alienware www.alienware.com

AOpen www.aopen.com

CyberPower www.cyberpowersystem.com

Cybertron www.cybertronpc.com

Dell www.dell.ca

Gateway www.gateway.com

Hush www.hushtechnologies.com

HP www.hp.ca

NiveustMedia www.niveusmedia.com

Sony www.sony.ca

Systemax www.systemax.com

Ricavision www.mediacenteroem.com

Viewsonic www.viewsonic.com

VoodooPC www.voodoopc.com

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