Although home theater and media center PCs have been available for many years now, it seems only recently that the concept has begun to reach mass acceptance. Perhaps it’s the growing amount of digitally available content, the declining price of a full-featured multimedia computer, or the increasing desire to surf the web and play games on the big screen, but whatever the reason media center PCs are now a readily accepted part of home theater vernacular.
Many eventual home theater PC (HTPC) buyers may begin shopping by looking at a media player, which initially seem like an ideal merger between computer and home theater technologies. Media players are integrated computer-like devices designed to easily stream digital content, which may include music, photos and video, over a home network. The content is fed from a separate “media server”, which could be any number of things including a PC, and is presented through the player on standard home theater equipment. While such devices usually do a good job of what they’re designed for, they can also present annoying limitations as to exactly what media formats they support.
For example, as a Sony PS3 owner I was pleased to hear that the company had added media player functionality to the console in a firmware update a short while after its release... but less than thrilled when I discovered how few formats the device could support natively. After spending several hours too many converting uncompressed music and high definition video files just to be able to play them back from the comfort of my couch, I knew that there had to be a better and more efficient method.
A quick rundown of media centers.
And there is – just use a computer! When the content is digital there’s nothing that beats the versatility of a computer, and the beauty of media center PCs over standard media players is that they can be equipped to support just about any media format that exists – be it a physical format like DVD, HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, or an encoding format such as DiVX, h.264, QuickTime, WMV, MP3, AAC and so forth. Since everything can be handled and played back natively, there’s no lengthy re-encoding necessary... you simply get content that’s available whenever you need it.
So how exactly do media centers differ from normal computer systems? Essentially, any computer hooked up to a home theater could be called a media center or an HTPC – there’s really no specialty hardware required that’ll instantly turn a regular desktop into something designed for home theater use. Several items are necessary, such as a video card with a way to connect to a television, which may range from traditional composite and S-Video for older SD televisions, to component for traditional HDTVs, or even DVI and HDMI for modern systems. Many flat panel displays are now designed to hook up natively to a computer, with dedicated HD15 VGA ports that will work with practically any system’s video card. Also necessary will be a good audio hookup, which could be standard stereo audio, or 5.1 to 7.1 analog audio, or even better an S/PDIF digital audio port to pass through Dolby Digital, DTS and PCM to an A/V receiver.