Building Your Home Theater Around the PC


We've all wished we had a screening room in our house at one time or another. And with the increasing popularity of digital photography, many of us are looking for a viable alternative to slide shows. But even though prices have dropped sharply, a traditional home theater installation is still not affordable for most of us. You need a video projector or a plasma TV, an audio/video sound system and a DVD read/write drive, preferably with a hard disk. The total bill for such a set up will likely run you $3000 (3,000 euros) just for entry-level equipment.

There is, however, a simple and relatively inexpensive way to create a quality installation around an ordinary PC, and it costs much less. We're not talking about a PC that you will also use for office applications, gaming and Web browsing, but a computer that is entirely dedicated to living-room use.

The structure of this kind of installation is simple. The PC is the nerve center, and all you do is add an image viewer, such as a TV or projector, and speakers. The PC serves as the DVD player, TV/FM tuner, video recorder and storage medium for music, photos and video. Of course, building your home entertainment center around your PC has been theoretically possible for some time, but is the solution finally up to snuff compared to a more traditional set up?

A Living-Room PC

Home theater PCs don't really exist for sale as such, or else they're very expensive (like the Media Center). This means you'll have to get in under the hood and configure it yourself, which is not complicated but does require some computer building know how. But if that doesn't apply to you, it's very easy to find a specialized computer shop that can assemble one for you.

For your living room, you'll want to avoid computers that are too ugly, bulky and noisy. So the best choice is a small form factor PC. This is a case that's already fitted with the basic equipment (motherboard, power supply and cooling), and to which you'll add memory, the processor, the hard disk, etc. The advantage of this solution is that it lets you choose precisely the components that are best suited. When choosing a small form factor PC, pay particular attention to how quiet is. Don't, for example, choose one that has a noise rating of more than 28 dB. Here are a few suggestions.