That's the ticket

Build a home theater on the cheap with Windows Media Center

By Andy Myers

Does your idea of a home theater include a huge screen, booming speakers, tangled wires, a pile of remote controls, and an empty wallet? Home theaters can be extremely complex and expensive, but they don't have to be. In fact, you can create a theater-like experience in a living room, an office, or even a college dorm, and it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. The key component? Windows Media Center.

Picture of recorded TV content in Windows Media Center
Record TV shows and movies in Windows Media Center

Windows Media Center is a feature included with Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate. In this column, I’ll discuss some ways to transform your Windows Media Center PC into the heart of a home theater, while spending as little money as possible to get there.

Home theater 101

What exactly constitutes a home theater? In the not-so-distant past, a home theater was essentially a TV room that had been tricked out with a big screen, a decent sound system, and maybe a popcorn maker for good measure. Combine Windows Media Center with some of the equipment available today, though, and virtually any room can be transformed into a home theater, popcorn maker or no. Here are some tips to get a Windows Media Center home theater up and running:

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Tip 1: Get Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows Vista Ultimate

If your computer is running either of these editions of Windows Vista, then you already have Windows Media Center—click the Start button Picture of the Start button, click All Programs, and then click Windows Media Center to check it out. If you’re using a different edition of Windows Vista, you can compare editions and upgrade by visiting the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor website.

Even on a standard computer setup, you’ll have a slew of options available with Windows Media Center that can heighten the home theater experience. You can play DVDs, watch home videos, play digital music, view slide shows of your digital photos, and much more—all from one device. If you’re new to the world of Windows Media Center, see Getting started with Windows Media Center for more information.

Windows Media Center is just the first piece of the home theater puzzle. You'll need still to add a few accessories before you can start watching.

Tip 2: Connect your PC to a TV

If Windows Media Center is the bread of your home theater, then your screen is the butter. The quality of the display can easily make or break a home theater. I’ve experimented with connecting a Windows Media Center PC to a number of TVs and monitors—the good news is that many newer models on the market include multiple input ports that are compatible with the majority of PC models. If you’re in the market for a new TV, I suggest finding one that has a VGA input. If your computer has a VGA output (a likely scenario), then it’s probably just a matter of buying a VGA cable to connect the two.

Illustration of a VGA connection
A typical VGA connection

Connecting your computer to an older TV can be more difficult. See Connect your computer to a TV for more information.

If you want, you can substitute a computer monitor for a TV. Fire up Windows Media Center and give it a try. You might be surprised with the image quality. This simple method can be great for converting a current office, bedroom, or dorm into a basic home theater.

Tip 3: Add a TV tuner to your computer

If you’re going to splurge on one extra component for your home theater, I recommend adding a TV tuner to your PC if it doesn't already have one. The TV tuner can be an internal TV tuner card that you install inside of your computer or an external device that you plug in to a USB port on the outside of your computer.

Picture of a standard TV tuner card with a coaxial input
A standard TV tuner card with a coaxial input

After a TV tuner card is installed, all you have to do is connect a TV signal to it (for example, by connecting a coaxial cable from the cable TV jack in your wall). This will open up a whole new world of possibilities, from watching live TV to recording your favorite shows each week. For information about choosing a compatible TV tuner for your PC, contact your computer manufacturer or go online and review the TV Tuner Cards section of the Windows Vista Hardware Compatibility List.

Tip 4: Use a Windows Media Center remote

Controlling Windows Media Center with a compatible remote can make your life a whole lot easier, especially if your computer is connected to a TV across the room. There are several models of Windows Media Center remotes on the market—some TV tuner cards even come with one. Once you’ve used a Windows Media Center remote, I can almost guarantee you’ll never go back to a mouse and keyboard.

Note

  • Don’t confuse a Windows Media Center remote with a universal remote. Though a universal remote can be a great tool in your home theater arsenal, it’s another beast altogether.

Tip 5: Don't break the bank on speakers

If you’ve ever watched a movie or played digital music on your computer, then you probably have a speaker setup already. This can be as simple as plugging in an inexpensive set of desktop speakers to your computer’s line-out jack.

Picture of a stereo miniplug and a line-out jack
A stereo miniplug and a line-out jack

It can also be complicated and expensive, involving high-end sound cards, multiple pre-amplifiers, and a surround-sound speaker system—as is the case with most high-end home theaters. Since we’re talking home theaters “on the cheap,” I’ll recommend a middle-of-the-road solution. You can find a number of decent-sounding speaker sets for under 100 bucks from brands like Logitech, Sony, and Pioneer that will work just fine through a standard PC audio output.

Note

  • If your speaker set of choice uses RCA cables for audio output, you can avoid buying a new sound card by picking up a cheap RCA-to-mini-plug converter to connect it to your PC.

Tip 6: Connect your PC to the Internet

This might go without saying, as most computers are online these days. But did you know that an Internet connection can greatly enhance your home theater experience? With your Windows Media Center PC connected to the web, you can download up-to-date TV information, album art for your digital music, and even play free music videos and streaming TV shows.

Take it to the next level

You probably still have some unanswered questions: How do I connect a TV tuner to a cable set-top box? Should I buy an LCD, plasma, or DLP television? How do I set up surround sound? Sorry, but this column only scratches the surface of the home-theater phenomenon. If you’re hungry for more, you can go online to check out home-theater enthusiast websites like The Green Button, or check out the Windows Vista Help and How-to website.

About the author

Picture of columnist Andy Myers

Andy Myers is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. He comes from the video game industry where he has worked as a magazine journalist and an author of strategy books. In his spare time, he plays and records music with various bands.

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