How to buy a media centre PC
23rd Sep 2010 | 09:00
Equip your home with the ultimate entertainment PC
A media centre PC can be a number of things to different people, either a box to store and stream all of your many types of media from, something to plug into your big-screen TV and enjoy the many delights of HD from or a media server that sits there recording and absorbing media from the many corners of the internet.
Storage may not immediately seem like the most important aspect of a media centre PC but vast amounts of storage are key when it comes to holding large libraries of video and music.
But beyond simply having large amounts of storage, fast access is also important if you build a system that you expect to be recording live TV along with streaming pre-recorded material and a number of other tasks besides this.
At the most basic you can buy a single large internal 3.5-inch drive, capacities up to 2TB or 2,000GB are currently available, enough to store hundreds of hours of HD video and tens of thousands of MP3 files.
This can seem like an ideal option, however buying three 1TB drives opens up the option of what is known as a RAID system. This 'ties' the drives together into a single storage device, offering increased performance and reliability through data back-up. The idea is if one drive should fail, no data is lost, the drive can be replaced and everything carries on as if nothing had happened.
These systems are more complex to install and manage but the data security can be welcoming to many, especially with so much of our lives now in digital form. If this sounds overly complicated it's possible to buy ready-made NAS boxes that can do the job.
Finally, noise is a serious consideration for media centre PCs. If you want absolute quiet then a newer Solid State Drive or SSD could be an option. These have smaller capacities than a standard HDD and cost more but have no moving parts. Currently they're more often used as the boot drive with main storage still being delegated to a spinning HDD.
Check out our PC storage reviews for a selection of suitable options.
Processors for media centre PCs
For smooth HD media playback you need a reasonable dual-core processor. Both Intel and AMD offer excellent processors for these jobs in the Athlon II/X2 range from AMD and from Intel the older Pentium Dual Core, the Core 2 range and the new Core i3 models.
A dual-core processor is essential as there's a relatively high overhead in power required to decode the video alongside the audio and any data access required, which a single-core model will struggle with.
An issue to be aware of is the amount of heat a processor produces, this is often called the TDP or just the Wattage. The lower this is the less cooling is required and so the quieter your PC will run.
Some processor models are designed to be more efficient so have a lower TDP. A low-power model uses around 35 to 45 watts, more common power consumption is 65 to 75 watts. This isn't always listed but search for the model number on the AMD or Intel website for the exact TDP rating.
Our processor reviews will help you decide on the right processor for your needs.
With so much talk aimed at visuals, HD and 3D graphics, audio often gets totally overlooked. This is a sad state of affairs as it's well known even the best film would lose most, if not all of its impact without its soundtrack.
If you're serious on home cinema then a good audio set-up should be something you already have. Making sure your home cinema PC can connect to this as well as possible is one of the key parts of a good sound card.
In this digital world sounds tracks are digital and come encoded usually in one of the Dolby Surround formats. Ideally an S/PDIF optical or coaxial connection is ideal, however an analogue connection is usually possible with 3.5mm mini-jacks.
If you choose the right motherboard it's certainly possible to have it offer one or all of these options from its onboard sound. If it does not then you'll want to add a sound card that provides the best solution for your home cinema set up, no matter if that's a dedicated surround sound system or a PC-based speaker set.
If you plan to use the speakers in your HD TV then it's possible to use one of the options mentioned above. However, the HDMI connection is designed to carry digital audio as well but with a PC this is somewhat complicated as the audio signal has to be added to the HDMI video signal via an additional cable, usually connected internally to the case.
If your motherboard comes with onboard graphics and HDMI then it should offer this facility from the onboard audio via a supplied cable. If you're opting for a third-party graphics card, again this should be the case if you use one we have mentioned on this page. It this sounds overly complicated it is, but is unfortunately the way it works.
Head over to our sound card reviews to make your comparisons.
Media centre cases and cooling
When people talk of media mentre PCs the usual thought is of a box that sits under or near your TV or projector. If this is your plan then a good looking, quiet case with efficient cooling is essential. Media centre cases are available - these tend to look like large DVD players and will come with a quiet PSU plus some type of front-panel display and controls.
Opting for this style helps keep the look of traditional entertainment equipment and minimises size. The compromise is that you need to buy 'half-height' expansion cards, if adding them plus there can be a reduced number of hard drive bays.
It is possible to buy enhanced coolers or controls for the processor, to help eliminate or at least reduce any noise from the fan. A good solid copper cooler with a large fan that can spin more slowly offers quieter cooling.
Take this in combination with tweaking the built-in fan controls, picking a low-power processor and having good case airflow will result in minimal fan noise.
To shop for cases and cooling, visit our cases and cooling reviews.
Peripherals for media centres
Good looking wireless peripherals are the order of the day for a living room based Media Centre PC. The good news is that a good number of wireless desktop sets are available. If you don't fancy a full-sized keyboard then a small number of compact versions – usually omitting the numeric keypad – dot the market.
The Microsoft favoured solution is using a Media Center remote control in conjunction with Microsoft Media Center that thse days comes with Home Premium versions of Widows Vista and Windows 7.
This offers a remote-based interface for watching video, photos and a host of other features. However Media Center's limited support for other video formats and poor network performance can put people off using it.
A recent alternative to remotes and keyboards is to use an iPod touch, iPhone, Android phone or other smartphone as a smart Wi-Fi based remote control usually with mouse controls built-in via the touchpad. Check your phone app store for possible candidates.
Not an essential addition to a Media Centre PC as the TV it'll be connected to will likely have a suitable one built in, however if you plan on recording programmes then a TV tuner will be required. Available as external USB models or internal PCI and PCIe cards both enable a PC to receive and record separate broadcasts.
An internal card is the best permanent solution. If you plan to watch and record channels go for a twin-tuner model. You also need to make sure it'll fit into your case, so if it's a slim line case you'll need a half-height (70mm) card.
It's also worth checking if it's PCIe or PCI and that your motherboard has the right available slots and some can be blocked by installing a graphics card. They're less common but satellite tuner cards are also available while USB sticks with twin tuners can also be bought.
For tuners, check out our TV tuner reviews.
Motherboards for media centres
For a low-cost media centre PC check the motherboard offers onboard digital audio output and HDMI video. This is besides the usual checks that it uses the correct processor socket. For quiet running make sure you also adjust the BIOS settings to enable processor fan control.
Liked this? Then check out How to buy a gaming PC
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