Build a kickass home theater for under $1000: a guide for students and gamers

Build a cheap home theatre for study and gaming

There's no way around it: Home theater gear is expensive; and while "The Ultimate Home Theater" sounds great, most people don't have enough spare cash to splurge on it; especially gamers (have you seen the price of games these days?) That's why we've outlined everything you need to give your home theater a makeover for less than $1000.

Sprucing Up Your Existing Setup

Let's say that you already have a bare-bones home theater -- an older HDTV with built-in speakers, a PS3/Xbox 360, and HDMI cable. Rather than investing in a high-end HDTV, consider putting the money into add-ons and accessories that will allow you to make a great gaming rig out of your existing set.

Home Theatre

The cornerstone of your new-and-improved home theater will be the Dell Inspiron Zino HD, a slick, quiet mini-PC that you can hook up to your HDTV via HDMI or VGA (in the unlikely event that your HDTV only accepts component video, you'll need to buy a converter box).

Depending on the Zino HD configuration you choose, you can spend as little as US$269 (or upwards of $600). Let's go with Dell's US$520 configuration, which has 64-bit Windows 7, a 1.5GHz dual-core Athlon X2 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 640GB hard drive, and then let's upgrade the optical drive to a Blu-ray combo drive for an extra $100.

Presto: You have your very own home-theater PC, and you don't have to bother with three or four different boxes piling up on top of your TV to stream all the video you want from your network or Internet connection. For more information on Dell's Zino HD click here.

Home Theatre
The Zino HD comes in a range of different colours

Next, it's time to stack up the extras. Start by throwing in a pair of wireless speakers, like the Parrot DS1120 set ($249), to buff your home theater audio without adding clutter. The difference this makes to gaming is quite remarkable; especially when it comes to action titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Putting a keyboard and a mouse in your living room will ruin its look, so you'll want to add an appropriate input device. If you like the traditional TV remote, try the Logitech Harmony One; if you prefer a keyboard layout, give the Lenovo N5901 Mini Wireless Keyboard/Trackball ($79) a shot.

Home Theatre Lenovo N5901 Mini Wireless Keyboard

Finally, grab the CalMAN HTPC Pattern Generator -- it's a free download that, when combined with our excellent calibration how-tos (see "How to Calibrate Your HDTV," "How to Improve the Picture and Sound on Your HDTV," and "How to Optimize Your HDTV"), will ensure that you get the most out of your revitalized home theater without spending another dime.

Hardcore Gaming Home Theater

You don't watch TV, and the last time you sat through a movie, you thought it was a 2-hour-long cutscene. You're a gamer, and all you need from your home-theater setup is the gear to destroy your enemies and a screen that makes you look good while you do it. We'll assume that you already have your gaming platforms of choice.

Home Theatre

Gamers don't have the same priorities as mainstream HDTV customers. In fact, the flashy post-processing frippery that TV manufacturers add to their sets to make movies and sports look better can ruin your gaming experience -- and your online ladder ranking. That's because the post-processing introduces a tiny lag to the TV image; it's not enough to be noticeable while you're viewing a movie, but it is enough to interrupt your 30-hit combo.

We've heard good things about the Sharp LC-40D68UT (US$650) for gaming, but honestly, you have to try the set yourself before you buy it -- and read "Find and Fix Input Lag in Your HDTV or Monitor" for tips on how to pick the right set, test it for input lag, and eliminate any delay.

On the other hand, if you're gaming at your desk, grab the 23-inch Asus VH236H LCD monitor (about $190). This model is popular in professional gaming competitions because it's lag-free, it's easy to transport, and it comes with decent built-in speakers.

Home Theatre
Asus VH Series monitor

No matter how good your speaker setup is, it won't give you the competitive edge that a good headset/mic combo will. We liked the Creative SoundBlaster World of Warcraft Wireless Headset (US$160, though it's also available as a wired headset for slightly cheaper), but if your budget won't allow it, consider the older Creative Fatal1ty Gaming Headset instead.

Alternatively, why not give Perfect Audio MyEars a try? This innovative software service can turn any pair of headphones into a surround sound headset. The software works by tailoring audio in games to an individual. It integrates with FMOD, an audio engine developed by Firelight Technologies, which is used widely in video games.

Users of MyEars perform an online test so a Web-based prediction engine can gauge how they filter sound. The process takes around 15 minutes and no special headset is required. The software currently works exclusively with FMOD-based games on PC but Perfect Audio is working on bringing it out to the Xbox 360, PS3 and Apple iPhone. Read more about the service here.

Home Theatre
Add surround sound to any pair of headphones with MyEars 3D audio

Now that your gaming station is all set up, you'll need something to play with. Fortunately, you may not have to rebuy any gaming peripherals to start playing on your PC -- if you own another gaming console, read "How To Use Your Console Gamepad With Your PC."

Keyboard warrior? Be wary of using wireless mice and keyboards for your gaming. Wired peripherals can be clumsy, but laggy wireless input devices will kill your score, so try before you buy if you're determined to go wireless.

Tags consumer electronicsHome Theaterhardware systemsLenovotvhome officeentertainmentgaming PCsHDTVDell

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Patrick Miller

PC World (US online)

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