Turn any PC into a media center

All you need is the right software, and possibly some extra hardware, to give your machine new life as a jukebox, a high-def digital photo frame, a movie theater, and a TiVo clone.

Your PC already plays music, and your hard drive holds every digital photo you've ever taken. And you probably watch hours of video on Hulu, Veoh, or YouTube.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could corral all that stuff within one attractive, easy-to-use interface? One that's large enough for you to see (and control) from the couch? And, hey, while we're at it, how about adding TV and DVR features to the mix?

You can do all that and more by transforming your PC into a self-contained media center. All you need is the right software, and possibly some extra hardware, to give your machine new life as a jukebox, a high-def digital photo frame, a movie theater, and a TiVo clone.

You don't necessarily need to buy new hardware, and the software part of this upgrade could be easier than you think. In fact, if you're running Windows Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, you're set: Microsoft baked Windows Media Center right into the OS. Mac OS X Leopard users already have basic media-center software in the form of Apple's Front Row, though third-party alternatives are also available. And Linux users have several free options, including Freevo and LinuxMCE.

All of those applications scan your PC for photos, music, videos, and the like, and then present them inside an oversize, TV-friendly interface (commonly known as a 10-foot interface, meaning it's easily viewable from the couch). So when we talk about turning your PC into a media center, we mean installing software that finds, catalogs, and plays your media files--and looks good while doing it.

Note: In this guide, I'll focus exclusively on ways that you can turn your existing computer into a media center.

Center of Attention

Step one is to choose a media-center program--though as noted previously, you may already have one.

The most obvious choice is Windows Media Center (WMC), which--despite being a Vista-bundled freebie--offers a rich feature set and a dazzling interface. With it you can view photo slide shows (complete with Ken Burns-style pan and zoom effects), watch DVDs and videos, browse your music library by cover art, and connect to various online services (including movie-download stores CinemaNow and Movielink).

WMC also supports up to four TV tuners for DVR-like viewing and recording, and it can archive recorded shows to DVD. Of course, not everyone has Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, and even folks who do might want to check out the alternatives.

The US$80 SageTV Media Center for Windows offers a more TV-centric experience than Windows Media Center, including an integrated Google Video viewer and instant commercial-skipping. Pair it with the US$30 SageTV Placeshifter add-on, and you can stream all your media (including live and recorded TV) to any PC with a broadband Internet connection.

If you'd rather dip a toe in the media-center waters without spending any money, check out MediaPortal, a free application that's every bit as powerful as WMC. It can timeshift and record TV, play videos and music, run fancy slide shows, tune in radio stations (both FM and Internet), and even play games such as Tetris. It's compatible with Windows XP and Vista.

Macintosh users have choices as well, though they're a bit limited in TV and DVR features. The OS X-bundled, remote-controllable Front Row serves up music, videos, photos, and DVDs, all couched in a dazzling turntable-style interface. But it doesn't support TV programming, even if you add a tuner. For that, look to MediaCentral, a US$30 program that performs all the best media-center tricks and can play/pause live TV too. (Unfortunately, it can't record shows for later viewing.) Don't have 30 bucks to spare? CenterStage is a community-developed program that, among other things, can play recorded TV shows now and promises more TV features (including an electronic program guide) in the future.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Rick Broida

ITWorld
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?