The easiest way to add PC-based gaming to your home theater is to get a PC that uses the Windows Media Center software. Windows Media Center is included in certain versions of the Microsoft Windows Vista operating system — Window Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate.

Media Center is all about the convergence of the PC and the TV (and other home theater components). It was designed from the ground up as an operating system and a set of PC hardware that lets you easily connect the PC to your home entertainment gear. To get the most out of Media Center, you need to buy (or build) a PC that includes some hardware that is designed around the Vista operating system and that will facilitate the PC-to-TV connection.

Purpose-built gaming consoles make sense for most people in a home theater. They’re ready to go out of the box; with Plug-and-Play, they’re simple to connect, set up, and play. Most PCs, on the other hand, need some serious tweaking to do gaming in a home theater environment.

Media Center PCs usually include the following extra (or enhanced) components, compared to a regular PC:

  • A graphics card (or controller) with a TV Out connection that uses component video, S-video, or composite video (RCA) cables to connect to your TV or home theater receiver.

  • A sound board that can output surround sound using Dolby Digital 5.1.

  • A remote control so you can sit on the couch and click away at your PC.

The only things you need to transform a Media Center PC into a full-fledged member of your home theater are the cables to plug things together and, of course, the games and controllers that you want to play with.

Media Center plays very nicely with the Xbox 360. If you have a Media Center-equipped PC anywhere on your home network, you can access the content on that PC via your Xbox 360. This won’t necessarily help you do PC gaming on your TV, but it’s a nice feature.