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Using Windows Media Center with Your HTPC

Windows Media Center is Microsoft's version of the HTPC. Media Center is the easiest way to integrate your PC with your home theater. Media Center is available with the Windows Vista operating system (the Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate editions) and was also included with some editions of Windows XP.

With Windows XP, you could get Media Center only by buying a new PC with Windows Media Center preinstalled — along with specific hardware (such as a TV tuner and a remote control) included in the package. With the advent of Vista, Microsoft will let you buy and install Media Center without buying it on a new PC. The Windows Upgrade Advisor online tool lets you scope out your PC’s capabilities before you spend money on the upgrade.

If you buy a new PC that includes Media Center, what do you get out of that Media Center PC? The details (such as the exact model of graphics card) depend on the vendor, but the basic features of a Media Center PC follow:

  • A remote control: All Media Center PCs come with an infrared remote control that lets you control the various A/V functions from across the room (including other devices, such as cable boxes).

  • An advanced graphics card: These advanced cards almost always include a TV tuner function and a TV output for connecting to your display.

    Many Media Center PCs include the ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner. This isn’t inside the PC (as part of the graphics card system), but is instead an external HDTV tuner that plugs in to your PC’s USB port.

  • A hardware encoder: This turns video from your TV source (such as a cable TV) into MPEG digital video and turns your Media Center PC into a PVR.

  • A digital audio output: This lets you connect your PC to your A/V receiver for surround-sound purposes.

  • Software that makes it all work: Software to play your MP3s, CDs, and DVDs, and to run your PVR is included and well integrated.

A Media Center PC acts just like a regular PC most of the time. You use it for e-mail, Web surfing, writing books, and whatever. But when you click the remote, the PC shifts over to Media Center mode, and your normal PC desktop is replaced by a simplified interface (designed to be read from across the room on either a PC display or a home theater display).

You can use a PC as a wonderful source for home theater content — audio, video, television, and so on. But not everyone wants to dedicate a PC for this purpose — or even use a PC part time for this purpose. An alternative is to install a media server in your home network that can be used as a whole-home storage device for your digital media. In simple terms, a media server is a big hard drive with a network connection and specialized software that lets it stream media data from the hard drive over the network to PCs, media adapters, and other devices.

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