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What Is a Home Theater PC (HTPC)?

A home theater PC (or HTPC) is essentially a high-quality source device attached to your A/V system. The HTPC can feed audio and video content into the rest of your home theater's A/V gear (and vice versa). If you go relatively high end, you can create an HTPC that funnels audio and video into your system at a higher quality level than many moderately priced, stand-alone components.

You can create a home theater PC out of an existing PC; buy a home theater PC right off the shelf (or off a Web page); or even build your own. Building an HTPC requires a fair amount of knowledge about PCs, including some skill at opening up a PC and installing new cards and drives and being able to install and troubleshoot drivers and other software.

Depending on your needs, a home theater PC should be able to do some or all of the following:

  • Store audio (music) files: No matter the file type, HTPCs need hard drive space and software for audio files.

  • Store video clips: Homemade camcorder movies, downloaded movie trailers, or even downloaded full movies and TV shows belong on the HTPC. You need (again) hard drive space and software to make this happen.

  • Play CDs and DVDs: This is an easy requirement because most PCs can at least play back CDs, but playing DVDs is also essential in a home theater environment.

  • Act as a DVR (digital video recorder): This is an optional function that uses the HTPC’s hard drive to record television shows — essentially making it act like a TiVo or your cable or satellite provider’s DVR.

  • Let you play video games on the big screen: With the right hardware, PCs are sometimes even better than gaming consoles in terms of game-type stuff, such as frames per second (or things blown to bits per millisecond).

  • Tune in to online music and video content: You can grab a lot of awesome content on the Internet these days. Why not enjoy it on the big screen and with the good audio equipment?

  • Provide a high-quality, progressive video signal to your display: All PCs have a built-in video system that’s designed to display on a PC monitor. Most PCs, however, can’t display on a TV, at least not at a high quality. An HTPC needs special hardware — which doesn’t cost too much money — to make this happen. (This investment also gives you better performance on your PC’s monitor.)

  • Decode and send to your display HDTV content: This is another optional function. With the right hardware inside (an HDTV-capable video card and a TV tuner card), HTPCs can provide a cheap way to decode over-the-air HDTV signals and send them to your home theater display.

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