I first tried setting up a home theater PC several years ago when I upgraded my then current computer and happen to have a spare machine and TV tuner card laying around. That first install didn't turn out so well: the machine was an underpowered Pentium III, my wireless network was too slow to stream video well (802.11b was the standard then), and even if I would have run an Ethernet cable across my apartment, the picture was so horrifying on my 27" CRT TV when I hooked my PC to it that it wouldn't have mattered anyway. It was just too early, and I didn't have the necessary, then-expensive equpment to make a HTPC (home theater PC) work. [more]
Fast forward about 4 years, and things have improved. Living rooms are being equipped with bigger and sharper screens, the use of digital music and even video has become more widespread, people are becoming accustomed to more advanced forms of recording and time shifting cable TV with tools such as Tivo, and there are several good options for bringing digital music and movies into the living room, often while enhancing cable TV. Microsoft has been pushing its Media Center software for awhile now (packaged with select editions of Windows XP and now Vista) as an option for running a PC on your TV, Apple has leveraged their popular iTunes music and video store service to provide a solution ala Apple TV, and there are several other standalone network media players from companies like D-Link and LinkSys as well as software packages that can be added to Linux and Windows (MythTV, SageTV, GBPVR, etc). Since I'm a Windows power user and burgeoning Microsoft fanboy, I've tended to really only use Windows Media Center software, so this is what I'll be detailing in this post.
I've been using Windows Media Center for awhile now. Before building my latest machine, I had Windows XP Media Center Edition installed on my 4 year old Athlon machine, with good results. Media Center Edition is just like XP, but includes the Media Center program front end, which gives you easy access to TV (live, recorded, as well as a TV schedule - provided you have a TV tuner card or device) and your media (pics, music, videos). When we had cable, I would often schedule TV shows to record and view them later when more convenient (just like a Tivo - but viewable only on the computer). Things worked fairly well, and I was really happy with usability of the media center software.
When I built a new main computer, I upgraded some components on my old box (see my upgrade album here) and installed Windows Vista Ultimate (they don't have a Media Center Edition anymore, but instead include the media center portion with the Home Premium and Ultimate editions). The interface has been refined a bit, but still seems very similar to the Windows Media Center 2005 edition. This interface is very polished and usable, with large, easy to read text and icons showing that it's best viewed at full screen on a TV. The interface can easily be navigated with the directional arrows on a keyboard or (preferably) with some type of media center remote (more on this later). The interface is very intuitive, and after a minimal amount of setup, it's very easy to start programming in shows and watching various media. For a more refined description of the Media Center interface, you might want to read the Windows Media Center section of this review.
To the best of my knowledge, it uses Windows Media Player internally to play everything. At first glance, this means that, by default, it will only play files that WMP will play. However, in practice this really hasn't been an issue, as, after installing a codec pack (like ones here or here), it plays all the common video formats very well.
Media Center scans your computer for media and makes it available without too much fuss, and, as I store my iTunes music library on the same machine, I am able to browse my music collection pretty well from Media Center without having to jump to iTunes. Accessing shared media is easy, also. Currently I have shares on a different computer for TV shows and movies, and you can fairly easily tell media center to monitor these shared folders for content and automatically update. As for TV, I can't really say much: Jam and I cancelled cable awhile back (although I'm sure it would work fine as a Tivo-like device). One other note: it seems Microsoft has partnered with many news and entertainment companies to develop specialized plugins for Media Center, and these are available in a section of the Media Center interface (one example of note is access to MTV's Overdrive portal, where you can view many MTV shows and access tons of music videos online for free - very slick).
Although I'm very happy with my current setup, there are several problems I've stumbled upon while using Media Center. For one, you need a pretty decent machine with a good graphics card to run Vista very well (after all, you are running a full install of Windows). Although my four year old machine is holding up fairly well, I've installed more memory, a faster and more spacious hard drive, and a specialized HTPC case and am in need of another video card (the onboard video I have now is just not cutting it, although it's usable, and periodically crashes because of a driver issue - not Vista's fault, but an annoyance nevertheless). Understand this can run you into some money, and it may be cheaper to buy an integrated solution rather than piecing together a custom system (although, if you're a tinkerer like me, it might not be quite as fun). Also, since, again, you're running a full install of Windows, the setup can seem more complex than your typical piece of stereo or cable TV equipment (although this can also be viewed as an advantage, because you have more flexibility if you want to run custom software, browse the net sometime, or maybe watch a YouTube or ABC online clip). Another thing to consider is the screen you'll be using the Media Center with. I actually bought my TV (a flat panel LCD - basically just an oversized computer monitor) with my HTPC setup in mind. Although the Media Center software can be left open for most of the time, for those times when you're setting up the system or running regular Windows apps, you probably want to have a clear, readable picture rather than what you might get from a lot of TVs not designed for computer use. Also, there's the issue of an input device: while I'm currently using a standard wireless keyboard and mouse, this is often cumbersome, and something like a specialized media mouse (like here or here) or an all in one keyboard and trackball (like here) would be much more usable.
Hosting media in your living room is probably still in its relative infancy, and it seems there are tons of options out there that have not yet jelled into a clear picture. Windows Media Center is one answer, and although it's great already, to me it seems Media Center and other hardware and software packages will become even more interesting as media companies keep offering various broadband content.