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.

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