Appliance or PC?
Our the last effort to build a home theater PC was about a year ago, so it's time to revisit the topic. In the past year, a number of interesting, pre-configured "media PCs" have arrived on the scene. The boutique PC makers, such as VoodooPC with its Voodoo Vibe and Alienware's DHS series, offer examples of the craft. But even mainstream PC manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon—Sony with its VAIO RA-810G and HP with its Digital Entertainment Center.
All of them are certainly fine products in their own right, but it seemed to us that we could build something equivalent, or maybe even a little better. At the top of our list was the ability to seamlessly integrate this rig into our home-theater system. Secondarily, it had to look like it belonged in a rack with A/V components. Finally, the system had to support HDTV viewing and recording.
We also wanted to use Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (WMCE). The latest version of Windows is now available through OEM channels to anyone who wants to build a system. You no longer have to get a complete PC system to use WMCE. Windows Media Center Edition vastly simplifies the integration issue, and with an update, even supports HDTV.
Usually, when we spec out a configuration, we try to develop a single, recommended configuration for a particular purpose. However, we took a slightly different approach here, and offer several alternatives. The core components are all the same, but the cases and power supplies differ to suit different users and needs. Still, it took us some time to build and integrate the system. The main issue revolved around the ongoing technology transition. As the industry shifts to PCI Express and other new technologies, some older and current devices won't work as effectively with the latest technology. We'll offer workarounds to these issues.
So strap in and hang on for a wilder ride than usual.