Modern smart TVs and media streamers are the easiest and most convenient way to play music and video on a large screen. But a PC can make an excellent and considerably more powerful multimedia entertainment centre: recording, storing and playing back all your media from a single place, with an easy-to-use interface.
Take a look at Group test: What's the best media centre PC?
Replace the standard PC monitor with a TV or projector and you’ll be able to enjoy live TV, music, DVD and Blu-ray films from the comfort of your sofa. There’s the bonus that you may be able to run your favourite PC programs, too.
Whereas basic streaming units such as the WD Live TV rely on external networked devices to store all your content, a multimedia PC has such functions built-in. It can even act as a server for other streaming receivers in your home.
Carefully choose your hardware and you’ll also be able to play PC games, taking advantage of your big screen and home-cinema sound system.
Just about any PC hardware is cable of running media-centre software, but a really good system will embody very different design criteria from a traditional desktop PC.
Media Centre PCs: Design
The usual level of noise that emanates from a Windows PC is entirely unwelcome in an entertainment scenario. You’ll want to remove those loud, whirring fans and silence those crunching hard disks, especially if you’re intending to run the PC around the clock as a server. In which case, power consumption is also important.
Large tower cases with flashing lights are another unwanted distraction. The PC should blend in with your living-room décor, and remain quiet as a mouse during operation.
Custom-made PC housings designed for media-centre use cost considerably more than run-of-the mill PC cases. Unlike the latter flimsy boxes, however, you can expect to find decent build quality and, in many cases, integrated heatsinks for passive cooling (letting you minimise or do away with the noisy fans).
Their smaller size typically means they will be fitted with a smaller motherboard, either a Micro-ATX or Mini-ITX type.
Chillblast and Quiet PC have both chosen the ultra-compact FC8 Evo fanless chassis from Streacom. It’s an all-aluminium design and entirely fanless, making these two PCs all but silent.
Apple’s Mac mini is even smaller, thanks to its custom-designed aluminium case and laptop-class components inside. It won’t be as easy to upgrade as the competing systems, mind, since there’s no expansion slot for internal cards such as a TV tuner.
For maximum customisation potential, look for a larger case. The Silverstone Micro-ATX cases selected by Arbico and CyberPower provide far more internal space, while maintaining a horizontal format and relatively un-PC-like looks. These lack the passive-cooling features of the Streacom FC8 Evo, however, so you’ll have to resort to noisy fans.
Media Centre PCs: Entertainment
If you want to watch TV, the tidiest solution is to add an internal tuner card. A dual-channel version is preferable, allowing you to record one channel while watching another. Make sure you get a model with Freeview HD support if you want to take full advantage of today’s HD terrestrial broadcasts.
To operate the PC from the sofa a decent remote control is essential. Most media PCs are still based on Windows and come with some sort of Microsoft-compatible Media Center remote control. But you’ll need more than that when you want to surf the web and use other applications.
A wireless keyboard is a must, but don’t settle for a standard desktop PC model. Some now include a built-in pointing device such as a trackpad, so you can comfortably operate the cursor from your lap without having to find the mouse and a surface on which to glide it.
Media Centre PCs: Hardware
Your CPU choice is crucial. Most systems here use low-power processors or, in the case of the Mac mini, a mobile processor designed for the ultra-low power environment of a laptop.
You won’t need a huge amount of processing power, but consider a chip with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 if you want to play casual games. You’ll get better gaming framerates from an AMD APU, but these aren’t so quick in general use.
Certainly, unless you want your media PC to double as a games console, you won’t be needing a separate graphics card. Integrated graphics solutions are adequate for media-centre use, and even light gaming. More powerful graphics cards typically demand noisy cooling fans or are simply too large to fit inside a compact system case.