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Media centre PC buying advice

How to purchase a PC for your living room

Want a PC to replace your TV in the living room? Read our media centre PC buying advice to find out what to look for when buying a media centre PC. (See all PC buying advice.)

You can use just about any PC to create a media-centre experience; but unless you want a tower system whirring away and spoiling the entertainment you’d be best advised to consider a quiet, inconspicuous system.

Because media-centre PCs can remain switched on for extended periods of time, you’ll also benefit from a design featuring minimal power consumption. This will also help reduce the level of cooling required and cut down or eliminate the need for noisy fans.

For this reason you shouldn’t just go for the fastest processor you can afford. Instead, you will need to strike a balance between performance and power requirements.

Think about what you’ll be using the PC for. If it’s purely for basic media-centre use, then you can get away with a very low-power processor which will be much easier to keep quiet.

A modern processor such as AMD’s E-350 comes with built in DirectX 11-capable graphics and is perfectly capable of coping with HD content. You can buy motherboards such as the Asus E35M1-I Deluxe which come with an E-350 pre-installed and this combo can form the basis of an excellent low-power PC.

Cooling is another important consideration. Cutting down on fans and other moving parts will cut down on noise – you want to listen to your music and films, not your PC. Completely fanless systems can be built using large passive heat sinks, often aided by multiple heat pipes designed to draw heat away from the PC’s components to an external radiator. Specially designed cases such as the Zeno NT-TX2000 come with a custom-built fanless CPU block, linked to large and finned aluminium heatsinks on the outside of the case. This is similar to the approach taken by high-end audio amplifiers which need to noiselessly draw heat away from the insides.

Where cooling fans are your only option, ultra-quiet fans are available which should have their speeds carefully tweaked to balance cooling with audible noise.

If you’ve chosen to install a separate graphics card for gaming, these too will often have noisy fans although quieter models are available if you’re willing to spend a little more.

Hard drives will also generate noise when in use, so an SSD is a good choice if you can afford one. If you can setup NAS elsewhere in the home to store all media files, it’s possible to work with a small SSD as just the system’s boot drive.

Other components which cannot be silenced can benefit from sound-proofing material and enclosures which help to prevent sound escaping the case.

If you want to watch and record live TV you’ll need a TV tuner card or USB dongle. It’s easy to add an external USB tuner later if you wish. To watch one channel while recording another, you’ll need at least two separate tuners, or one dual-tuner card. Four-tuner cards are also now available.

The type of card you need will also depend on how you receive your TV signal, but if you go for a premium model such as Black Gold’s BGT3600 you’ll be able to decode Freeview and Freesat channels in both standard- and high-definition.

Blu-ray movies are an option on all platforms now, providing you have at least a BD-ROM Blu-ray optical drive.

For connectivity, wherever possible use wired ethernet to eliminate the network dropouts typical with Wi-Fi connections. If you have a wireless router in the same room, you could try 5GHz 802.11n for good performance and less interference from neighbours.

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