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Media Centre PCs buying advice

Everything you need to know when buying a Media PC

A PC can make an excellent multimedia entertainment centre: recording, storing and playing back all your media from a single easy-to-use interface. When hooked up to a TV or projector, a properly designed system will allow seamless enjoyment of all manner of audiovisual entertainment from the comfort of your sofa.

While you can do this with just about any Windows-, Linux- or Mac-based system, a proper media-centre PC will embody very different design criteria from a standard desktop PC. Visit Group test: what's the best external Blu-ray/DVD drive?

Loud, whirring fans and crunching hard drives are most unwelcome when listening to music and can obscure movie dialogue. Large tower cases with flashing lights are another unwanted distraction. You want to be able to forget that the PC is there while you’re enjoying your media, and when it isn’t in use you want it to blend in with your living room décor.

There are many custom-made PC housings designed specifically for use as a media centre. The tiny footprint of Chillblast’s Fusion Vacuum Mini means you can pick it up and put it anywhere, while the thin-and-wide format of the Quiet PC and Tranquil PC systems will blend in with traditional hi-fi audiovisual equipment. Each offers a level of luxury and build quality higher than that of a standard PC. They also employ a fanless construction for silent operation.

However, choosing such a special-purpose case will limit the choice of the components you can fit inside. Maybe you want multiple tuners or you’d like to play games on your TV as well as watch movies. To house multiple add-in cards or large, powerful graphics adaptors you’ll need a ‘full-size’ PC case. There are plenty of cases around, such as Zalman’s HD503, which is designed to be quiet and stylish as well as compatible with standard PC upgrades. You also get a useful illuminated LCD readout and a large volume-control knob.

Windows Media Center, bundled with some versions of Windows 7, offers an interface that’s easy to operate via remote control. Many of the PCs here are supplied with a remote, and some can also be controlled using a mobile app. Media PCs can require more technical knowledge and time to set up than standard desktops; we recommend checking what level of support is offered.

Specification

Don’t look for the fastest processor you can afford. You’ll want to strike a delicate balance between power requirements and performance. Intel’s latest Core i3 and Core i5 processors offer excellent performance with low power consumption; special low-power versions with ‘S’ and ‘T’ designations are ideal for media centres. They also offer more than enough built-in graphics power if you don’t expect to play the latest games.

Cooling

You want to listen to music and video, not your PC, so minimise the number of fans and moving parts. Fanless systems can be built using large passive heat sinks, often aided by multiple heat pipes designed to draw heat away from core components to an external radiator.

Where cooling fans are your only option, ultra-quiet fans have intelligent spin speeds to balance cooling with noise.

Graphics cards and hard drives can also be the source of noise, with whirring fans and spinning platters respectively. For a little extra cost you can plump for a quiet graphics card and SSD storage. It can be a good idea to use a small, silent SSD in your PC and locate all your media externally, typically on a NAS device located elsewhere in the house. A speedy SSD will also make the PC feel quicker and more responsive.

For components that can’t be silenced, sound-proofing material and enclosures can provide an effective solution.

Internal PCI or external USB TV tuners allow you to watch and record live TV. Dual or twin tuner cards let you watch and record different channels simultaneously.

While most media PCs will come with a basic remote control, it can be useful to have a wireless keyboard with a built-in pointing device for web browsing and typing.

Blu-ray playback is standard on many media PCs. Expect to find a BD-ROM/DVD combo drive.

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