Desktop cinema: turning your PC into a mini entertainment system


Everyone loves a two-for-one deal, and with a few extra bit and pieces, your work-a-day PC can double as a mini entertainment system, writes Anthony Fordham.

Using a modern PC just for word processing and web browsing is a bit like buying the most fully-featured Swiss Army knife you can find and using it to open your mail. Most PCs are dramatically under-used and have many features that are overlooked.

One of these is the way a PC can be used as a desktop cinema system. Even PCs costing less than $2,000 play DVDs and can be upgraded to receive a high definition digital TV for as little as $80.

Elsewhere on this site you can read about media hubs, including Media Center PCs that live in your lounge room and plug directly into a big screen display. But what many people may not realise is that a specialised Media Center PC is just an ordinary PC in a special case that lies down instead of standing up in the more familiar tower configuration. Windows Media Center doesn?t add extra functionality to a PC, it just wraps existing media applications into an interface that?s easier to navigate with a remote.

Obviously some PCs are better configured than others when it comes to home cinema. So what do you need to make the most of your PC?s cinema functionality? Time for an anatomy lesson!

Why do I want it?

Before we start it?s important to understand the context in which a desktop cinema is most useful. There are a few reasons why you?d want to configure your PC in such a way. Perhaps you live in a very cramped space, and don?t have room for a traditional AV rack.

Or perhaps there are a large number of conflicting movie tastes living in your house. In this case, the PC becomes a secondary entertainment centre, for the use of folks who can?t stand McLeod?s Daughters or Kung-Fu movie marathons. You don?t need to suffer a tiny screen, or poor sound, because a PC can connect to any number of different kinds of displays (including projectors), and can sport a sophisticated audio sub-system that can hold its electronic head high next to a range of quite expensive AV receivers. PCs today can even be configured with HDMI.

Because a PC can do pretty much anything if given the right components, a desktop cinema can be much more than just a dumb movie-playing terminal. If you want a compact entertainment system that does everything, a desktop cinema is a good solution.

Windows Media Center remotes, such as this one from Logitech, allow you to control a wide array of PC functions from the couch. Common tasks such as play, pause, and recording live TV have dedicated buttons, while custom applications such as games can be assigned to programmable buttons.