We’ve experimented with any number of home media servers that will stream YouTube, play movies across a home network, and stream music from a library of connected home storage appliance. And they’re nice if that’s all you ever want to do. But for ultimate flexibility, nothing beats a true home theater PC. Using a fully functional PC, you throw away all the limitations of a traditional set top box, building up a box that does exactly what you want it to, the way you want it to.
With that in mind, blowing $1,000 on a custom-built computer just for the task seems like a waste. In the big scale of computing tasks, playing video isn’t a particularly taxing one, and computers have been able to do it for years, meaning just about any one will do. So rather than showing you how to empty your wallet by shelling out for custom home theater components, we’re going to show you how to do it on the cheap, with just about any old machine you happen to have.
Here’s our makeover machine: A ratty old Dell Inspiron 5150 from about eight years ago. The screen blinks when you move it up and down, the top plastic has been partially melted by God-knows-what from the previous owner, and the battery lasts only long enough to jump it from one outlet to the next without dying. By any modern laptop standard, this thing is worthless, especially with a weight of 8.1 pounds (without the gigantic power adapter) for a 15.4-inch notebook.
But for our purposes, it will work just fine. It has a 2.66GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of RAM, and perhaps most importantly, a GeForce FX Go 5200 card. In the gaming world, that translates to about the computing horsepower necessary to play Call of Duty 2, but in terms of video, it will drive video at full-screen 1024 x 768 resolution without breaking a sweat. That’s a bit short of 1080p content, but still not bad for an eight year-old machine.
Why use a laptop? Since you’re going to be dropping the final product under your television, you have to deal with a few concerns most desktops don’t really address, like noise and size, that laptops handle better. This little guy will slide right in alongside our other A/V equipment, and won’t emit anything more than a whisper during movies when we want silence. Of course, if you have an old desktop lying around, it should work too, but you might have to invest more time in carefully placing it so that the quiet scenes in your favorite movies aren’t ruined by the sound of a jet taking off under your entertainment cabinet.
Whichever way you go, we encourage you to use whatever hardware you can scrounge up. Test whatever machine you use in Windows to see if it can handle YouTube, YouTube in “high-quality” mode, and YouTube in 1080p HD mode, which will give you some idea if it will work for your purposes. In general, look for a discrete video card (something from ATI or Nvidia, basically,) which will greatly improve your multimedia performance, even if it’s something ancient.
Besides performance, you need to pay attention to connectivity. You’ll need both audio and video outs to connect up to your home theater, and the quality of what you need will depend on what you’re trying to do. Older machines, like ours, won’t offer much. The Inspiron 5150 offers a VGA output and S-Video output for video, and a sole headphone jack for audio. It will work for our purposes, but home theater buffs will probably want DVI or HDMI video outputs and 5.1-channel sound. True audiophiles building desktop rigs might even opt for discrete sound cards to deliver high-fidelity sound.
You might notice that we don’t have a cable tuner to allow our box to serve as a personal video recorder (PVR) for time shifting. We opted out of this particular functionality simply because most folks have either digital cable or satellite these days, which need to be decoded by a supplier-provided box, and won’t be able to work with a PVR meant for analog cable.
Our notebook doesn’t actually come with built-in Wi-Fi, but a Linksys PC card adapter will allow us to use wireless networking nonetheless. 802.11a/b/g will all work fine for standard-def content, but you may wish to step up with 802.11n, the latest standard, for high-def content, or fall back on a hard Ethernet wire.
We hope you weren’t planning on keeping all those old Word documents and photos lying around on your decrepit old machine, because they’ve got to go. The easiest way to boost performance on an old machine is simply wiping it clean and reinstalling a new OS, so get whatever files you want to save off it via thumb drive or external hard drive. We’re building a dedicated home theater machine, not a PC hooked up to a display.
The operating system you choose will affect the performance of your setup – especially if you’re using a PC as ancient as ours. If you’re using a newer machine, you’ll probably want to install a newer OS, but for this tutorial we’ll be using Windows XP since it has a much smaller footprint than Vista/7/8 and will work better on old hardware.
After you’ve decided what OS you’ll use, it’s time to pick a media manager application. There are loads of good options out there, but for this tutorial, we’ll be using Plex Media Center because it’s got a stunning visual UI that makes it perfect for a dedicated media PC like the one we’re building. If you’ve read any of our recently-updated how-to posts involving media center applications, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve got a soft spot for Plex because it’s free, incredibly simple to set up, and it carries more advanced connectivity options than some of its paid-for counterparts. Other good options are XMBC, Boxee and Windows Media Player
After selecting your operating system of choice and software, it’s time to get cracking on installation. We won’t cover the entire process of installing a fresh copy of Windows here, that’s another topic for another article, but in the meantime, Lifehacker has done an excellent job wrapping it up in this concise guide.
So you’re at the clean Windows boot screen, what’s next? Install Plex. It’s really quite easy compared to the hoops we had to jump through to get other apps to work: Just head to their website, grab the installer for the OS you’re using (Win/Mac/Linux), and let it run setup like any other program.
Afterward, you’ll be able to fire up Plex and get a taste of what’s to come: graceful menus, quick navigation, and album art and graphics that make your media library look super polished – even if it only consists of old South Park episodes and a Spice Girls album you’re too nostalgic to delete.
After installation, you can point Plex to all your movies and music and install plug-ins that allow it to access online content like YouTube all from within the existing navigation structure.
Connect It All Up
It makes the most sense to setup Plex before connecting it up, since you’ll be able to mess with it more easily on a desktop than squirreled away in a home theater cabinet. But when everything appears to be up and running smoothly on the little screen, it’s time to transition to the big screen.
On ours, it was a simple matter of connecting both the VGA cables and audio cables that convert the headphone jack on the notebook into more standard right and left RCA plugs for the TV. You’ll probably need to tell Windows that you’re hooking up a second display, so it will send out signal to the second monitor. You may encounter troubles, though. For instance, with our ancient hardware, it was impossible to run a standard desktop and a 1080p secondary display with 32-bit color depth. Our solution: Just make the television the main display, so your computer isn’t working harder to drive a second.
Sit Back and Enjoy
At last, your PC is connected. Fire up a movie, TV show, or your favorite album and show it off. Working well? Excellent. But don’t break out the popcorn just yet.
If you really want to enjoy it without standing up to mess with a touchpad every time, you’ll need to invest in a wireless controller to make your selections from the couch. We opted for a wireless keyboard and mouse, but if you’re looking for something a little less bulky, try one of Microsoft’s media center remotes, or an ATI Remote Wonder. If you went with our recommendation and installed Plex, you can download the plex smartphone app (which unfortunately isn’t free) and use your phone as a wireless remote. To do this, you’ll also need to install the Plex Media Server app on your PC, which, in addition to enabling the smartphone remote function, will also allow you to stream media to other computers in your home network.
Building a simple home theater PC doesn’t need to be difficult or expensive. In fact, as our own model proves, hardware that’s half a decade old can still do the trick. But there are limitations: Our system ran respectably around 720p resolution, but video didn’t play smoothly enough at 1080p to satisfy us. Newer hardware would improve that, but be careful how much you spend. At some point, an Xbox 360 media server or PlayStation 3 media server makes more sense than dropping much money on PC hardware. The fact remains: If you’re patient, that haggard old box you were ready to throw away can provide many more hours of YouTube, Hulu and South Park in front of your TV.
Multiple members of the Digital Trends’ staff contributed to this article.