HTPC - Home Theater Personal Computer

How To Make A Home Theater System

If you want to watch your media collection including movies, TV shows, music, pictures on your PC or big screen TV then a HTPC will make life easier, more organized and much more attractive.Plus you can also access free OTA digital TV and record content using a PC based DVR.

A HTPC (home theater PC) is a computer (or other hardware streaming device) with the correct software installed that will present a gorgeous front end for all your media files.You can run movies and other media from any old Windows machine by opening the folder and pressing play. But then you have to put up with the inconvenience of using a mouse and keyboard to control your entertainment center. But we want a nice single software application with a dedicated HTPC front-end.

This software once installed will play movies, shows and music and also bring up metadata for those files. So for example, if you have ripped a DVD such as 'The Hobbit' and saved it on your hard drive as an avi or MP4 file, the software will then automatically bring in pictures, artwork, cast details, plot, reviews etc. and present it to you on the screen. This makes organising, selecting and playing media a much nicer experience.

Hardware

You can build a HTPC using any reasonably specced PC. Important points are plenty of memory and a decent sized hard drive to store all those movies (or you can have a central harddrive and just network to it). The idea for a perfect HTPC is for it to be quiet, very quick to start-up and that it boots straight into your chosen media software.

Operating System

Any operating system is suitable for a HTPC, but for speed and quickness many make use of the Linusx OS as it loads real fast and can boot straight into your chosen media software. The XBMC software has even been combined into a streamlined Linux OS called OpenELEC (Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center) for a quick and small (125Mb) stand-alone media center OS.

For more information read our Complete HTPC guide here

The following are the best HTPC front-end programs around.

 XBMC
Originally used on hacked Xbox consoles The most popular and number one media center that runs on pretty much any device and any platform. It also offers an immense number of custom options, is open source with a thriving community and it’s completely free. Just load it up,point it to your media folder or NAS home file server containing movies, music and shows. It can play content in pretty much any format you can throw at it, from mp4 to avi. The software will then collect a ton of metadata about the media in your folder and present it in glorious detail.This would be good enough to own it, but you can also download numerous add-ons that can add live TV, a DVR, free movies, shows and live sports streaming as well. Read our XBMC installation guide here
For Against
  • Slick interface with selection of customizable skins
  • Numerous add-ons available
  • Available on Android and iOS
  • The best media center
  • Runs any file you throw at it
  • Simple to install
  • Need to make sure media is correctly named to pick up metadata
  • Can be complicated at first
 Plex
Plex is an offshoot of the original XBMCsoftware and consists of two parts, the media server is put on your main computer or NAS. Then you install the Plex media player on any platform such as Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS and Windows Phone. You can access your home media library or DNLA server via the the internet easily. Plex runs on the Roku, Google TV and various Smart TVs, and although a little more complicated to set-up than XBMC.it makes sharing content across multiple devices easier. Like XBMC, Plex also has a number of add-ons available that increase functionality. Read our Plex installation guide here
For Against
  • Once set-up it's simple to get any device to access your media library from anywhere with a WiFi connection.
  • Can be tricky to setup
  • Apps have to be paid for Boo.
 Windows Media Player
The Windows Media Center has been around in home theater PCs forever. WMC as it's known was released in 2001 and has been given free as part of the Windows OS from XP up until Windows 7. Microsoft decided that for Windows 8 Windows Media Center would become an optional (paid) extra. WMC can detect any tuner cards installed and run live TV.
For Against
  • Plays DVD Discs
  • Supports Live TV streaming
  • Integrates OTA and internet TV
  • Not open source so not so many features
  • Has to be paid for if using Windows 8