|Whether you bought a new machine or upgraded an existing system, once your PC's ready for action, it needs to be integrated into your home-theater setup. |
Keep in mind that using a TV tuner card with a Media Center PC offers certain options not available from a set-top TiVo-style box--but there are also compromises to be made. First, if you have access to high-definition cable signals, most home-theater PCs can't handle them.
DVR apps can see HD only in the form of over-the-air broadcasts, for which you need a big antenna and an HD-capable TV tuner card. That means no HD HBO or Discovery Channel, so for most, this is hardly worth the effort.
Another thing to keep in mind: even if your digital cable signal looks great, the image quality suffers when the TV signal is sent through a PC. This discrepancy will be especially noticeable on big displays, since you'll be taking a digital signal and converting it to analog.
Most Media Center PCs come with a Media Center remote. It sounds ideal, but to get the remote to work with your cable box, you'll need to use an IR blaster
, a tiny, wired receiver that you connect to your PC and affix to your cable box. The blaster lets you use your Media Center remote to change the channel, but the signal has to go from the Media Center remote's receiver, through your PC, and out to the IR blaster that you stuck in front of the IR receiver on your cable box. It's an awkward setup, to say the least. Worse, it results in noticeable lag every time you change the channel.
Sending the signal to your display can also be a challenge. While it's possible to use a PC monitor for your home theater, it's more likely that you'll be using it with a big-screen display, such as a plasma, LCD, or DLP set. There are many different audio and video options for joining the two; the method you choose will obviously depend on the inputs and outputs available on both your PC and your TV.
Older, standard-def TVs will have, at a minimum, a composite-video connection (a yellow video connection that's usually accompanied by red and white stereo audio jacks). Hopefully, it will also provide an S-Video port. Newer sets should provide component inputs, and more advanced HDTVs will supply DVI or HDMI inputs.
Unfortunately, unless your computer was specifically built for home-theater use, it probably doesn't have too many ways to output a signal to an external display. Take a look at your video card and match up the best connection option that both the display and the PC share. DVI is becoming more common (replacing analog VGA); it's your best bet for a high-quality connection. HDMI is a newer digital connector, but you won't find it yet on most displays, and it's on even fewer computers.
We'd like to see more computers with component-video connections--the red, green, and blue cables. Some higher-end home-theater PCs
are starting to come with these jacks. If you have slightly older components, S-Video--a single, black four-pin cable--is probably what you're going to end up with.
Here's a quick recap of the connections you're looking for, from best to worst:
- HDMI: It's unlikely that you have this on your PC or display.
- DVI: There's a 50/50 chance for both PC and display--a good choice.
- Component: You probably have this on your display--less likely on the PC.
- S-Video: Most likely candidate--decent quality.
- Composite: Single old-school yellow cable. You might want to consider upgrading some components.
Getting the output from the PC and your screen to match up exactly can be a bit of a chore, thanks in part to the vagaries of overscan,
an old TV technology that hides the edges of video signals. Your best bet is to find out the exact resolution of your display and set the computer resolution as close to that as possible. Right-click and go to Properties > Settings on your desktop to change the resolution. Your video card may also have a special control panel that offers more flexibility.