If you find yourself dividing your time between your computer, your games console, your television and your stereo, then read on; we have precious advice for you. The world is rapidly moving towards unifying all of the media you use, and adjusting to that trend is becoming more a necessity than just a fashion.
What exactly is a media centre?
In basic terms, it is a network of data storage with one central server in your house. You can make your computer act as a central controller for all the entertainment in your house, whether it is music, films, games or Internet. And because it is connected to the Internet you can download files and share them with all other devices in that network.
Having a home media centre means that all your media are centralised in just one place, providing you with a more convenient and more organised experience as a user. This is the direction that technology seems to be moving: towards an individualised way of consuming media, whenever you want. You no longer have to sit down at six o’clock to watch the evening news at the same time as everyone else. With a home media centre you watch and listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, in the comfort of your home, through a simple and centralised set of devices.
How does it work?
There are several different ways you can set up your media centre. You can use your regular computer as the central hub; however nowadays most game consoles, such as the Microsoft Xbox 360 or the Sony Playstation 3, already come prepared to work as a media centre controller by default.
If you choose to use a PC as the controller, you will then be faced with the question of which piece of software to use. Some computers, like the ones that come with Windows XP, Vista Premium and some Windows 7 versions, already have Windows Media Center installed. Amongst other features, this software includes free programme guide information and automatic programme recording.
A good alternative to the Windows Media Center is the XBMC Media Center, a free and open source software for home entertainment originally created for the Xbox game console but which has since become available for the Linux, Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows operating systems.
There are several applications designed to control media centres. No matter which software you choose to use, the basics of what any of those applications will allow you to do includes organising your music collection into libraries, as well as your video and movie collections, watching movies directly off the Internet, listening to online radio or podcasts, browsing the Internet and playing games.
If you don’t have a spare computer lying around and want to go for a relatively inexpensive solution, you should look into getting an Apple TV. This device has the advantage of using its own interface and integrating seamlessly with iTunes (you do need to set up an iTunes account, however). By accessing the iTunes store, you can buy music and buy or rent movies and watch them on your High Definition TV. On top of its long list of features, which includes television programme guides, online movie trailer support and podcast streaming, the Xbox version of this application has the ability to launch console games.
Still within the Apple range, a Mac Mini can be a good controller for your media centre. It does require a special adaptor to connect to the TV, but it comes with built-in Bluetooth, which is very convenient if you want to use a wireless keyboard as a remote control, for example. Also, the Mac Mini is a compact device that won’t take up much room in your entertainment unit.
What you will need
Before setting up your media centre, it is important that you think about what you will use it for and to decide on a budget. There are options for every pocket and without some research, it’s easy to get carried away.
You will also probably find that you can use a lot of what you already have at home. For example, you don’t necessarily need a new television, although a High Definition TV will enhance your entertainment experience. A TV tuner card is also a must-have item, so that your computer can receive television signals. Most TV tuners also give you the ability to record live TV, as they can function as video capture cards and record television programmes onto a hard disk.
You should also consider investing in a surround sound system, preferably with a subwoofer, for good quality sound. A wireless keyboard is also a useful device to help manage and interact with your media centre. Note, however, that if you buy a Bluetooth wireless keyboard, your computer has to be equipped with Bluetooth as well.
As for your computer, it should have at least 2GB RAM, and you might want to upgrade the graphics card to a high-end one, capable of supporting High Definition output and an HDMI connection.