What? Television on your computer!?!

Originally written for eVent! magazine [ep] on December 2nd, 2005.

People use computers to make spreadsheets at work, to write emails to loved ones, to write that novel everyone is secretly working on in their spare time, but increasingly the computer is moving from the office and into the living room.  PCs have begun to become the latest vital component in the home entertainment system alongside the killer sound system and the widescreen television as a must have in any serious collection.

These boxes are far beyond the standard PC.  Running Microsoft’s Media Center software these computers are designed specifically to be the hub of a home’s digital entertainment.  One of these is the HP Digital Entertainment Center z552 one of the Media Center PCs priced for a consumer looking to beef up their home media system.  The z552 is designed to look not like a standard computer, but more like a piece of stereo equipment that fits next to your surround sound amplifier on your component rack near your television.  Combining the features of a high end DVD player, a PVR for recording two television programs and watching a third all at once, a MP3 audio player allowing you to store hundreds of CDs worth of music, a web browser letting you surf the internet from your couch and the regular features you expect from a personal computer. 

Working with a wireless keyboard and mouse as well as a remote control Media Center PCs allow users to use them either how they’d normally use a piece of entertainment equipment or like they’d normally use their computer.  With nearly every kind of common computer or television style input and output port on the back these devices are designed to interface easily with whatever equipment you might have in either the living room or the office.

What sets Media PCs apart from other types of home television equipment, like the Shaw HDTV Cable Reviever and PVR device which also allows for the recoding of two television shows at once, is that most of them also act as Media Servers. With the proper setup and equipment once you have recorded a television program onto the computer in your living room it can be watched on the television in your bedroom while someone else watches another program on a laptop elsewhere in the home.  All of this is possible through wireless networking using Wi-Fi.

If the HP z552, selling for around $2,300 Canadian, is a bit pricy or if you like your computers to look like computers then there is the are several other options.  Future Shop, for example, carries Media Center PCs that range from $999 with most of the features of the z552.  These computers don’t blend in as well visually with your entertainment set up, looking more like traditional tower style PCs than a piece of high end stereo equipment, and different models offer different feature sets so it’s important to decide what aspects of a Media Center PC are important to you when you begin to shop around.

One of the most varied features in the variety of Media Center PCs is hard drive size.  The more memory the computer’s hard drive is the more music, television and movies it can have saved on it for recalling later.  How much hard drive space you are going to need will depend on how much you are going to use your device.  If you are someone who wants to save quite a lot of material for viewing at any time, then a large hard drive will be necessary.  I on the other hand tend to watch my recorded shows within a week of their broadcast and so can get by with a few less gigs in capacity.  Many of the devices also allow you to add more hard drive space later, up to a terabyte in some cases, in the event that you find you need more storage than you originally thought.

Matthew Williams recently bought a Media Center PC and is loving it. “It’s a sweet machine, a real five star toy.  All the features are done well and it’s great to be able to watch CSI while the kids watch their cartoons up stairs from the same machine.”

The only trouble, Williams says, is when the computer needs to be reset.  “It’s doesn’t happen often or take much time, but I had to explain to my wife why we now have to reboot the TV more than once.”

Media Center PCs are just starting to find their market, and as more units are sold prices will drop while new features are added.  With every major computer company looking to be your media server of choice, the deals are good now and its definitely worth looking into picking one up for a holiday gift and telling your VCR that it’s eaten its last tape.