Building Your Own Media Center PC

Credit Microsoft with at least one innovation: Despite grumblings from those who believe that the company is never on the leading edge of any technological breakthroughs, Microsoft has been quietly shepherding us into the digital age with living-room computing solutions called Media Center PCs. Most Media Center PCs are based on Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE), which the company has honed through three major revisions into a world-class computing platform. Stable and feature-packed—and, with the right hardware, quiet enough for use in your living room—XP MCE 2005 (the latest version) is a powerful solution.

That said, it's still frightfully difficult to obtain. For the most part, you need to purchase a dedicated Media Center PC from a major PC maker such as Dell or HP, or from a growing lineup of tier-two PC makers, such as Alienware or iBUYPOWER. If you're adventuresome, however, you have other options. First, you could simply purchase the XP MCE 2005 software, which isn't widely available in retail stores because of licensing reasons. You'd have to visit an online reseller, such as NewEgg, and pay about $130. However, you'll also need a few additional parts for a full Media Center experience, including a remote control with USB interface and a TV tuner card.

Historically, these parts have also been hard to find. Companies such as Directron offer true Media Center remotes for about $40, or you could purchase an expensive Logitech Harmony remote ($120 and up), some models of which are specifically compatible with Media Center. On the TV tuner side, companies such as Hauppauge have typically dominated, although their products have been slow to improve and still largely offer the same basic features we saw back in 2002.

Thankfully, other alternatives are out there. For the past few months, I've been testing the Diamond XtremeTV PVR-550 Power Pack, which bundles an amazing array of components into an inexpensive package. For $129, you get a high-quality XTremeTV PVR-550 TV tuner card (single tuner, PCI-based), SnapStream's excellent Beyond TV 3.5 digital video recording (DVR) package—which I previously reviewed here—and a fantastic Firefly remote control with USB interface.

You can use this package in two ways. First, you can simply install the hardware and software into an existing PC and transform it into a full-featured DVR solution. SnapStream's Beyond TV features a fantastic interface for live and recorded TV, and the related Beyond Media application fulfills the rest of the Media Center feature list, providing remote-control-based access to digital photos, music, and DVD movies. I did test the Power Pack in this configuration.

Second, I was also interested to see how the Diamond TV tuner would fare as an upgrade to my existing Media Center PC. As an early adopter, I've got a first-generation HP Pavilion Media Center PC 873n that's been gathering dust as newer machines have come into my home for review. A quick swap of the aging Hauppauge TV tuner card for the PVR-550, however, and the HP is once again serving up live and recorded TV shows via the familiar Microsoft Media Center interface.

Compared to the Hauppauge card I once used, the Diamond PVR-550 offers a crisper picture. That's wonderful, as well as a bit unexpected. But the biggest benefit I've seen in the PVR-550 is performance. Video-input startup no longer lags, and the card appears to do a much better job moving between the video signal and the Media Center UI. In short, the Diamond has breathed new life into a machine I had nearly given up on.

For most users, however, the Power Pack is an excellent and affordable one-stop-shop for entering the world of PC-based DVRs. With its incredible combination of hardware and software, you'll be up and running in no time, and Snapstream's software solutions—combined with the Firefly remote—will give you a Media Center experience that even Microsoft has trouble replicating.

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