THE MEDIA CENTER COMPUTER

Running a Vista Media Center Extender in the living room requires a computer in the house running Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate. Your home computer can send your photos and music to the living room without working very hard, so it’s quite possible to use the same computer that you’re using at your desk.

There is a caveat, though. The most important trick for a Vista Media Center Extender is delivering TV shows to the TV, and your home computer probably isn’t ready to do that without an extra bit of hardware to plug in the Comcast cable and act as a TV tuner. Once the hardware is set up, the Vista Media Center software is easy to set up – it automatically identifies your cable provider and channel selection, downloads a program guide, and handles program recording.

image There are inexpensive USB devices that add TV tuner functions and are reported to work quite well, but I got an ATI TV Wonder HD-650 for a hundred bucks to put inside the PC, since it seemed to have the fewest trouble reports. In this category, as with so many others, there are always reports of horrible problems on Amazon and the online forums, requiring an intuitive weighing to decide which ones can be discarded because you’re luckier or smarter than those people.

When shows are recording and being streamed into the living room, the computer is working a bit harder, enough that it might slow down your work on the computer occasionally. I also wanted to set up the Media Center computer to do some time-consuming, processor-intensive jobs – converting DVDs into files that could be stored on the computer’s hard drive and played on the Extender. My desktop computer gets restarted pretty regularly as a side effect of testing too much software, which would play havoc with recording a show and might interrupt somebody’s experience in the living room.

That’s why a lot of people set up a separate computer that is dedicated to doing the Media Center chores. It can be a home-built PC, if you want to save some money. I opted to buy a Dell Inspiron 530 with a lot of memory, since basic computers are so absurdly cheap. I got a good video card but that’s optional – I don’t plan to ever have it hooked up to a monitor. It’s sitting off in the corner and my interaction with it is all done from my desk using Remote Desktop.

A new dedicated computer and the HP Extender gives me a rock solid foundation for more living room entertainment than I have time for. It looks and sounds fabulous.

One more part of the story before we’re done – a few scary notes about audio and video formats tomorrow.