Turn Any PC Into a Media Center

Extend Your Media

A media center PC is at its best when it's connected to a big ol' TV like the one in your living room. Of course, that means having a desktop or notebook PC in your living room, which is both an inconvenience (since you no longer have your computer wherever you were accustomed to using it) and a decor killer. You can solve both problems with a media-center extender, a box that streams media from your PC to your TV.

D-Link's MediaLounge DSM-750 media-center extender lets you access Windows Media Center from your living room, even when your PC is somewhere else in the house.
The D-Link MediaLounge DSM-750, for example, is a slim set-top box that connects to your home network via ethernet or 802.11n Wi-Fi. Like many extenders, it's designed for use with Vista's Windows Media Center, and it duplicates the WMC interface on your TV. As a result, you get the same experience as if you were sitting in front of your PC. The DSM-750 streams live and recorded TV (assuming you have a tuner), videos, photos, and music, all at resolutions of up to 1080p. However, it can't stream DVDs, owing to copy-protection restrictions. If you want to add DVDs to the mix, consider the Linksys DMA2200, a similar product that incorporates its own DVD player.

For a helpful guide to the latest media-streaming options, see Becky Waring's "The New High-Def Streaming Tools."

If you're a fan of console video games, you might already own a media-center extender: The Xbox 360 offers such a capability right out of the box. It can play DVDs, too. You might want to add Microsoft's $20 Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote, though, as trying to navigate WMC with the standard Xbox 360 controller isn't much fun.

To control your media center from the couch, you'll need a remote. Pinnacle's inexpensive kit was designed specifically for Windows Media Center.
Speaking of remotes, they're available for computers as well--for the desktop in the den, the notebook in the hotel room, and so on. Pinnacle Systems' Remote Kit for Windows Media Center pairs a full-featured remote control with a USB infrared transceiver that plugs into your PC. It also comes with an IR blaster so you can use your computer in conjunction with a set-top cable or satellite box. Notebook users may prefer the travel-friendly Siig Vista MCE ExpressCard Remote, which tucks away inside an ExpressCard slot when not in use.

Plug In and Play

If you want to make the most of your media center (particularly your Windows Media Center), pile on the plug-ins. These user-developed extras add all kinds of cool features, and the vast majority of them cost nothing to use. For example, mceWeather provides local weather conditions, forecasts, and even satellite imagery, all integrated into the WMC interface.

Watch Netflix movies in Windows Media Center with the free Netflix WatchNow plug-in.
Netflix subscribers can take advantage of the new WatchNow feature by installing the MyNetflix plug-in for WMC. It lets you browse and watch the movies in your queue and add new ones as well, again within the comfy confines of the WMC interface. (Interestingly, Netflix hired developer Anthony Park after taking a look at this plug-in.)

Tired of fast-forwarding through commercials in your recorded shows? WMC users can choose from several utilities that scan each recording and actually delete the commercials. Lifextender works entirely in the background and can scan shows manually or automatically. MCEBuddy is a bit more advanced; it includes an option for converting scanned shows to a variety of video formats (including the iPod-friendly H.264). Both utilities are free.

Want even more plug-ins? WMC enthusiast site The Green Button maintains an extensive list of plug-ins and applications. Meanwhile, MediaPortal and SageTV users can browse a smattering of plug-ins from their vendors' Web sites as well.

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