Intrigued by the idea of using a computer to enjoy movies, music, and television, but unimpressed with the Media Center PCs from big-box vendors like Dell and Hewlett-Packard? Build your own.
True, Microsoft won't sell you its Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system, which combines all of the features you want--TV (live and recorded), movies, music, and photos--with a single, slick interface (it ships only with complete systems). But you can tailor a media-savvy PC to your own specific requirements by using hand-picked components.
You might even save some money, but don't count on it. Just as few do-it-yourselfers can build a standard desktop PC for less money than a computer maker's entry-level offering would cost, you'll find it hard to beat the big players' bottom lines on a media machine. Building your own system is more about the enjoyment you'll get creating a custom rig--picking your own parts, from CPU to graphics card to hard drive, assembling them, and seeing them work--than about saving a buck.
The key to success is deciding up front how and where you'll use your new PC and how much money you'll spend on it. Will this primarily be a serious desktop PC--for number crunching, video editing, and 3D gaming--that occasionally doubles as a TV and stereo? Or will it be a living-room device that handles only light desktop computing duties? Do you require the higher-quality audio a stand-alone sound card can provide, or is integrated audio enough for you? Is a remote control a must-have or just more gear destined to gather dust?
Before you start, take stock of the peripherals you already have. Examine your monitor or television (the bigger the better), your speakers (either the PC variety or a set connected to a typical audio receiver), and your home network (for Internet connectivity and for sharing files with your other PCs). Is each up to the task of supporting your slick new entertainment PC?
I built two systems for this story: an unobtrusive, ultrasmall, living room-friendly computer with midrange to low-end components that balance performance and price (total cost: $1120 street); and a high-performance PC packed with first-rate parts and a case well suited to a home office or family room (total cost: $2650 street). See the chart below for individual component prices. If you would rather upgrade your current PC than start from scratch, see "Turn a PC Into the King of All Media." And finally, read our July 2003 Step-By-Step for more-detailed instructions on putting together a custom PC.