With a few hours of time and a little D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) spirit, you can make some major improvements to the PCs and networks you use at home or for your small business. We picked out twelve such projects, and asked some of our experts to step you through them. Sound good? Read on.
Turn a PC Into an HD Media Server
PCs are great at collecting and organizing media files, from digital camera photos to iTunes tracks to video downloads. But to get the most from your digital entertainment, you'll want to enjoy it on your living-room stereo system or big-screen HDTV. That's where media servers and player boxes come in: They provide the software and hardware interfaces you must have to access PC-based content directly from your TV screen.
Media Center Software
The first step in sharing content painlessly is getting the right software. Our top choice for the job is Microsoft's competent and easy-to-use Windows Media Center, an HD-capable app included in Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, as well as in Media Center Edition versions of XP. It plays back most media file types, including HD video and Windows DRM-protected content downloaded from online stores. It also streams Internet radio and Web-based video, and works with many HDTV tuners so you can use your computer as a DVR.
Getting started with Media Center is simple. When you open it for the first time, it scours your hard drives for media files, arranges them into such categories as Music, Pictures & Videos, and TV & Movies, and then serves them up via a point-and-click interface. Depending on how many files you have, you can set up Windows Media Center in a matter of minutes just by clicking through a few screens. You don't need to do any organizing ahead of time, though you can designate which folders will be searched for media files, and for this reason you may want to segregate public content from private material. The program can also access network storage drives--if you're in the market to purchase such a drive, look for a UPnP-enabled or "media storage" drive to make that process easier.
The Jump to the Living Room
Now comes the harder part: making the PC-to-TV connection, especially for HD video. To bridge that gap, Microsoft has developed a class of products called Media Center Extenders. Video travels from PC to Extender over a high-bandwidth ethernet or Wi-Fi connection, and then it goes from the Extender to the TV via special HDMI, DVI, or HD component cables. Thus far, however, the only Vista-compatible Extender with HD outputs is the Xbox 360 game console ($300); more options are expected this fall.
To set up Media Center on the Xbox 360, go to the Xbox 360 Media Download Center and select the download at the side of the page that corresponds to your Windows version. The Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote even has a dedicated Media Center button to make navigation easy. Be sure to hook up the Xbox 360 through the television's high-definition connectors for best effect.
Alternatives to Media Center
If you don't have Media Center already and don't want to upgrade to Vista, all is not lost. Companies such as Buffalo, D-Link, and Netgear offer their own HD-capable media player boxes. We tested the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD ($400), which has both HD component and HDMI ports, as well as wired and wireless network connections. The Netgear device has PC software that, like Media Center, finds all the media files on your hard drive and delivers them to your TV in navigable categories. In addition to handling unprotected video, music, and picture files, the Netgear can play both protected iTunes music and Windows DRM content, something no other HD media player can do.
Adding an HDTV Tuner
If you also want to use your computer as a DVR to record and pause live TV, you can add an HDTV tuner to either a Media Center PC or the Netgear box. We tried the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick, a USB 2.0 device reminiscent of a thumb drive that comes with a portable antenna for picking up local digital and analog broadcasting; you can use it with digital cable/satellite boxes for HD content, too--though you'll take a quality hit, since it will hook up to your set-top box via an analog, not digital, connection. After installing the drivers, you can work within Windows Media Center or the Netgear Digital Entertainer to set up the channels, program guide, and recording options for the tuner.
Finally, note that you will need plenty of disk space for high-definition recording: Best-quality HD MPEG-2 video runs about 10GB per hour. And HD video streaming may require speeds of up to 25 megabits per second, so make sure you have a fast connection such as wired ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, or HomePlug AV powerline networking.