This guide will take you through the various available options for a home media center (also known as Home Theatre Personal Computers or HTPCs). More and more people are changing to the cord cutting lifestyle, eschewing traditional television networks for streaming services and alternative methods of viewing live television.
From simple, pre-made solutions through to home built dedicated media machines and the software required for them, this guide should help you replace your out of date set top boxes, and add functionality to your television — smart or otherwise!
Before we get started, what exactly is a media center?
Why Have a Home Media Center?
A good home media center is an extension of the television, but provides much greater functionality. They can:
- Allow you to continue watching live television.
- Provide access to various streaming services such as Netflix, or Amazon Prime Video.
- Allow playback from external hard drives or networked computers.
- In some cases, allow PC games to be played from the couch!
- Allow access to social media such as Instagram and Facebook.
- Allow playback of DVDs, CDs and Blu-ray disks.
Exactly how much of the above functionality you end up with depends on how much you are willing to spend, and what level of complexity in the setup you are willing to deal with. Whatever your budget or tolerance for tinkering with things, there are options.
What You Need
Before going into detail over the options, it is worth considering what you actually need in a media center. Do you mostly just want to watch Netflix, TV and the occasional DVD? Have you bought into the Ultra HD Blu-ray hype? Are you looking for the latest in 4K HDR for the crispest picture possible?
Do you already use Apple products and want to keep your tech in one wheelhouse? Are you itching to build something totally custom from scratch? The answer to each one of these questions can help you decide between one of these options:
- Smart TV: Televisions have got a lot smarter since the advent of media serving machines, and many provide the basics of an HTPC all in one box. If you are simply looking for a good picture and access to on demand services like Netflix then this is the option for you.
- Wireless Media Device: These come in many forms, but the most commonplace are the Roku box/dongle, the Amazon Fire TV stick, and the Chromecast. All of these options work with all the major streaming services, and also with the Plex media server. In almost all cases, any of these will suit your needs for less money than a dedicated media center. As most of these devices now support 4K, it’s worth reading up on these services before committing to building a HTPC to see if you can save yourself some money!
- Apple TV: Apple TV is a separate box which attaches to your already purchased television via HDMI, and connects to Apple streaming services via your home network. There are alternatives to the Apple TV such as the Amazon Fire TV stick which provide a similar service. If you are an Apple lover through and through, you’d be hard pushed to find a better solution than the Apple TV for your needs.
- Media Center Extender: While these devices are much less common these days, they bridge the gap between your PC and your already existing television. This allows playback of media from your computer such as downloaded videos and music. While the standalone solutions are all but gone, the Xbox One and PS4 can provide the same service.
- Build a Custom HTPC: This option is the most flexible, and the most complex. By building a custom PC for your media needs you can have it set up exactly as you like, and even add your game library to your living room. It is the most flexible way to go in terms of budget, with modern lower range PCs being more than capable of HD playback. The more you are willing to spend, the more the functionality expands, with the option of integrating 4K HDR to your setup. There are also many options in terms of onboard software to give you a truly custom experience.
- Repurpose an old computer: Finally, reusing an old computer can be the perfect way to retire an old work horse and put it to good use. With a few modifications most older computers will be able to provide many of the features of a modern media center, and unless you have a huge 4K ready television to plug it into, the quality shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Of course, all of this depends on the specs of your old machine.
Apple TV fully integrates with all other Apple products — although it will also play nice with PCs to share media through iTunes. Users of HomeKit can control their smart home using the Apple TV box too, and with the new edition of the Apple TV 4k, it’s able to deliver the highest quality media with the minimum fuss.
The benefit of this setup for Apple users is obvious; all of your iTunes purchases are available from the cloud, with local storage available too in case of internet outages. All of your Apple devices are compatible also, making it simple to pass media between your television, your iPhone and iPad.
With the addition of Channels, it is possible to watch live television using a pay as you go on demand approach. This bridges the gap between a purely on demand service and live television that many people find on demand services lacking.
One place Apple TV is lacking is any way to play DVDs or Blu-ray disks. As most media is now on demand or purchased digitally this may not be a problem for you, but if you already have a large collection of physical media this might not be the answer for you.
Plex users are also able to access their library using the Plex app available from the App Store, although Plex does not yet support full 4K HDR functionality. Apple have also pushed into the realm of gaming recently with many games available to play on the device including Minecraft — though these games are App store exclusives or updates of games available for Apple handheld devices.
If you’re already familiar with Kodi, you’ll be pleased to hear that it is possible to use it with the Apple TV as well. We’ll be going over both Kodi and Plex later in this guide.
For films, television and shows on demand, the Apple TV covers all bases, especially if you are already an Apple lover. There are large range of devices which function in a similar way these days, from the Amazon Fire TV stick, to the hugely popular Chromecast, and the Nvidia Shield. If you come from a console gaming background however, there is an alternative!
Xbox One X/PS4 Pro
Are you a console gamer? Then you probably already have a fully functional media device! Using a games console as a media center is a concept that has been around for a long time. Recently both the Xbox One X and the PS4 Pro have expanded this concept to include almost every streaming service.
If you primarily want to watch streaming services, or watch DVD and Blu-ray content, then it is hard to beat the Xbox One X, with its support for full HDR at 4K. The PS4 Pro provides almost the same service, however it is lacking a HD Blu-ray capable drive, leaving it slightly behind its Microsoft counterpart.
Also, if you have a large collection of films and music on your computer you can access them from either console. We have discussed the merits of both platforms in detail previously, and have a simple to follow guide for connecting your Xbox to your computer.
At present, the Nintendo Switch has no support for streaming video services. Nintendo do plan on incorporating the service in the future though. With the flow between Switch tablet and television, it could bring a very unique experience to Nintendo users, but for now the Switch is purely a gaming device!
Build Your Own
The real holy grail of media systems is to build your own from scratch. This gives you full control over the quality and the way the media is served. It also allows you to future proof your setup to an extent, saving costly upgrades whenever the technology leaps forward.
A good media center replaces your set top box, cable box, DVD/Blu-ray player, and in some cases even your television, with some people electing to use a 4K capable computer monitor in the place of a traditional television.
Exactly how much to spend on a rig depends entirely on what you wish to use it for, and a well built computer can always be upgraded at a later date.
If you are mostly interested in watching television shows and films then there are budget builds which will more than suffice, whereas if you are looking for an all in one gaming and video experience, it’s worth looking into higher end components capable of handling the demand of modern day games.
In this guide, we will price out a budget build, aimed at watching shows and movies, which is both compact and quiet.
We’ll be using a microATX case for this build — while there are smaller cases available, this case runs fairly quiet and allows space for upgrades in the future. It also lacks some of the more flamboyant LED effects and moulded plastic of its gaming counterparts, so should fit nicely into any living room! The Silverstone Sugo Series SG09B is widely regarded to be a great case for the price.
Processor: AMD Ryzen 3 1200
For our processor we’ll use the AMD Ryzen 3 1200. Since its release, these processors have been widely regarded as amazing value, and are routinely cited as being incredibly high performance for their place in the market. For this type of build the stock Wraith Stealth cooler is quiet, keeps our processor cool, and is included with the processor.
Motherboard: ASRock AB350M Pro4 AM4
This motherboard plays nicely with our chosen processor, and contains all of the functionality needed for a machine of this kind. The motherboard outputs 4K at 24Hz, though this can be extended by the addition of a graphics card. While this board isn’t up there with the high end products you’ll see on purely gaming rigs, it’s hard to beat the quality it offers at this price.
One thing that it is never worth skimping on is RAM. These matched 8GB sticks offer excellent performance, and should see your system through to the future without any need for change. Get good RAM now, avoid headaches later!
Power supplies are another part which is prone to failure, so it is important to pick the right one and get something trusted from the get go. Corsair are a highly regarded brand for PSUs, and this supply for microATX systems is well reviewed from novice and professional reviewers alike.
Hard Drive: Seagate ST3000DM003 3TB
For a HTPC, storage is important. You want somewhere you can store all of your films, serials, music, and other media, without constantly worrying about running out of space. To begin with, a single 3TB drive should suffice, and you can always buy a secondary drive in time if you fill this one up completely.
With the above parts you should have a fully functional media machine! There are a few optional components to consider however, which can upgrade your experience depending on what your requirements are.
Solid State Drives (SSDs) are widespread in computing now, and it’s easy to see why. An SSD speeds up your computer so much that it can breathe life into old machines. While there are some considerations to take in when upgrading, as a general rule any SSD is going to give greater performance over a standard HDD. The real trick when it comes to storage, is to keep your operating system on an SSD, while storing your files on a much larger HDD.
Blu-ray Drive: Pioneer 4K UHD Blu-ray Burner
If Blu-ray is your thing, make sure to get yourself a fully up to date drive. This drive is capable of reading and writing full HD Blu-ray, and should keep your DVD/Blu-ray collection alive for the foreseeable future!
Graphics Card: GIGABYTE GeForce GTX 1070 Ti
A graphics card (GPU) can add a huge amount to your system, but they always come at a price. The GTX 1070 Ti is a well known and trusted card for gamers and cryptocurrency miners alike. This card gives full 4K HDR output, and will allow your system to play most games, but at its current price it shoots the budget of this build up quite significantly. Luckily, a card can always be added to your system at a later date.
While this system will take care of the needs of most people, building computers is always fraught with differences in opinion, and widely different results at different price points. If at any point you are not sure about how much to spend, or what to get, spend some time reading reviews of any part you wish to get and looking into alternatives. Special offers on parts or lucking out and finding a fairly new part second hand can save a decent amount of money!
Media Center Software
Now that you have your hardware setup, you need a software solution to give you access to your streaming services and locally stored files. Even an older computer and laptop can have a new lease of life as a media server, and while you may not be able to enjoy full 4k quality with it, the right software can make that dusty old computer useful again!
Windows used to have its own software for this called the Windows Media Center, but the service was discontinued and is not compatible with Windows 10. Today, Kodi and Plex are widely regarded as the best pieces of software for HTPCs, and many systems use a combination of the two.
The software is similar in functionality, with the big difference being Kodi is designed to store and present media on the same device, whereas plex is designed to be a cloud service, streaming video from a server to a device.
Kodi started life as the Xbox Media Center in 2002, but over the years has been developed as an open source media solution which will run on almost any platform. For the purposes of this guide we will assume your HTPC will be running Windows 10, though it is widely used on Mac and Linux systems, and can even run on a Raspberry Pi!
Kodi will play almost any file you throw at it, and is a great way to keep your media library organised on one device. Kodi can be customised with different skins and backgrounds to suit almost anyone’s sense of aesthetics.
Different profiles are also available meaning that your shows can be kept separate from other people you share the television with. Kodi can be controlled remotely using Kore, the official app for Kodi. Since this remote works over your home network, any smartphone or tablet can now be used as a remote.
Kodi also has a collection of user created add-ons giving access to a huge amount on online content. Users are advised to use a VPN when accessing these services, and people have received copyright notices in the past for illegally streaming in their region.
Make sure you understand what is legal and what isn’t before making a start here! Unfortunately, even with legitimate Netflix or Amazon Prime accounts, Kodi no longer supports these streaming services, though they are available through a web browser or Windows app.
Kodi is the undisputed king of single point media centers. Given that it is free and open source, and with the level of customisation available, it’s no surprise that Kodi is the most popular front end software for custom media centers.
Plex is similar to Kodi in many ways, though there are several important distinctions. While Kodi is an enclosed system designed to serve media on one device, Plex operates like a media server which transcodes video before delivering it to one or more devices.
Another important distinction to make with Plex is its price. Plex has a free option which functions in a similar way to Kodi, though many Plex apps require a Plex subscription to use. These apps include multiple device functionality, and the ability to watch and record live television broadcasts. Plex subscriptions are cheap, with monthly and yearly subscriptions costing only $4.99 and $39.99 respectively.
Unfortunately, Plex also suffers from a lack of Netflix. Many users report that the original Netflix for Plex app stopped working in 2015, and it doesn’t look like any solution is near due to Netflix changing the way their service is distributed.
With Plex’s intuitive design allowing anyone to create their own cloud media system, and Kodi’s great design and user experience, it’s no surprise they are frequently used together. Luckily, both services make it easy to combine the two, and the Plex for Kodi addon makes it easy to access your Plex server from within the Kodi app.
Building a custom media center on a budget is a great way to get away from the standard television networks. Whether your media is stored digitally or in the cloud, a single point of access gives you a great sense of control over your own media.
While there are plenty of other options for streaming media to your television, a PC in the living room is the ultimate in geeky entertainment systems. There are benefits to replacing your old TV set top box with a computer that reach beyond simply enjoying your favourite shows. A HTPC can also bring all of the functionality of a computer to your living room.
Do you use a HTPC? What functionality have you added to it to give it the edge over other home media systems? Let us know about your builds and plans in the comment section below!