Video Rebel, Part 4: How to turn an old PC into a home theater monster

We’ve abandoned cable TV, dumped Netflix and its associated "discs," and turned to other sources for our entertainment. Now in our fourth episode of Video Rebel, I’ll show you the easiest way to enjoy a huge variety of video from right there in your living room. And yes, it involves your PC.

Now don't be scared. I'm sure you're already downloading a variety of free HD video. But do you really want to watch all that stuff at your desk?

Heck, no! Sure, you could just hook up a Media Extender to access your PC content from your home theater, which I’ll cover in a future episode, but this week I’m bringing the whole computer into the living room. An Internet-connected PC gives you the best and easiest way to view online video from your easy chair. Do you have an older, reasonably modern PC lying around the house gathering dust? Click Continue to see how to turn it into a gateway from your TV to the Web.

Playback Muscle
Of course, anyone can buy an overpriced home theater PC, but let's save you some money. A second-tier PC can be a candidate for home theater duties, but it needs a decent amount of processing power. Most PCs can play back garden-variety video, but what about the high-res stuff? I thought I’d need tremendous graphics power to play HD video, but processor speed was much more important.

The top-quality HD is 1080p video, which you’ll need at least a 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor to watch. Don't worry too much about 1080p, though — 1080p files aren't that common on the Internet … yet. If you’re playing 720p files, less processor power will suffice. Your results may vary, so test your PC's video playback prowess before committing it to home theater duty.

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Graphics Card: Cheap but Powerful
While you’ll need the fastest processors for high-res playback, displaying the crispiest vids is relatively easy for today’s graphics cards. However, there are graphics cards that are better suited for a home theater because they're quieter and have HDMI outputs, which let you connect easily to a home theater system. While HDMI-equipped cards are still rare, a good choice I’ve tested here is the Visiontek Radeon HD3450 (pictured above), a 512MB $60 graphics card with HDMI that can handle 1080p with ease. It’s quiet, fast and an excellent value.

Keep That PC Quiet
The noise level of your PC is another factor. There are entire websites devoted to building the quietest PC possible, so I’ll just point you toward one of the best: Silent PC Review.

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Remote Control?
You’ll also need to wirelessly control that PC from the couch, and for that, Bluetooth or wireless USB are crucial. I’m controlling my HTPC with a Microsoft Optical Desktop Elite Bluetooth keyboard, and the excellent (once you get used to it) Logitech MX Air wireless USB mouse (pictured above).

Lastly, I wired the home theater here with Cat5e network cables, running Ethernet to the PC and other home theater sources, but you could use Wi-Fi if wiring is out of the question. Worst case, you could use a USB drive to store your movies and then bring that drive to your home theater when you’re ready to watch.

That's Not All
Stay tuned to the next Video Rebel, where I’ll show you some set-top boxes that can serve as a go-between, bringing your PC into your home theater over your home network without moving a thing.

Video Rebel, Part 1: Cable TV, you’re fired! Netflix, you too
Video Rebel, Part 2: Free HD download guide
Video Rebel, Part 3: Kill your cable, get HD for free over the air
Video Rebel, Part 4: How to turn an old PC into a home theater monster
Video Rebel, Part 5: Download mania! Netflix, Apple TV, Xbox, Amazon Unbox and Vudu compared
Video Rebel, Part 6: BitTorrent and the dark side of downloading