How To Build a Budget Media Center PC and HD-DVR

Introduction By Matt Whitlock

Not long ago I handed over an obscene amount of money every month to my local cable provider. For many years, their digital TV service and dual-tuner HD-DVR let me reliably watch and record analog and HD programs. When I started my service, the fee was actually "somewhat" reasonable at $41.99 per month for TV service and $8 per month for the HD-DVR. However, like most who have subscribed to cable services at one point or another know, cable providers are notorious for jacking up prices and implementing ridiculous fees year over year.

By the time the cable company and I finally parted ways, that very same services I'd used for at least 5 years prior was costing me $78 per month, plus $15 per month for the DVR (which hadn't changed or improved at all), plus some BS "HD Access" fee that was hitting me for another ten bucks or so, and a few other small but pointless surcharges.

Suffice it to say, I was fed up. Paying more per month than TiVo charges for their DVR service without getting to use a DVR as nice as TiVo's seemed, well, ludicrous. Taking matters into my own hands, I cut the cord and built my own HD-DVR using a PC and one of Windows' most underappreciated features - Windows Media Center. For a relatively low cost, it's possible to build an ultra-powerful HD-DVR and media playback device with no monthly fees and a feature set that puts every other DVR to shame. Heck, it may even be something Dad wants for Father's Day.

The Pros and Cons of Windows Media Center

A Media Center PC is a home theater PC (aka HTPC) centered around Windows Media Center for TV recording and most media playback. Before you set out to eschew your Cable Co's set-top for a Media Center PC, it's good to know the ups and downs of Media Center PCs.

Pros:

  • No monthly fees - That $15+ per month that was going to the cable company pretty much covers a subscription to Netflix and Hulu Plus.
  • Excellent support for terrestrial broadcast and Cable
  • Relatively low hardware cost for a basic setup - and normally the savings per month will pay for itself over time.
  • No online content restrictions
  • Can be used for many purposes other than TV or video, like browsing photos, gaming, web-surfing, etc.

Cons:

  • PCs can be quirky from time to time
  • Not good for those with satellite services
  • Windows Media Center doesn't support popular video formats and containers (without effort, but there are many free software solutions available)
  • Control

Is a Media Center PC good for me?

A Media Center PC is most ideal for cord-cutters looking to completely ditch pay-tv services entirely in favor of broadcast (network) programming and internet streaming. In fact, Media Center PCs have a distinct advantage for those interested in streaming video from the web. Many dedicated devices, like Google TV for example, are blocked from or lack access to many online sources like the CBS and NBC websites, free content on Hulu, and a variety of other commercial sites. PCs aren't restricted from this content, and because a Media Center PC is simply a PC, it is also unrestricted.

Those who can't live without pay TV services can still build a Media Center PC for digital cable services thanks to CableCARD. The tuners are more expensive and the setup is more complicated, but I suppose that's what it takes to be swimming in channels. Anyone who's looking to satellite for their TV services won't be particularly pleased with a PC-DVR solution right now.

Read "Why You Want a Home Theater PC in the Living Room" for much more about the myths and advantages of HTPCs.

About the Author

Matt Whitlock is online director and technical editor for ChannelProSMB.com.