by Charles Masters

Microsoft has minimum requirements for the specs on a PC running Media Center Edition 2005, but the minimum would make for a pretty weak machine. That said, not all components need to be top-of-the-line to turn a PC into a digital-media powerhouse. Unless you’re into processor- and video-intensive tasks such as gaming or video editing, don’t pay extra for stuff you won’t use. Direct your dough instead at things like storage and RAM, where more is always better.

TV Tuners If you see a surprisingly low advertised price for a Media Center PC, make sure it includes a TV tuner and remote control. In the past, Microsoft required both for a certified Media Center system, but with this latest version, they’re officially optional. The system software supports up to three TV tuners, two standard-definition and one high-def (over-the-air HD only), although single- and dual-tuner setups are more common (each additional tuner allows you to record another program simultaneously). The tuner card’s job is to take the incoming signal and encode it into MPEG-2 video for display and storage. Less-expensive cards pawn that work off on the CPU (a process called software encoding), leading to choppy, low-quality video; a card that handles it with a dedicated onboard processor (called hardware encoding) will give you better overall system performance.

Video Card Whereas the tuner captures the signal, the video card displays it. But the resolution and color-depth requirements for doing so aren’t very demanding–the standard for American broadcast resolution was set back
in 1941. Pretty much any video card with at least 128 megabytes of onboard memory will suffice. If you’re a cinephile or gamer who demands ultimate video quality with
minimal noise and pixelation, ATI’s Theater 550 Pro and several of Nvidia’s GeFORCE cards offer chips specially designed for the best TV and DVD reproduction.

Audio Card If you plan to connect your Media Center PC to a surround-sound receiver, you’ll want an audio card with at least 5.1-channel support and a digital-audio port. Many lower-cost systems skip the sound card, relying instead on audio circuitry built into the motherboard. The resulting quality is fine for many listeners, but audiophiles should look for something like the Audigy series from Creative, which supports 24-bit audio and up to eight surround-sound channels.

Processor The official processor requirement for the vast majority of Media Center PCs with hardware-encoding TV tuner cards is a measly
1.6 gigahertz, but the sweet spot for performance and price is closer to the 2.8-gigahertz Pentium 4. If you plan to use the system for gaming or video editing, go with something faster–say, a 3.4-gigahertz P4 or AMD Athlon 64 3400+.

RAM The minimum RAM required for a Media Center PC is 256 megabytes, but at today’s prices, it definitely pays to buy a system with more, or save a few bucks by upgrading one yourself. Going to 512 megabytes will produce
a noticeable improvement, but a gigabyte is best, especially if you’re planning to run
the Media Center in a window while using the computer for other tasks.

Hard Drive The only hard-drive feature really worth paying extra for is
RAID 1, which constantly maintains a backup copy of all your files. Beyond that, just buy as much hard-drive space as you can afford. Each hour of recorded video eats up about three gigabytes, on top of whatever the standard system files and applications use, plus all of your digital music and photo files. Desktop-computer buyers can upgrade from an 80-gigabyte drive to a 160-gigabyte one for less than $50. Laptop owners can pick up a 160-gigabyte external drive for around $200.

Optical Drive Nearly all Media Center PCs (and all of those shown on
the following pages) have drives that read and write both CDs and DVDs.
For about $30 more, consider upgrading to a dual-layer DVD burner. Blank dual-layer DVD discs are becoming less expensive and more common, and the option to store twice the video, or the same amount at twice the quality, will be well worth having.