- The HTPC is one thing, but the other most important factor is a wireless internet connection that’s optimal for your streaming habits.
- Spend extra time looking into your HTPC specs and the upgrades you’ll need.
- You can watch free over-the-air TV with a PC TV tuner instead of sticking an antenna on your TV.
Here at CordCutting.com, we're big fans of anything that lets us watch our favorite movies, TV shows, and more without cable. That includes plenty of consumer-facing streaming boxes and platforms like Roku and Fire TV; but it also includes more creative DIY solutions — which is why we're here to show you how to convert your PC to a media center.
If you have an old computer (or a new one, for that matter), then you have the makings of a media center PC — also known as a home theater personal computer (HTPC). It doesn't take that much firepower under the hood for a PC to do great work streaming Netflix, Max, Sling TV, and more. And HTPCs are also perfect for playing your local music and video files.
Of course, there are a few tweaks you'll want to make to your PC before it's ready to serve as your HTPC. Here's everything you need to know about how to make a media center PC out of your current PC.
From PC to TV: A Media Center Guide
Let’s tackle your big HTPC project step by step!
Check Those Specs
If your PC isn't truly a stone-age machine, it's probably more than up to the task of serving as your media center. Still, it pays to boot the thing up and take a look at its specs.
As a frame of reference, a 4K Roku TV has a 1.2 GHz quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM. Your old laptop or desktop can probably top that easily, though it may lag behind top-flight streaming boxes in other areas, particularly in terms of 4K-readiness. Intel’s integrated graphics have come a long way in recent years, but it still takes a decent processor or graphics card to handle 4K Ultra HD streaming. If you're okay with settling for 1080p, you'll have even less to worry about in terms of specs.
Finally, make sure that your HTPC can maintain a speedy internet connection. A wired connection is ideal, but if your chosen machine has a good Wi-Fi antenna, then wireless internet might be a solid option, too. If your home isn’t wired for Ethernet and your computer is too far from your router, a powerline adapter can be a great alternative to a wired connection. They use your home’s electrical wiring to give you internet speeds nearly as fast as those of a wired connection.
All of this assumes that you're using an existing PC for this project. If you're building your own, of course, the sky's the limit! Check out our section below on upgrades for tips on what to emphasize.
You may also want to consider making your PC gaming-ready. With the right setup, you could be playing your favorite PC games (and even streaming them on Twitch TV!) right from your couch. That's a bit outside the scope of this article, but there are plenty of great places to turn for gaming PC-building advice online.
Choose Your Streaming and Media Platform(s)
If you have an internet connection, you could just connect your PC to your computer, grab a wireless keyboard and mouse, and start using your TV as a big ol' computer monitor. But to get a really nice HTPC experience, you may want to take a bit more time to put together a media center experience.
First, you'll want to choose a platform for handling your media and streaming options. Here are some options to consider:
- Kodi: Kodi, formerly known as XBMC, might be the single best choice for folks with a lot of local content. If you have lots of video files on your computer, Kodi is a great way to organize them and make it easy to pick something great to watch. Thanks to add-ons, Kodi can also serve as a portal to your various streaming services.
- Plex: Plex is a media center application like Kodi. But it is also a media server application, which means that it can make your local files available on other devices. You can use Plex's apps to play your local files on mobile devices, streaming boxes, and more. Plus, you can use Plex's channels (their term for apps) and plug-ins to access streaming services like Netflix.
- Windows: Windows Media Center may have been discontinued, but if your PC is running Windows, you can still rely heavily on apps you get from the Windows store. Windows has apps for popular streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and more, so you won't have to run all of those things in browser tabs. Tweaking your user settings in Windows can also give you a more app-focused desktop view that might be more suitable for a media center project.
Upgrading Your Media Center PC
There are two reasons to use a PC as a media center — the one we've been emphasizing so far is the fact that it's simple and affordable to just use an old PC as a media center. But it's also possible to take your HTPC to the next level by upgrading your old PC or even building an entirely new one.
If you're out to make the ultimate HTPC, it makes sense to put the emphasis on your graphics card and your processor. If you are going to be gaming or streaming 4K video, a dedicated graphics card is practically a must. As we mentioned earlier, you may be okay with a recent generation of integrated graphics instead of a dedicated card for lower-quality (1080p) streaming.
Your sound card, too, is a good place for an upgrade. It is very likely that your computer is using the integrated sound system on your motherboard, which is fine for most low-to-medium quality PC speakers. However, a dedicated sound card can provide a noticeable improvement if you are going to be using a surround-sound or high-quality audio system.
When picking sound and video cards, keep in mind the audio/visual ports you’ll be using to connect your HTPC to your sound system and TV. Having the highest-quality video outputs is great, but only if the other end of the cord has somewhere to connect.
Memory (RAM) is one of the cheapest and most upgradable parts of your PC, and it can do wonders for your HTPC. You can get by with 2-4 GB of RAM, but many computers are upgradable to 16 GB or more. This is definitely an upgrade worth considering, especially if you plan on using the PC for more than the occasional Netflix binge.
Storage may not be important if you are primarily using streaming providers, but if you plan on playing local music or video files, this is another great area to look into. Hard disk drives (HDDs) are the cheapest option, but they are also the slowest. Upgrading to a solid-state drive (SSD) can offer a huge boost in speed, especially during system startup. They are also much quieter than HDDs.
If you have a lot of files, you should consider getting a network attached storage (NAS) server which allows you to store files remotely and access them from multiple systems (PC, mobile phone, iPad, etc.). NAS servers often use redundant storage, helping you to avoid losing your precious data. NAS servers also won’t add to the noise of your PC because, well, they aren’t in your PC.
Power supply units (PSUs) and cooling systems (fans, liquid cooling) are often afterthoughts in the upgrade process. There are a few reasons you should pay more attention to these upgrades. First, overheating is a good way to ruin your expensive, new components. Second, better cooling and a more efficient PSU will actually improve your performance by keeping your system running in its optimal temperature range. Third, these are the components that have the biggest impact on your PC’s noise level, and nothing ruins an immersive media center experience like a PC doing its best jet-engine impersonation.
If you're not using a wired connection or a powerline adapter, a good Wi-Fi card is a must for your HTPC. And while we're on the subject, upgrading your router is never a bad idea when you're a cord-cutter.
How to Control Your Media Center PC
Now that you have a great media center platform for your new HTPC, you need to decide how you're going to control it.
You could, of course, just use a keyboard and a mouse. But even wireless versions of those standard computer controllers might be a bit cumbersome on movie night, and it's easy to see how they might not be the most attractive things to have lying around on your coffee table.
So consider investing in a remote control of some kind for your computer. You'll find plenty of options for sale online. You could also opt to use an app on your tablet or mobile device: there are several that work well with Kodi, and other options exist for other media center platforms. (You may want to grab a physical controller, too, for guests and for moments when you don't have your phone or tablet on you.)
You don't necessarily have to opt for a controller that mimics the style of regular old TV remotes. It's worth considering a mini-keyboard and trackpad instead. You can get an all-in-one device of this sort in a size that's no bigger than a typical remote. It will give you all of the control that you'd get from a full-sized keyboard and mouse, but it will look a lot less sillier on your coffee table.
Adding Live TV
HTPCs are great for local media files and for streaming content over the internet. On top of all that, it turns out that they're also fantastic for watching live TV!
You can watch live TV using a skinny bundle service and your internet connection, of course, but a media center PC is also capable of showing you free over-the-air TV. Instead of connecting your over-the-air antenna directly into your television set, you should consider connecting it to your HTPC via a PC TV tuner.
A PC TV tuner is exactly what it sounds like: It gives your computer the ability to decode over-the-air TV signals. And once those signals are being interpreted by your computer, you can use programs on your PC to do more with your live OTA TV.
For instance, you can time-shift OTA TV using some popular media center and server programs. Plex will let you time-shift your OTA TV and stream it on other devices via your Plex server and Plex apps. You can even stream live OTA!
Fine-tuning Your Media Center PC Experience
This post covers the basics of converting a PC to a HTPC. It isn't tough: Simply connecting your computer to your TV using an HDMI cable gets you most of the way there, and using a media center or media server app and a remote or mini-keyboard will make everything feel more media-center-like.
But there's still plenty more that you can do to fine-tune your HTPC experience. One of the joys of creating your own media center and streaming device is that you'll be able to tweak things. This might also be a good time to consider increasing the security and privacy of your PC with a VPN app.
Check out more tips right here at Cordcutting.com! Customize your setup by adding Plex channels or Kodi add-ons, learn more about using OTA TV and your computer together, get a better Wi-Fi connection, and more by reading our coverage.