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. It doesn’t take that much firepower under the hood for a PC to do great work streaming Netflix, HBO, Sling TV, and more. And media center PCs 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 media center PC. Here’s everything you need to know about how to convert a PC to a media center PC.
From PC to TV: A Media Center Guide
Check those specs
If your PC isn’t a truly 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, the Roku Ultra has a 1.2 GHz quad-core processor and 1 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. It takes a decent processor or graphics card to handle the 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 media center PC 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.
All of this assumes that you’re using an existing PC in this project. If you’re building your own, of course, the sky is 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 — 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 media center PC 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 may 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 plugins to access streaming services like Netflix.
Windows: If your PC is running Windows, you could also rely heavily on apps you can 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.
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 media center PC to the next level by upgrading your old PC or even building an entirely new one.
If you’re out to make the ultimate media center PC, it makes sense to put the emphasis on your graphics card and your processor. Your sound card, too, is a good place for an upgrade. And make sure that you have the ports you need to get all of that high-quality audio/visual goodness out of your PC and to your sound system and TV, too, of course.
If you’re using a wired connection, a good Wi-Fi card is a must for your media center PC. And while we’re on the subject, upgrading your router is never a bad idea when you’re a cord cutter.
Now that you have a great media center platform for your new media center PC, 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 version 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 whole lot less silly on your coffee table.
Adding live TV
Media center PCs are great for local media files, and they’re great for streaming content over the internet. It turns out that they’re also great 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 media center PC 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 media center PC. 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 media center PC experience. One of the joys of creating your own media center and streaming device is that you’ll be able to tweak things.
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.
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