With a little effort you can turn a humble PC into the one entertainment box to rule them all.
Computers don’t have to be boring beige boxes which stay hidden away in the study. These days you’ll find a range of sleek home theatre PC cases, designed to look at home alongside your television and run whisper quiet.
If you’re not looking to build a new computer from scratch, you can give your existing PC a lounge room-friendly makeover. If your primary concern is noise, swap out noisy case fans for quiet alternatives from the likes of Antec, Zalman and Acousti.
Remember, fans are for cooling and heat is the mortal enemy of PC stability. Silent fans tend to be larger so they can spin slower but still move a large volume of air. Look for variable speed control and take extra care if you’re putting your computer inside an AV cabinet with limited airflow.
Silencing your computer and managing heat is a matter of trial and error, particularly if you’re using a cramped desktop case rather than a roomy tower case. With your case fans muted you might find that the fan on your CPU, power supply or graphics card is now the loudest component. Switching to a quiet or fanless heatsink for your CPU is the next most economical move, after which you might consider a silent power supply.
Keeping the heat down lets the remaining fans in your PC run slower and thus quieter. Tying down loose cables helps improve airflow, as does removing the covers over unused PCI slots. Vibration is another source of noise, so use rubber washers to install the fans, hard drive and optical drive.
Next consider how you’ll connect to your television. Many new processors feature an integrated graphics chip with built in MPEG2/4 hardware decoding, which is important for smooth playback. If you’re looking at Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips, opt for HD 3000 graphics (rather than HD 2000) and a motherboard with an HDMI output.
If you need to add a graphics card for the hardware decoding, AV outputs and extra grunt, you don’t need as much grunt as a high-end gaming machine. Opt for mid-range graphics card with a heat sink rather than a fan, but keep in mind the heat sink might cover the adjacent PCIe slot. Many graphics cards come with AV adaptors for connecting to component, composite and s-video inputs on your television.
If you want to watch and record free-to-air television you’ll need a digital TV tuner. Opt for dual high-def tuners so you can record two shows at once and watch all the new channels (you can downscale them to standard-def if you don’t own a high-def television). Assuming you have a spare motherboard slot, internal TV tuners generally feature stronger tuners than USB sticks. Try to get the tuner as far away from your other components as possible, to avoid interference and heat issues which can cause reception problems.
With the hardware in place, next time we’ll look at configuring the software on your media centre PC.