The HTPC Primer
Welcome to the world of technological convergence. While they were once restricted to the desktop, PCs have all the power and functionality necessary to make them a vital part of the home theater experience. They can play DVDs and Blu-rays, run video games, load streaming audio and video from the Internet, and store a tremendous amount of media.
Like their name so explicitly summarizes, home theater PCs are PCs used with a home theater system. A few years ago, they were specialized systems with very particular hardware and software configurations that made them usable with a big screen and beefy sound system. They tended to be quite expensive compared to standard desktop PCs.
The past few years have seen some great advances in computers, and thanks to a combination of greatly expanded storage and processing power, enhanced networking functions, and the spread of universal A/V connections like HDMI, you can get an off-the-shelf "desktop" computer that can serve all of your movie and music-slinging home theater needs. Nowadays you can pick up a solid system with plenty of hard drive space and a video card with HDMI (or DVI/miniDVI) for under a thousand dollars.
Of course, since so many systems have these features now, it can be a daunting task to pick out the right computer to add to your A/V rig. While home theater PCs were once limited to a handful of models scattered across a handful of brands, these days you can walk into any Best Buy or Fry's and be greeted with dozens of choices of all sizes, shapes, and prices. Fortunately, we're here to help.
This is the real meat of it all. Once you've figured out exactly what computer you're using and what codecs you're sticking to, you can nail down what sort of interface to use.
On Windows systems, Windows Media Player is the most direct approach to storing your media. It catalogues and organizes your collection of movies and music, and handles playback of both stored media and DVDs. While it can't support FLAC or Apple's lossless formats out of the box, it can handle all MP3s, Windows Media Audio (WMA) lossless, and waveform (.wav) files. Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions also come with a feature called the Windows Media Center (MCE). It's essentially a home theater-friendly front-end to Windows Media Player and any media you keep on it. Instead of the cumbersome windowed look, MCE fills the screen with a simple, streamlined interface that can be navigated with a remote control. If you're using a media extender instead of a direct connection to the PC, the interface is effectively identical to MCE.
Another option is to use iTunes as the library system. iTunes can't handle FLAC either, but it supports all MP3s, plus WAV, AAC, AIFF, and Apple's lossless format (ALC). iTunes works with PCs, so you can use it as your preferred software and interface..
If you so desire, you can simply suspend the entire home theater interface and use a streaming music system to directly pipe your tunes into your speakers with nary a wire running to a screen. The Sonos Multi-Room Music System and Linksys Director / Wireless-N Music Player access your computer's music library either through Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, and they use their own interface to play it back. Both systems offer wireless remotes with color LCDs to display cover art and make library navigation easy, and they even include music receiver models with built-in 50 to 55-watt amplifiers, so you can hook up and power your own speakers without a middleman device.