Sunday, January 2, 2011

Building A Computer-Based Multimedia Center for Cheap

You can build an inexpensive computer-based media center using a cheap flat-screen Television, and old computer and a wireless mouse and keyboard.  It is a lot of fun for entertaining and your house guests.

We recently built our second computer-based multimedia center for our Georgia house.  With this system we can download unlimited movies every month from NetFlix for about $7.  Not $7 apiece - seven bucks for the whole month.  Unlimited movies.

Read that last paragraph again.  Still think paying $100 a month for cable is a good deal?  Or paying $9.99 apiece for video-on-demand is a good deal?  Seven bucks a month - you can't beat that!

Constructing the system wasn't hard.  We used an old, obsolete computer (Dell Pentium) along with the guts from another one that had died.  We put the hard drive and memory from both into one case and added a DVD player.  Voila - media machine!  We uploaded all our CDs onto the hard drive (over 10,000 songs, or over 30 days continuous playback), so we can play music any time.

Netflix can download movies to any Netflix-compatible device - a DVR, home theater system, some HDTV's, etc.  We decided to use an old PC to start with, and it has worked well.  The extra memory and hard drive space no doubt help.  So we can access unlimited movies through Netflix for a monthly fee as low as $7 - or get DVDs mailed as well (for those DVDs not available for on-demand download).

If you like old movies, this is a lot of fun, particularly since TCM stopped showing old movies!

We found a Sansui 42" LCD TV at BJ's wholesale for $449 on sale.  It has a standard VGA input (this is key, if you want to hook it to your computer as a monitor) that runs at 800 x 600 resolution, which sounds pretty crappy, but looks better than you'd think.

A Logitech wireless mouse and keyboard complete the package - and they work well without any fuss - true " plug and play" .

We had to buy some cables for it, but that was about another $50.  A wireless keyboard and mouse (Logitech) from Staples was another $50 as well.  These can be placed on a coffee table or the keyboard can be used in your lap.

So what do you do with this once it is hooked up?  Just about anything you can do on Cable, except channel-surf.  Rather than looking to "see what's on" you decide what you want on.  Oh, brave new world!

So far, we have used it to access:
  • Netflix on Demand
  • Internet Radio ( NPR, etc.)
  • iPod music
  • Windows Media Player 
  • CD's
  • DVD's
  • Blu-Ray Discs
  • YouTube Videos
  • Hulu television
  • Programs direct from websites (comedy central, etc.)
  • Visting sites together (sharing with friends)
  • e-mail
  • web surfing
  • slide show of digital pictures
And yes, we even have an old DVD and VCR player hooked to it, so we can watch our old tapes and videos.

We use Windows Media Player, which has a nice "visualizations" effect (see top picture) that plays in time to the music.  You can also access Internet radio stations, etc. from this, or from a website (see IE, click on "favorites" and then "Radio").

It is a lot of fun, and anyone can use it.  When talking about a subject at a party, someone can go to Wikipedia and find the answer to a question (what ever happened to Judy Garland's Son?) or just load a site, video, or picture or whatever.

For houseguests, it is a great way to check e-mails and other websites as well.  Moments after hooking it all up, our guests were online and downloading like mad.  It all worked without a hitch.

The vaunted intersection of television, the internet, and the PC is happening today.  GoogleTV, WebTV and others, have tried to sell a pre-packaged system that allows you do to some of the things we do with our multi-media system.  But for a lot less than a packaged product, you can take most LCD TVs (with a VGA or SGVA input) and connect them to a used PC or laptop for a similar, but often better effect.

And it beats the snot out of baiting cable, with its poor normative cues and crappy "reality" programming.

At the present time, we are using a cheap computer speaker setup with a subwoofer.  We may upgrade to a surround sound system (BJ's has one with an iPod interface, for $149, out of stock).  But as they say, one step at a time!