Home Theater PC, Media Player & Digital Video Recorder (DVR) Options
Since the launch of the first Digital Video Recorder (DVR) by TiVo in 1998, there are now many more options available for both recording television programs and for all inclusive Media Centers that can play music, videos, and games, show photos, download on-line content, and share content with other devices.
While initial DVR devices were standalone units, units that are sold (or leased) by Satellite and Cable companies are becoming a more popular option. Standalone units can sometimes have difficulty with multiple tuners (viewing or recording multiple shows at once), Video-On-Demand (VOD), and other special features provided by Satellite and Cable. CableCard technology was supposed to improve this situation by allowing the DVR unit to replace the cable/satellite box. The CableCard provided the DVR the ability to decode the encrypted video, but due to foot dragging by the cable/satellite companies it cannot due much else.
On the other hand, the large patent portfolio of Tivo and other early developers has made it difficult for other companies to offer the full range of features available in a TiVo product. These are problems that many open source Media Center projects don't have a problem with.
One option to consider is an advanced DVD/BluRay player or TV with enhanced capabilities built in. Some devices now have ports for USB flash drives or memory cards that can play music or movies or show photos that are contained on the flash drive. Some DVD players support most of the popular formats used by cameras or data that is downloaded from the web and cost less than $100. Some internet connected TVs can even download videos from YouTube, Hulu, NetFlix, and other sites.
Yet another option is a hard drive based media player. This is a tiny box for under $100 (not counting the hard drive) that will play music, videos, and show photos that are contained on the hard drive. Files are added to the hard drive by connecting the media player to a computer as a USB drive or over a home network. A TV is used to view the photos or to select what song to listen to or what movie to play. Game systems also fall into this category, although they are a bit more expensive. All of the major video game systems can play DVDs (PS3 can also play BluRay Movies), play movies stored on a hard drive, and connect to the internet to download new content. The exact feature list can vary with the game system and many more options are available if you modify (hack) your system.
With all of these choices available, one might ask why someone would go through the trouble of building their own Media Center PC or DVR. Today, the answer is usually comes down do features, capacity, and control. A DVR might let you record TV, but it might not let you save a downloaded movie to the same drive. A device might even let you download movies, but the choice on where to download will be limited, or it might impose some other restriction. For example: Sometimes the networks or movie studios force the hardware vendor to limit how long you can store a movie on your DVR. So if you pay to watch and record a Movie On Demand from the Cable company, they might delete it after a couple of months even if you haven't watched it yet. Another problem with the hardware vendors is that they charge a premium for a higher capacity hard drive. Hard Drives are cheap and you can now get several TB for under $100. Still, some try to charge a huge premium the extra disk space.
To recap, the basic choices for a Media Center are:
Standalone Home Theater Media Center Products: TiVo, Moxi, Neuros & Roku
Cable/Satellite based DVR/Home Theater Media Centers: DirecTv, Dish Network, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Charter,Cablevision...
Hard Drive Media Centers: PremierTek, Western Digital, iomega, View Sonic, Buffalo, Asus, D-Link ...
Game System based Home Theater Media Centers: XBox, PlayStation & Wii
Modified Game System based Home Theater Media Centers: XBox Media Center, PlayStation Media Center & Wii Media Center
Computer based Home Theater Media Centers: Myth TV, Boxee, Microsoft Windows Media Center and more
If none of the Off-The-Shelf solutions work for you, then you are left with setting up a computer as a Media Center or converting a Game System into a Media Center. Modern game systems are basically computers containing processors, memory, video, hard drives, DVD/BluRay drives and and internet connection. When these game systems first come out, they are usually sold at a loss and the manufacturer hopes to make up the difference in the sales of games. This is why these systems are attractive to developers that convert them into media centers. They are small, attractive, and powerful PCs at a price that is hard to beat.
If you have an old PC and are looking to upgrade, then maybe the retired PC should become your media center using Boxee, MythTV, or one of the other options listed above. Otherwise, purchasing a game system might be the cheaper option. Check out an original XBox and run XMBC (XBox Media Center) or try one of the modern consoles - new Nintendo Wii, XBox 360, or Sony PlayStation (only one with a BluRay). When researching your decision, look at both the capabilities of the system as sold and what it can do when modified with custom Firmware like XBox Media Center.