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Multimedia, Media Center and Home Theater PCs

What Do These Various Terms Mean for PCs?

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Introduction

Companies use a lot of terms to describe the capabilities of their PCs, especially when it comes to video and audio. Some of the most common terms that users will see include multimedia, media center and home theater. These terms can be very deceiving for the consumer as they have very specific connotations in terms of the features and capabilities. This article looks to explain just exactly what each of these terms mean and what features are associated with them.

Multimedia PC

This term originally came about for PCs around ten years ago and in general can apply to any computer sold on the market today. It was used to describe a system that had the ability to do audio and video playback. Pretty much every computer now has some form of audio output as well as a CD or DVD player which meets these criteria.

So, if pretty much all of the PCs on the market have these features, why do companies still use this term? It's a buzz word that consumers can misconstrue in terms of the actual capabilities of the system. For example, a multimedia PC does not require a DVD capable drive. As long as it an audio card, it could technically playback music. It can also playback video that is streamed from the web. The simple fact is that a multimedia PC just has to have the basic capabilities not a full feature set.

Capabilities a multimedia PC will have:

  • Audio playback via integrated or expansion audio card
  • Processor and video card capable of video playback
  • CD or DVD drive are common but not required

Media Center PC

The original use of the term media center PC was used to describe any computer that was designed to be integrated into a home electronics setup and viewed on a TV. This early definition has greatly changed with the development of notebook computers and software released by Microsoft.

Technically, any computer that is labeled as a media center PC ships with the Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system. The operating system comes with integrated features for playback of video and audio. Many of the features can only be used with additional hardware features but they are not required. This is important to note when shopping for a computer as it can be labeled as a media center PC but still lack some features.

For example, Windows XP Media Center Edition has the ability to play and record live TV. In order to use this feature though, the computer requires a compatible TV tuner card with the system. Similarly, a compatible remote will greatly enhance the Media Center interface, but it is not required. Because of this, consumers looking at media center labeled PCs should take a close look at the features and specifications to make sure they are getting all the hardware to take advantage of the OS.

Things to look for in a Media Center PC:

  • Windows XP Media Center Edition OS
  • Internal or external TV tuner
  • Wireless remote

Home Theater PC

This term really more describes the computer design and not any specific features or specifications. Home theater PCs are designed to be included with or in replacement of a consumer home theater setup. They typically are designed to run with very little noise and come in cases that mimic those used for consumer home electronics. The systems themselves do not need to be capable of playing back audio or DVD, but they typically include such features.

The one thing that is common on most systems is the ability to connect to a high definition monitor or TV. This is typically done either though a digital DVI video connector used by computer monitors and found on HDTVs or through the newer HDMI connector. This can be tricky though as some newer content such as Blu-ray and HD-DVD movies have the capability of requiring copy protection compatible hardware. This means that the video card and monitor at some point will require HDCP support. This is still not very common on most PC hardware.

Most home theater PC systems will likely feature the Windows XP Media Center Edition, but this is not required. Many companies have software interfaces that can run on Windows 2000 or XP with functions such as TV playback and recording, DVD playback, radio and digital audio. ATI offers such a package with their extremely popular All-In-Wonder graphics cards.

Things to look for in a Home Theater PC:

  • Integrates well with consumer home electronics
  • Connects to TV via DVI or HDMI connectors
  • Silent or near-silent operation

Conclusions

Hopefully this article has helped clarify what the various marketing terms companies are using when they advertise their computers. Even with this, it can be quite confusing. After all, a computer system can very well be described by all three of the terms at once, or only one might apply. The key is to know what to look for in the computer features when the company actually use the terms.

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