A PC that holds all of your media (music, photos, home videos, movies), allows you to pause, record and play back live TV and looks like a regular consumer electronics device? Sure! It's called a Media Center PC (or Home Theater PC, or HTPC) and I felt it was a high time to assemble one.
The last time I assembled a PC was about 15 years ago as an undergrad student and, boy, those were simpler, purer times. It quickly became apparent that I would spend weeks figuring out what components to use in the PC, given the myriad of motherboards, CPU sockets, etc, etc, etc, so I looked for help on the web, and I came across this great article by Loyd Case.
So I just went ahead and duplicated the cheapest PC configuration recommended by Loyd. Here's what I ended up with:
Putting together the PC took an evening. I installed Windows Vista Ultimate (a smooth uneventful installation, as long as you have a USB keyboard and a USB mouse handy), connected the PC to the Internet, to my TV signal source and to my TV and fired up Windows Media Center. The configuration I ended up with is:
The integrated graphics card on the motherboard conveniently provides HDMI output, so that's what I used to connect the TV to the Media Center PC. You will notice that I have not connected an audio system. I am just using the speakers of my TV (via the same HDMI cable), which frankly are good enough for us.
It took me about 2 days to rip all of my CDs (I used Windows Media Player to do that) and transfer all of my videos and pictures to the PC.
The Windows Media Center included with Windows Vista is an excellent piece of software and works perfectly for me with the above PC config (see the few gotchas I had to deal with). It has it all -- beautiful UI, an excellent set of discoverable features, a natural navigation model. It's just a great example of consumer software. We as a company should advertise it better...
Here are a few screen-shots:
TV Channel Guide
The TV channel guide is updated through Internet. This snapshot shows the channel guide superimposed on top of the currently displayed channel (NBC)
Shows you representative frames from TV shows you have recorded. Notice that the currently played content is shown in a small PIP pane at the bottom left corner.
Browsing a large number of digital pictures is very easy. We have about 3000 pictures in our library and I have not noticed any degradation in performance or performance issues, when browsing through them. Importing your new pictures is always very easy - you just connect your camera via a USB cable and you get prompted to import the pictures.
You can sort by various criteria (album, artists, etc) and you get optimized lists that help you quickly find what you are looking for. Notice how the CD art gets automatically loaded for any recognized album. This feature works very well even for fairly old and/or apocryphal CDs.
Overall, setting up a media center PC has been a breeze. The problems that I hit were:
You may consider getting a few hardware accessories:
I also recommend installing the following software (in suggested priority order):
Here are a few articles that I'd recommend to any Media Center enthusiast:
 Build a Windows Vista Home Theater PC is the excellent article by Loyd Case I used to build our media center PC.
 Planning Your Media Center PC: Choosing Your TV Source provides the best description of the different sources of TV signal I have come across.
 Review: Antec Fusion Black 430 provides a good review of the Antec PC case.
 This post explains how to play CD+G karaoke files in MCE (ok, I admit, I have a few of those lying around...)
 All About HDTV Antennas walks you through choosing an HDTV antenna. AntennaWeb.org shows the available over-the-air channels in your ZIP code.