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Top 10 "Must Haves" in a Media Center

by Steven Cheung October 08, 2006

In a world with dozens of media center manufacturers and hundreds of choices, picking out a media center can be confusing. What features should I look for? Which ones do I really need, and which ones are just "icing on the cake?" Here are the top 10 Premium Features that we think media centers must have:

10. Dual (or More) TV Tuners

Ever fight over the remote because you wanted to watch one show and someone else wanted to watch another? Never worry about missing a show again with dual tuner recording - someone can watch one show while another is being recorded at the same time. Best of all, with audio/video streaming capabilities, others can watch the other show that's on with another TV & extender combination. Having dual tuners solves these recording conflicts and opens up new entertainment possibilities. Make sure your media center has them!

9. Set-top Box Compatibility

In an effort to increase profits and save their companies money, some media center manufacturers have cut corners & eliminated features vital to a media center's functionality. Some media center systems available don't come with the accessories necessary to connect to a set-top box, so you won't be able to record premium channels like HBO, CineMAX, etc. Make sure you'll get the parts to connect your media center to your set-top box.

8. Quiet or Complete Silent Design

Because media centers are based on a PC-platform, some manufacturers use the same hardware on media centers as they'd use on a PC - so you get a droning, buzzing noise in the background when you're enjoying your favorite TV show, movie, or music CD. Who wants that?

Look for a media center that has "quiet" fans emitting 30dBA or less of noise at a distance of 1 meter (the equivalent of a quiet room), or a completely "silent" system that uses passive cooling with no fans at all! Beware of systems that don't say what their noise rating is - you may be unpleasantly surprised!

7. Native, Easy-to-Use DVD Storage & Cataloging Function

Imagine being able to access all of your DVDs within a few clicks on your remote - that's the power of having a premium media center! Be warned - most media centers do not include DVD storage and cataloging within MCE - you're forced to connect a keyboard and mouse to copy, access, and view your stored DVDs, which somewhat defeats the purpose of having a media center with a single remote.

Look for a media center that features DVD storage and cataloging capabilities "out-of-the-box" to get the most out of your media center! Editor's note: CSS-encrypted DVDs (i.e. most commercial DVDs and movies) cannot be copied and the media center's default software will not allow this.

6. The Right Form Factor

Everyone's living area is different, so there's no "one size fits all" solution when it comes to size. Even though a media center replaces virtually all of the dedicated components, some people may have height or weight limitations that must be taken into consideration, making the purchase of some larger media centers out-of-the-question. Similarly, some may have racks solely dedicated to A/V equipment, and they may want a rack-mountable media center. Many regular media centers are shaped like computer towers and are difficult & aesthetically-unpleasing to fit in a living room, so take the time to shop around.

In the end, definitely make sure & look for a media center that can physically fit in your setup - there's nothing more disappointing than purchasing one, unpacking it, only to find out that it won't fit!

5. Hard Drive Failure & Data Protection

Right now, where do you store your digital photos, camcorder videos, and other important digital documents & files? Most people usually store them on their desktop or laptop, along with their important emails & other essential documents... Can you imagine what would happen if the hard drive crashed?

Don't put all your eggs in one basket - look for a media center that features hard drive failure & data protection, and never worry about losing your data to a hard drive crash.

4. High-Quality Video

Anyone can claim that their media center can render high-quality video, but how do you know what to look for and compare between different media centers?

First, beware that not all media centers come with decoders that allow you to play back DVDs within media center. They may only provide an inexpensive, generic decoder that forces you to use a keyboard and mouse to play DVDs, which is extremely inconvenient. Make sure a media center can play DVDs just by using a remote "out-of-the-box."

Second, a quantitative benchmark for video quality is the HQV rating, which is derived from tests on deinterlacing, distortion, and scaling. Most commercially available DVD players score about 50 (low-end, bargain players) to 90 points (higher-end players), while the highest HQV score possible is 130 points. The higher the score - the better the video quality. If you're planning to replace your DVD player with the media center, look for a system that has a HQV test rating of 60 or higher.

3. High-Quality Audio - Automatic Audio Frequency Switching

Many home theater enthusiasts prefer audio encoding formats like Dolby Digital & DTS, but unlike dedicated equipment, not all media centers can natively decode these audio signals. DD or DTS can be encoded in 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz, so any media center you get should automatically switch from one frequency to the other. The only hitch is that there is only a handful of sound chipsets that do so. If the chipset doesn't support automatic switching, you have to manually go into the sound driver configuration to switch to the desired frequency depending on what you're playing back - which is extremely inconvenient.

How is this important? Almost all movies are encoded at the 48 kHz and CD/mp3 music is at 44.1 kHz, so if you don't have auto switching and leave your soundcard at the 48kHz frequency and then decide to playback a CD or MP3, Windows will upconvert the song to 48kHz and, in the process, degrade its quality. Playback 44.1K DTS and all you hear is static - definitely not what you want in your home theater.

Conversely, if the soundcard is set at 44.1kHz, music CDs will sound fine, but you will probably hear static or no audio at all when audio is being played back at 48kHz.

Look for a media center that performs auto audio frequency switching between both 48 kHz and 44.1 kHz for the best audio quality & performance.

2. Home Theater-Friendly, High-Quality Outputs

So now you've got high-quality audio & video - but what good is it if you can't bring that to your TV or receiver? You've got to have high-quality outputs also!

Many media centers just have the standard VGA and analogue sound outputs, so it's a challenge to connect the system to your home theater if you don't normally use these connections. Ideally, you'd want these connections on your media center:

  • Video: VGA, DVI/HDMI, Component, S-Video
  • Audio: Optical S/PDIF and/or analogue S/PDIF outputs, and 5.1 or better surround sound

By choosing a media center with a choice of outputs, you won't have to worry about poor quality or incompatibility with your TV or receiver!

1. Knowledgeable, Home Theater-Trained Technical Support Staff

Say if you bought a new receiver or a new set-top box and wanted to know how to hook it up. Can the media center manufacturer help you *after* your purchase? Will they know enough about receivers to help you make it work? Are they familiar with home theater terminology? Do they speak fluent English? Service and support is very "slippery" to quantify - every company out there promises great service and support, but how do your really know for sure?

The answer is simple - you can get a quick taste of it by calling the media center manufacturer that you're interested in. Don't ask for their sales department though - ask for their technical support department, and just ask them a few questions about how their products can fit into your home theater. Can they answer your questions easily? How are they explaining themselves? Do they speak fluent English? Did you get transferred? These are all important questions, since you'll never know when you'll need some help down the line.

Bonus: Upgradeability / Anti-obsolescence

Now you've got it all - you're the king of your digital entertainment world, controlling everything at the touch of a remote. All is well - until the next video or audio standard or component comes out. What happens then? Will you have to put your brand new media center away in a closet to collect dust?

To address these concerns, a few select Media Center companies have an "upgrade" or "trade-in" program for its customers. Instead of buying a whole new box and making another expensive investment, current Media Center owners can simply upgrade their systems and add in new components, like the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD drives, or the upcoming CableCARD technology.

With an upgrade program, anyone can get a media center now, enjoy all of its benefits, and still have the option to upgrade later and not lose out on new technologies.

Special thanks goes to Steven W. Cheung of VidaBox, LLC for working on this article.


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