However, while the various forms of digital media can all be viewed or played on a PC, few people choose to have a PC located in the living room. Microsoft's persistent vision of the PC as the centre of your digital living room has generally failed to materialize. Although it's now easier than ever to connect a flat-screen digital TV to a PC, few of us actually want an ugly, noisy and generally large box in our living rooms.
PCs were never intended as media delivery platforms, and although they now excel at that task, they are generally found in studies and bedrooms. Even if you do have a PC in your lounge, the chances are that it's tucked away in a corner, probably connected to printers and other peripherals, and nowhere near your TV and surround-sound amp.
There's also the issue that if you use your TV as your PC's monitor, the display is going to suck for anything other than watching video, because a horizontal resolution of 720, or if you're lucky 1080 lines, is frankly horrible for standard Windows operation. Laptops are perhaps more suited to connecting to your TV as they are by their very nature portable, and if you have a relatively new one, it is likely to have an HDMI output and maybe even a Blu-Ray drive. Still, it's not the most elegant solution, so we'll look at what options you have for streaming your media around your home.
Hot and Bothered
A couple of years ago, before Vista's storm cloud darkened the horizon, there was a flurry of enthusiasm for the so-called Home Theatre PC. The idea was to take the PC out of its native environment, and stick it next to your TV, to serve up music, films and TV, and if you were really advanced, use it as a PVR, too. The problem is, no matter how much you spend on a small-form factor case, finished in aircraft-grade aluminium with blue LEDs and a VFD display, it's still essentially a PC, with all the drawbacks that implies.
If you want to use it as a PVR, it needs to be left on 24 hours a day, which Windows was never designed to do. If you don't, it can take an age to startup. On top of that is the noise that most PCs generate, which can ruin the ambience during quiet parts of your favorite film. In terms of PVR functionality too. The original version of Windows XP Media Center was also not without its problems, although the version within Vista is much improved. Still, do you really want to use Vista, unless you really have to? The solution then, is not to put your PC next to the TV, but rather get the media files from your PC onto your TV, stereo or laptop that's situated in another room of the house. Although there have been devices round for a few years to do this, most of them have been pretty limited.
As the technology has matured, things have improved significantly, and there's a wealth of media streamers and media extenders to choose from. Most will require some sort of network connection, but some make use of internal hard drives, or have USB ports so that you can plug in an external drive. We'll look at two ways of streaming media, either to your TV or to another PC or laptop, and the software and hardware you'll need to do the job.