Practically any modern PC can handle the functions of almost every piece of hardware in a typical home theater: cable box, DVR, Blu-ray player, even stereo amplifier. What's more, the PC can do things that no cable box can--streaming Netflix movies, playing your entire music and photo libraries, burning recorded TV shows to DVD, and much more.
It all starts with a having a system that runs any version of Windows 7 other than Starter; all such versions of the operating system include Microsoft's powerful Windows Media Center software--a couch-friendly home-theater interface that beautifully complements your HDTV. Once you've made established the necessary connection (see "Stream Media From Your PC to Your HDTV" if you're not sure how to do this), you have the makings of a killer entertainment center. Now you just need a few accoutrements.
Add a CableCard for Cable TV
Windows Media Center has always had an Achilles' heel: It can't tune in premium or HD cable channels. Enter CableCards, which give you all the functionality of a cable box in the form of a compact card that slips into a special tuner. Until recently, though, it was hard to find one of those tuners to add to a PC.
But things are changing. Vendors like Ceton and Silicondust are starting to roll out user-installable CableCard tuners. Ceton's Digital Cable Quad-Tuner Card ($399), for example, lets you record up to four shows at once, including premium channels. Because it's a PCI Express card, you'll need an available expansion slot on your PC--and the skills to venture inside with a screwdriver.
We're also jazzed about the Silicondust HDHomeRun CableCard ($249), an external dual-tuner device that connects to your home network, enabling you to share premium-cable goodness with all of the Windows 7-powered PCs in your home.
While you're waiting for these tantalizing products to reach store shelves near you, you can tune in to over-the-air HD and/or basic cable channels by using any of a number of available tuners from AverMedia and Hauppauge. Two good bets: the AverMedia AVerTV Hybrid Volar Max and the Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q.
Grab a Blu-ray Drive
Windows 7 lacks native support for Blu-ray movies, but that doesn't prevent you from installing a Blu-ray drive. A couple of caveats, though: Your video card needs to have the horsepower to run smoothly at 1920 by 1080 resolution, and it needs to have an HDMI port or HDCP-compliant DVI port. Otherwise, Blu-ray movies won't play.
Suitable software is another requirement. Both Corel WinDVD Pro 2010 ($60) and CyberLink PowerDVD 9 Ultra ($80) offer Windows Media Center integration, meaning that they add a Blu-ray option to the standard menu system. With such integration in place, you won't have to get out your mouse or keyboard and shut down Media Center just to play a Blu-ray movie.
As for the drives themselves, internal models are available from the likes of LG, Lite-On, Plextor, and Sony for less than $100. Any of these drives should be able to replace the DVD drive already installed in your PC. If you'd rather go external, drives from Plextor (like the PX-B310U shown above) and Velocity Micro are good bets; any of these models plugs easily into a USB port. Plan on spending closer to $200 for an external model.
Don't Skimp on the Speakers
No man-cave home theater is complete without a world-class (or at least den-class) audio system. Smaller rooms can get away with traditional speakers, but a larger room needs a amplifier/speaker combination. Either way, make sure that your PC has an SPDIF output so you can enjoy true digital sound. If it can't handle SPDIF, consider upgrading your sound card--an operation that can be as simple as plugging in a Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Amiga USB Sound Card ($40), which adds a digital output to any PC.
If you're outfitting a smallish room, the plug-and-play convenience of PC speakers such as the Logitech Z-5500 ($400) is pretty compelling. This 5.1-channel setup (translation: five satellite speakers and a subwoofer) pumps out an amazing 505 watts of surround-sound power--more than enough to blow your hair back (and forward again) during screenings of Inglourious Basterds.
If you want more power and versatility, you'll have to spring for a home-theater receiver--and of course, speakers to go with it. We don't have space here to look at the endless options and permutations available, but you should be able to find the gear and the advice you need at your local home-theater store. (Note: Any modern receiver you buy will have SPDIF inputs, the one essential criterion in making the media-center connection.)