Build a Better Home Theater for Less Than $1000
There's no way around it: Home theater gear is expensive; and while "The Ultimate Home Theater" sounds great, most people don't have enough spare cash to splurge on it. That's why we've outlined everything you need to give your home theater a makeover for less than $1000--whether you're a student, a gamer, or just a thrifty fan of multimedia.
Sprucing Up Your All-Purpose Setup
Let's say that you already have a bare-bones home theater--an older HDTV with built-in speakers, a recent gaming console, and cable. Rather than investing in a high-end HDTV, consider putting the money into add-ons and accessories that will allow you to make movies with your existing set.
The cornerstone of your new-and-improved home theater will be the Dell Inspiron Zino HD, a slick, quiet mini-PC that you can hook up to your HDTV via HDMI or VGA (if your HDTV accepts only component video, you'll need to buy a converter box).
Depending on the Zino HD configuration you choose, you can spend as little as $270 or upwards of $600. Let's go with Dell's $520 configuration, which has 64-bit Windows 7, a 1.5GHz dual-core Athlon X2 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 640GB hard drive, and and then let's upgrade the optical drive to a Blu-ray combo drive for an extra $100.
Presto: You have your very own home-theater PC, and you don't have to bother with three or four different boxes piling up on top of your TV to stream all the video you want from your network or Internet connection. For more tips, check out "Make Your PC a Man-Cave Media Center."
Next, it's time to stack up the extras. Start by throwing in a set of wireless speakers, like the Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 set ($270), to buff your home theater audio without adding clutter.
Also, putting a keyboard and a mouse in your living room will ruin its look, so you'll want to add an appropriate input device. If you like the traditional TV remote, try the Logitech Harmony One ($175); if you prefer a keyboard layout, give the Lenovo N5901 Mini Wireless Keyboard/Trackball ($50) a shot.
Finally, grab the CalMAN HTPC Pattern Generator--it's a free download that, when combined with our excellent calibration how-tos (see "How to Calibrate Your HDTV," "How to Improve the Picture and Sound on Your HDTV," and "How to Optimize Your HDTV," for starters), will ensure that you get the most out of your revitalized home theater without spending another dime.
Dell Inspiron Zino HD home-theater PC: $620
Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 wireless speakers: $270
Lenovo Mini Wireless Keyboard/Trackball: $50
All Work and No Play? Make a Home-Office Theater
Maybe you're a broke college kid looking to repurpose your work tech for fun, or you're a working stiff with a home office instead of a home theater. But that doesn't mean you have to go without a decent TV--it just means you need to do some strategic planning. With a few key purchases and the right know-how you can bend your ultimate workstation into a dorm or office-friendly den for under a grand.
The plan here is to to build your setup around your laptop; if it's capable of playing full-screen HD video, it'll work fine. Even a humble netbook will suffice, if it carries an nVidia Ion chip (as the HP Mini 311 and the Asus 1201N, for example, do). Bonus points for having an HDMI port, though VGA or DVI will work, too.
Your laptop's built-in display is fine for taking notes in class or during a meeting, but realistically you can't be expected to put together a presentation or do class readings from such a tiny screen, right?
So spring for an external monitor--you can find a name-brand 22-inch display for about $160, or a 24-incher for $200 or so. Considering that you'll be using it for work and play, you'll probably want a widescreen monitor (one with a 16:9 aspect ratio if possible, though 16:10 will work) so your movies don't get stretched or letterboxed.
Since you'll sit closer to your display at your desk than you normally would in your living room, a TV with a diagonal screen size of greater than 32 inches would actually be harder to use as a regular PC display.
As for audio, feel free to skimp on the speakers; a pair of $20 no-name speakers outperform your laptop or display's built-in speakers. Be patient and you might be able to scrounge some used speakers from your school or office for free.
No cable? No problem. Take advantage of your broadband connection to download and stream all the TV shows you can handle with Clicker.tv, and read "Cable Cutters" for more free TV tips. Also, subscribe to Netflix--$9 a month is worth it for the Instant Play feature alone.
Finally, throw a game console on top. Whether you opt for an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 3, or a Nintendo Wii, it's a cheaper way to get your gaming fix, and you'll be able to use the console as a DVD player if your PC doesn't have an optical drive (or a Blu-ray player, if you get the PS3).
24-inch LCD display: $200
Sony PlayStation 3: $300
Starting From Scratch for Under $1000
Home-theater equipment is big and bulky, and if you've just moved to a new city you probably didn't bring your TV with you. With the right parts, you can put together an awesome home theater setup for fairly cheap--and you might not even miss cable TV.
You can cut costs with a solid TV from last year's collection of models--the Vizio VT420M, for instance, now costs about $650 (down from $1000 last December). Since the VT420M has excellent built-in speakers and a headphone jack, you can save a few bucks on your audio setup by hooking up a pair of cheap PC speakers or sticking with the built-in ones.
If your budget is extremely tight, visit deals sites like Dealnews and watch for older brand-name 720p models; the difference between 720p video and 1080p video generally isn't as noticeable for HDTVs with screen sizes between 37 and 42 inches. Before committing to a purchase, though, be sure to read "10 Things You Need to Know Before Buying an HDTV."
Since nothing says "nerd" like a bulky desktop PC parked in the middle of your living room, consider streamlining your décor by picking up the Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-ray Player ($105) and a set-top box like the Western Digital WD-TV Live Plus ($130) or the Roku HD-XR ($100).
Between the Blu-ray player and the set-top box, you'll have ready access to so much high-def content from the Internet, your PC's media library, and new Blu-ray releases that you can painlessly forgo cable TV.
Vizio VT420M 42-inch LCD TV: $650
Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-ray player: $105
Western Digital WD-TV Live Plus set-top box: $130
Hardcore Gaming Home Theater
You don't watch TV, and the last time you sat through a movie, you thought it was a 2-hour-long cutscene. You're a gamer, and all you need from your home-theater setup is the gear to destroy your enemies and a screen that makes you look good while you do it. We'll assume that you already have your gaming platforms of choice.
Gamers don't have the same priorities as mainstream HDTV customers. In fact, the flashy post-processing frippery that TV manufacturers add to their sets to make movies and sports look better can ruin your gaming experience--and your online ladder ranking. That's because the post-processing introduces a tiny lag to the TV image; it's not enough to be noticeable while you're viewing a movie, but it is enough to interrupt your 30-hit combo.
We've heard good things about the Sharp LC-40D68UT ($650) for gaming, but honestly, you have to try the set yourself before you buy it--and read "Find and Fix Input Lag in Your HDTV or Monitor" for tips on how to pick the right set, test it for input lag, and eliminate any delay.
On the other hand, if you're gaming at your desk, grab the 23-inch Asus VH236H LCD monitor (about $190). This model is popular in professional gaming competitions because it's lag-free, it's easy to transport, and it comes with decent built-in speakers.
No matter how good your speaker setup is, it won't give you the competitive edge that a good headset/mic combo will. We liked the Creative SoundBlaster World of Warcraft Wireless Headset ($160, though it's also available as a wired headset for slightly cheaper), but your budget won't allow it, consider the older Creative Fatal1ty Gaming Headset instead.
Now that your gaming station is all set up, you'll need something to play with. Fortunately, you may not have to rebuy any gaming peripherals to start playing on your PC--if you own another gaming console, read "How To Use Your Console Gamepad With Your PC."
Keyboard warrior? Be wary of using wireless mice and keyboards for your gaming. Wired peripherals can be clumsy, but laggy wireless input devices will kill your score, so try before you buy if you're determined to go wireless.
Sharp LC-40D68UT 40-inch TV: $650
Asus VH236H 23-inch monitor: $190
Creative SoundBlaster WoW Wireless Headset: $160
Have your own home theater questions, comments, tips, or recommendations? Post them in the comments!