Build a Better Home Theater for Less Than $1000

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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
Total: $940

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, 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).

Laptop/Netbook: $450
24-inch LCD display: $200
Sony PlayStation 3: $300
Total: $950

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