Enter the front end, a software suite that combines all of those various media playback functions into a single interface with a 10-foot range. You can choose from a couple of great front ends, including XBMC and Plex--both of which are free--but anyone using a Windows PC should try Windows Media Center (WMC) first.
WMC is a great choice if you're using a TV tuner. It includes an excellent channel/programming guide and DVR functionality that's as good as anything on the market. Plus, WMC is designed to work with a USB remote control, which makes the experience very familiar for anyone who's ever operated a television remote.
If you have Windows Vista or 7, you already have Windows Media Center. Unfortunately, the suite has been removed from the latest version of the operating system, and Windows 8 users will have to pay to add the functionality back. On the bright side, at $10 WMC is still a total steal, and the installation process is easy: Just open the Start menu and type Add Features. Click the Settings search tab, and then click the Add Features To Windows 8 button. A dialog box will pop up, giving you the option to buy a new product key online or to enter one you already own. Click the former, and you will see the option to purchase Windows 8 Media Center Pack. Click it and then enter your credit card info, and WMC will be installed on your system.
Next, run the software, and the setup wizard will walk you through the configuration, including optimizing WMC for your television and speaker setup. Pay special attention to the part that asks you to define your media-source locations. If you have any media files outside of the standard Windows media locations (such as the usual My Videos folder), this step is where you'll tell Windows Media Center where to look for them. After that, WMC will automatically find the media on your system, catalog it, and download extras like album art where possible.
If you're using a TV tuner card, make sure it's connected to your system, and scroll down to the TV section and then click the tile labeled Live TV Setup. You'll have to click through another simple wizard and give Windows Media Center some basic information about your TV situation: where you live, which cable service you use, that sort of thing. Using that information, WMC will figure out which channels you can access and will download a programming guide for those channels.
And just like that, you're all set! Slide your new HTPC underneath your HDTV, maybe pick up a cheap Windows 8-optimized wireless keyboard and mouse to make computing from the couch a little easier, and enjoy your all-encompassing media machine.
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