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Turn an old machine into a media center

XBMC

XBMC (Credit: XBMC.org)

In an effort to keep our old gizmos at bay, we've covered two alternative methods of controlling tech waste -- buyback sites and recycling centers.

But in the last decade, computers have grown powerful enough to be repurposed for other useful tasks besides being our main machines.

Media center

Multimedia streaming to our TVs is the new fad in tech. Recievers such as Apple TV, Boxee, and Western Digital TV Live give owners the ability to stream their movies, music, and photos to their main televisions. Although these boxes tend to be small and sleek, they can cost anywhere from $99 to $500 and their functionality tends to have a limited scope.

Here's how to turn your old machine into a Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC) to  watch your movies, music, photos, Netflix, Hulu, and games using your old machine on a TV.

1 - Cables. Most flat screen TVs nowadays come with a VGA, HDMI, and S video input. If your machine only has a VGA output, the easiest option is a standard VGA Cable. If the machine has a DVI port out, DVI to HDMI cables are cheaply available. S video can also be used but should be a last resort. In all these methods, you will also need a Y audio cable.

2 - Media center software. Boxee, Plex, and XMBC are the most popular of the home media server software. They are all free and each has their own pros and cons.

For novices, I recommend using Boxee (download, watch and read about it here). It's available on Mac and Windows and tends to be the most intuitive.

For more experience Windows users, XBMC is customizable and has a beautiful interface. Download it here.

Although XBMC is also available for Mac, Plex is better suited for them. It's similar to XBMC (based on the same code) but it is optimized for Macs. Download Plex here, watch it here.

3 - Keyboard, Mouse. Although a  USB mouse and keyboard can be used, the chords will make it a bit difficult to control your new media center from  the comfort of your couch. Standard wireless keyboard and mouse combos can cost as little as $20, although can go the fancy route and try the Tiny Wireless Keyboard with built in track pad for under $50 at most retailers.

The Apple remote can also be used to control XBMC, Plex, and Boxee on a Mac.

4 - Gaming. The media computer can also be used to play old school video games. For legal reasons, we can't get into it here. But if your Google-fu is strong enough, you'll find your own way. 

5 - Hardware upgrade. Although, most machines built in the last 5 to 10 years would be able to handle the demands of the media center software, I would recommend upgrading your RAM and video card to help it handle HD video.

Video cards can be found for as low as $25.  Also dependent on your home setup, 4 GB of RAM can also be added for $25. Once again use your Google-fu to figure out what components fit your machine.

This guide is meant to be a base for people looking to turn their old machines into HTPCs. If your interested in reading more about it, there is a HUGE online community dedicated to this. Just Google HTPC guide and you'll be sure to get a more indepth look.

(Before attempting this, make sure all your data has been copied on a new machine or hard drive. Also, it is highly recommended that a complete factory restore should be done to the machine using either the original installation CD or an operating system installation CD).

Tags: How , plex , media center , htpc , xbmc , boxee , movies , entertainment , music , pc , mac , windows

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