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The PC as a home-entertainment box

Televisions now get hundreds of channels, dozens of radio stations are probably operating in your area and in all likelihood, several multiplex theaters are within driving range. So, why would someone need to use a computer for entertainment? There are actually several reasons: Price Entertainment available over the Internet is free. People share it amongst themselves. We will come back to this subject

Televisions now get hundreds of channels, dozens of radio stations are probably operating in your area and in all likelihood, several multiplex theaters are within driving range. So, why would someone need to use a computer for entertainment? There are actually several reasons:


Entertainment available over the Internet is free. People share it amongst themselves. We will come back to this subject in lesson 10, covering the issues of theft, copyright law and the continued production of entertainment; but for this section, we can simply say that entertainment obtained over the Internet is free for the taking.


In a big city, a few dozen radio stations are probably available. On the Internet there are thousands. If you live in Toronto and like a talk station in Atlanta, you're out of luck — unless you have an Internet connection. If you do, you can listen to your station day and night. If you'd like to hear some specific pieces of music, old or new, they are all available instantly.

Video programming is not yet as available on the Net as is music (the files are much larger and are difficult to download without a broadband connection), but there's far more of it available than you might expect, and increasing quickly.


You no longer have to run to the video store or the music store; just do a quick search and download the material you want. You never have to leave the house.


With traditional entertainment, what a supplier gives you is all you get. TV and radio shows come full of commercials, and little or nothing can be done about it. Not so with computer-based entertainment. Commercials can be removed, audio can be modified, video can be edited and many more custom modifications are available.


Entertainment is what is driving your customer's demand for cabling. If you want to be good at what you do, and want to succeed financially at it, it's critical that you understand the end goals of the installation. This results in you selling more services, being relied upon and getting far more repeat and referral business. The better you understand your customer and his goals, the more likely you are to do well in your business.

A lot of work is available not only in putting cabling in place, but in setting up hardware and software. None of this is difficult. After you've done a few installations, it gets easy. This is not hard work, and it pays well. In addition, it leads to a lot of follow-up work and referral work. A lot of customers are demanding it right now, and will be for a number of years. But you will never get that work if you are only interested in laying and terminating cables — fine as though that may be.


A complete computer-based entertainment setup would process virtually every type of entertainment your customer would want: TV, videos, music, radios, CD and DVD, downloading, recording and playing audio through a stereo setup; all on a standard computer. The various components required for this are:

  1. Computer: Processor, mouse, keyboard, NIC and monitor.

  2. Equipment case.

  3. Video card.

  4. MPEG decoder.

  5. Sound card.

  6. Hard drives. I recommend separate hard drives for video, MP3 and OS and applications.

  7. Optical storage. (DVD, CD-RW or combo device.)

  8. USB hub.

  9. Video display. (High resolution.)

  10. Speakers and receiver.

  11. Software.

  12. Computer cables.

  13. Network cables. (To Internet.)

For a good PC-based entertainment system, the computer needs to be beefed-up just a bit more than usual. Obviously it should begin with a good processor. You will, as usual, need a mouse, keyboard and monitor. Also necessary will be a NIC (a network interface card), so that you can connect to some type of broadband Internet connection.

Note that item number six in the list shown above specifies three separate hard drives. It is not required that you use three separate hard drives, but doing so will make the system operate more efficiently over time. You do, however, need to use big hard drives. The list specifies one hard drive for the operating system (OS) and application programs (such as word processing and accounting), another for storing video files (40 GB would be ideal), and one more for storing music files (15 GB would be great). Again, you could use a single hard drive for all of this, but you'd have to get a large one. Fortunately, hard drive prices (especially dollar-per-storage capacity prices) have plummeted in the past several years, making this easily affordable.

Equipment case

All of the items we have specified above will not fit easily into an off-the-shelf computer. So, a computer will need a special equipment case, built into the computer. This means that you'll have to have someone custom-build the computer for you, rather than picking it off the shelf. Also bear in mind that your case will need a power supply.

Video card

All standard desktop computers come with a video card. For this, however, you will need a separate video card that has a television tuner built-in, an MPEG capture and editing feature and perhaps a PVR (Private Video Recorder) feature.

MPEG decoder

MPEG stands for Motion Pictures Engineers Guild. In this use, an MPEG is a digital video file. These files are almost always compressed (to save transfer times and disk space), so they must be decoded. Also, the files must be decoded properly for the type of display you will be using.

Sound card

As with the video card, this is not the simple type of sound card that comes with a garden-variety computer. You'll want a sound card with multiple digital inputs and analog outputs.

Optical storage

What we are calling “optical storage” here is really something that can read and write to an optical disk, such as a CD or DVD. The new CD “burners” are optical storage devices.

Instead of buying several stand-alone devices (DVD player or CD burner), it is generally better to buy a combination device.

USB hub

The USB hub is required to extend your computer's existing serial bus, and to allow more devices to connect to it. The serial bus is one of your computer's main internal means of communication.

Video display

The TV that sits in your living room is actually a very low-resolution device. Even a rather cheap video monitor will give significantly better video quality. And since we already have a television tuner built in to the video card we specified, a second one is not needed in a television set. You don't need to have a complete TV set, only a nice monitor.

You do not have to stick with the standard TV-screen shape (a 4:3 perspective). Instead, you can use a wide screen (16:9 perspective). This is much nicer for viewing movies, and is no worse for viewing TV programming. HDTV signals are being broadcast in this wide perspective also.

A top-quality video monitor could cost $20,000, which is too expensive for most people. A good (but not great) display is about $2,000. For an inexpensive 21-in. monitor, you would pay in the range of $600 to $700. All of these will be substantially better displays than any standard television.

Make sure that the monitor matches the system you are building. Take a Polaroid photo, or make a drawing of the equipment you intend to connect the monitor to, then be sure that the inputs and outputs match. Test the monitor as soon as you get it on site.

Speakers and receiver

With modern stereo equipment, very good sound is available at a reasonable price; but if your client wants “great” sound, the price goes up. The basic setup for most installations (both high-end and low) is for five speakers plus a sub-woofer.

If you are interested in high-quality sound, you absolutely need equipment that is capable of decoding digital signals. All the soundtracks on DVDs are digital, so this is a necessity.


You actually need three pieces of software for a good system: software for MP3 sound files, PVR software and DVD software. Most of this will probably be packaged with the equipment you buy.

The remote

You'll want a lot of your equipment to be controlled with a single remote control. You can do this with a programmable remote.


Building this type of system is not that difficult, but it will be confusing the first time or two you try. Get help at first.

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