What is a Digital Media Center?

Mike Howells

A digital media center is a device, typically a computer or gaming machine, that is used to store and play back a variety of media, including video, music, and photos. Digital media center use has gained in popularity in tandem with the continuing growth of digital media, such as MP3s, DVDs, and Blu-ray. Typically a digital media center is used in the home, though they are often employed as in-vehicle entertainment for limousines, buses, and airplanes. From a technical standpoint, they present an option for situations where the resources of a traditional computer are not warranted, but a level of options greater than a simple DVD player or the like is desired.

A portion of a digital media center should act as a digital video recorder.
A portion of a digital media center should act as a digital video recorder.

A properly equipped digital media center consists of one or more hard drives that not only store media but have digital video recorder (DVR) functionality, with the ability to display terrestrial, satellite, or cable broadcasting as well as Internet streams. A wireless keyboard and mouse, in addition to a traditional remote control, are typically used to navigate through the operating system. Common operating systems for digital media centers include Windows® Media Center, MediaPortal, MythTV, XBMC, or LinuxMCE.

A digital media center can be built from the ground up and installed in a case resembling a typical cable or home theater receiver, or a traditional computer can be re-purposed with digital media software and peripherals. It is also possible to modify gaming platforms such as the Microsoft Xbox®, Xbox 360® or Sony Playstation® to function as a media center. The latter two systems come with a limited ability to function as a digital media center out of the box. Increasingly, manufacturers are also offering pre-built media centers, complete with hardware and software, at an inclusive price.

Cost-wise, a digital media center is typically cheaper than a full-blown personal computer, but more expensive than renting a DVR or owning a DVD player. With a digital media center, quality of both sound and video can rival dedicated systems, while providing flexibility to show photo slideshows, play games, and use the Internet. Potential drawbacks to digital media centers as compared to dedicated devices relate to complexity, as a degree of technical proficiency is necessary for both set up and ongoing maintenance. Additionally, given their evolution from traditional PCs, media centers can be louder than a DVR, which can be distracting for some users. Nevertheless they offer the potential to act as a total replacement for the traditional elements of a home theater.

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