Three Basic Options

Right now, there are three main types of media centers on the market, each with its own way of storing and distributing entertainment.

Stand-alone computer system
This system does double duty as your home computer and media-distribution hub. Just plug a video cable from the back of the computer into the back of your TV or audio-video components, and you're ready to practice being a couch potato. In addition to stored movies and music, special media-distribution software lets you watch and download exclusive content from the Internet, as well as pause and record live television broadcasts, just like TiVo. For movie fanatics on a ­budget, these systems—available on computers from more than 100 manufacturers, including Gateway, Dell, and Sony—are the most affordable choice, starting at about $600, though their laundry list of capabilities can make them a challenge for all but the most techno-savvy to master.

Server/PC combo
This type of system comes with a ­server, digital player, and remote control, but uses your existing home computer as the "media reader" for transferring files. Once connected to your computer, the server grabs digital video, music, and picture files, then copies, organizes, and stores them. That gives you the option of deleting them from your hard drive to free up disk space. The system, which costs about $3,000 for the server and three players, can support up to eight players running at once and has a creative feature that allows you to make a digital-picture slide show set to your favorite music.

Out-of-the-box system
This comes complete with everything you need: a server, a media reader, and a digital ­player. Pop a CD into the reader, and in 8 minutes the contents are loaded; a feature-film DVD takes about 20 minutes (the system can hold up to 825 movies and play on as many as 25 screens at once). You'll have to invest some time on the front end getting your collection loaded, but once you do, you'll never have to fumble with a CD case again—and think of all the extra room you'll have on your bookshelves. Easiest to use, this system is also the most expensive, at about $22,000 for a basic setup. At present, it does not store or display digital pictures.

With all their entertainment options, digital media centers come with one unexpected side benefit: They just might encourage you to make room in your life for things other than digital movies and music. "You don't need to have giant media racks in your family room anymore," says Goldman. "That gives us more space for books and art."
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