You can easily turn your old laptop into a HTPC if you already have a modern HDTV in your living room. This guide is designed for beginners wishing to take their first steps towards bringing the internet into their TV by building a home theater computer without buying a lot of new hardware.
While it is popular among some other guides to introduce Linux operating system as an approach to convert an old laptop into media center PC. However, this guide proves that it is not necessary to take the Linux path in order to enjoy media files with your computer. Furthermore, you might not feel comfortable exploring the Linux option if you do not have that much experience with the computers.
Before buying a Mac Mini 1.5 years ago, I used my Fujitsu Siemens Amilo XA 1526 laptop as a home theater PC for 2 years. In fact, I am surprised that more people do not utilize their old computer as a home theater PC. You need to invest only a little bit of money to equip your PC with enough performance to handle most functions. Below, I have summarized the steps how I turned my PC with 1.8 GHz dual core processor into a full HD video capable media center PC.
I would like to point out that before adding 2 GB more RAM and getting a better software for media playback, I was barely able to play standard definition video (HD video was out of the question) on media centers like XBMC and Boxee, so for this reason I will introduce a more lighter approach in playing media files.
1. Get the video and audio cables to connect computer to TV
First, we will check the existing equipment you have today. The existing connections will obviously determine or limit the connection options we can use. If you have a newer LCD TV, there is a good chance your TV supports both digital HDMI and analog VGA connections. So, it is up to your computer’s connectivity that determines which connection cable we will use.
VGA connection can be found on most older PCs, so this might be the case with your computer, too. Best way to connect it (if you don’t have DVI connection) is to use a VGA to VGA cable.
If you are luckier, you can find a DVI connection behind your PC. In this case, you can connect it to TV using a DVI-to-HDMI cable.
If you have an A/V receiver in your living room, I would strongly recommend getting a Toslink to Optical Mini Adapter to enjoy digital audio from your media center.
Learn more about connecting your computer to TV and AV receiver here.
2. Upgrade memory to 3 or 4 GB
After upgrading RAM from 1 GB to 3 GB on my Fujitsu Siemens computer, I noticed a significant improvement in the video playback performance. To my mind getting more RAM is a simple way to bring old laptop back to life, particularly if you are running the Windows Vista operating system.
3. Upgrade to a bigger internal hard drive
As we intend to play videos and movies on the laptop HTPC, you will soon run out of hard drive space on your computer. Getting a new bigger hard drive is not a must do step, but it will definitely make your life easier to have enough storage space for your media files.
4. Get an IR Receiver and Remote Control, if needed
Although you do not necessarily need a remote control, having one makes a media center usage in the living room more comfortable and you do not necessarily need to touch a mouse much. However, not all older laptops have a built-in IR receiver. If this is the case, you will need to get a Windows PC Remote Control and Infrared Receiver in order to control your PC with a remote control.
Further to the remote control, you could also consider adding a TV tuner if you want to watch live TV on your media center. For myself, this was not necessary as I am mainly watching online video content and video podcasts.
Have a look at the list of popular remote controls.
5. Install the KMPlayer for the video playback
While I have tried most of the media center software on the market, I was not happy with the choppy video playback, particularly when it comes to compressed h.264 or other HD video codecs. Then I found the KMPlayer which proved to be an excellent media player software for an older PC. It even has a nice media center user interface where you can browse your video collection with a visual user interface. Check the KMPlayer installation guide here.
6. Install CoreAVC codec to play HD video smoothly
I wanted to play some of the AVCHD video files from my HD camcorder, but unfortunately Windows Media Player and other media players were not able to play AVCHD video files smoothly. The winning combination was the KMPlayer and CoreAVC video codec. CoreAVC is widely regarded as the fastest software codec available for AVCHD video playback. Check the detailed CoreAVC codec installation guide here.
7. Install iTunes for music
For the music management, iTunes is simply the best software. Some tech savvy users might not agree with this statement, but for an average user, iTunes media player is an excellent choice. While for smooth video playback you need to use the KMPlayer, for listening to music, iTunes is more than enough.
8. Install Picasa for photos
Google’s Picasa is an excellent photo management software. Picasa keeps your photos organized and has great slideshow features as well. Furthermore, you can set the Picasa as a screensaver to randomly watch photos during your free time.
9. Organize video folders as desktop shortcuts
This is a usability tip, I learned from the past. It is a good practice to include your main video folders as desktop shortcuts so that they can be found easily and quickly. Have a look at the best practices to organize your media library.
If you decide to use the KMPlayer for the video playback, it is a good idea to associate the video files to the KMPlayer by default and launch the movies from these folder shortcuts on your desktop.
10. Increase the default Windows font and icon size
This final step is to adjust the Windows font and icon DPI size to be more suitable for the 10-foot user interface. You can also use a plugin called NoSquint in Firefox browser to increase the font size.
So to summarize, these were the 10 steps you need to do to turn an old laptop into a HTPC. The greatest benefit in turning your computer into a home theater PC is that you will get an entry level media center with a minimum effort and budget.
If you want to learn this subject in detail, go grab my free eBook to build your own HTPC.