Entertainment On The Cheap: The Most Affordable Ways To Set Up A Home Theater

cheap home theaterIf you’re still using your Xbox 360 to watch video content then it’s probably time to sort out a proper media centre solution. Do you really want to burn out your console long before the red rings or yellow light of death signal the end of your favourite toy?

While plenty of pricey pre-built solutions exist, there are a few ways to bring a streaming box of entertainment to your living room on the cheap. With the right some open source media software, a few budget products and some spare time you can sort out the perfect media companion in a couple of hours.

In this article we’ll be looking at three potential solutions that you might not have considered, as well as the software you’ll need for each.

Raspberry Pi

We’ve featured the Raspberry Pi on MakeUseOf a couple of times before but in case you’re unfamiliar with this breakthrough device, you will probably want to read all about what it does and why it’s so awesome. Recently we even covered some interesting case ideas ranging from simple Lego housings to the “Imperial Pi Fighter”, though the unit is small enough you could probably Blu-Tack it to the back of your TV.

cheap home theater

The Raspberry Pi’s potential as a media centre is promising to say the least. The small, $25 computer is uses an ARM-based system-on-chip (SoC) design which means it plays nice with software and Linux distributions written for the ARM architecture. Of course, you don’t need to understand any of this in order to make use of it, especially now that XBMC now has its own Raspberry-flavoured project.

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The release, known as Raspbmc uses the excellent XBMC open source media centre to chew through 1080p video, providing you with a barebones entertainment system for around the price of a new BluRay release. You can even stream AirPlay content straight from your Apple device once you’ve enabled the setting. Some time spent setting it up is required, but then that’s part of the fun when it comes to the RasPi.

Things You’ll Need:

  • A Raspberry Pi
  • An SD Card
  • Raspbmc [FAQ]
  • An HDMI cable (cheap ones work perfectly fine)
  • A USB keyboard/mouse for setup
  • Ethernet cable/Wi-Fi dongle for networking (optional but recommended)
  • A USB hub for adding extra sources directly (optional)
  • Some time to set it up using Windows or OS X/Linux
  • A remote control, like this one for iOS or this one for Android

Apple TV

The Apple TV might seem like the perfect device out of the box for your home theatre needs, but in reality you’ll probably want to get as much as you can out of the pint-sized powerhouse with a jailbreak. At present there is no jailbreak for what many are calling the Apple TV 3, a revised version of the black box that came out in March of 2012. If you do decide to buy new, you’ll have to wait before you can install additional software on it so for now you might want to pick up a cheap used box on eBay.

cheap home theater systems

For now an original Apple TV (720p, no live streaming) or Apple TV 2 (1080p, some streaming capabilities) have both received the jailbreak treatment, allowing for XBMC to be installed while retaining the AirPlay functionality and iTunes integration the device was designed for. So technically you can have the best of both worlds, enjoying your media library.

As an alternative to XBMC you could also use Plex, a media centre that James raved about last year. Plex is a little different to XBMC (despite being a fork) in that it uses a separate server and client to stream media. It works with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, and even lets you stream using the iPad and Android tablets but you’ll need a second generation (black) Apple TV to be able to use it.

Things You’ll Need:

  • A jailbroken Apple TV (jailbreak instructions)
  • XBMC for iOS or Plex for Apple TV 2 (and the server)
  • Media shared over a network

An Old Netbook or “Nettop”

While an old bit of computer equipment might not make the speediest, quietest or sleekest looking media centre, chances are it will do the job without requiring any additional expenditure. Provided the hardware is powerful enough to decode HD video content and has an HDMI or DVI out, then it will do!

cheap home theater systems

I’d recommend an old netbook or equivalent for this task for a few reasons:

  • They’re small and quiet – some don’t even have fans
  • They’re should come with everything you need – Wi-Fi, USB connectivity and HDMI/DVI-out are pretty standard
  • You can install Windows, a lightweight Linux distro or run a live USB version of XBMCbuntu for the quickest setup possible

Hunt around for a “nettop” PC with enough grunt (but not too much, you’ll want it to be quiet) like the Acer Aspire Revo (above) which won’t break the bank. These machines are designed to be low power and inexpensive, and they won’t kick out too much heat and require loud fans either. A live XBMCbuntu or lightweight Linux install with XBMC won’t tax the internals too much, providing a quiet and cheap media solution.

cheap home theater

There are a constant flow of sub-$200 nettops on eBay and according to the official XBMC wiki most computers manufactured within the last 5 years meet the minimum requirements for XBMC Live/XBMCbuntu. Don’t forget about the official forum which contains plenty of advice regarding suitable setups.

Potential software:

  • XBMC (with a custom skin and some add-ons)
  • Plex
  • Enna
  • Element
  • MythTV or Mythbuntu (PVR software)


Hopefully these few ideas will inspire you to pick up a RasPi, cheap Apple TV, or a low powered living room PC. XBMC and Plex are two ideal software solutions for a low budget media centre, though for the living room PC you might want to consider an alternative media-centric Linux distro instead.

Do you use a cheap media centre? How much did you spend? Talk us through your setup in the comments, below.

Image credit: Intro (Shutterstock), AspireRevo & Wii (takot), Netbook (eko)

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