The Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) operating system is a great OS. It provides all the functions of Windows XP Professional Edition, and gives you a dedicated multimedia interface that provides instant and easy access to audio, video, images and in many cases television.
Getting the most from an MCE PC depends very much on what hardware it's paired with, and there are some key points to consider before you make a buying decision. Possibly the most important factor is the physical design of the computer. If you're using it in your living room, you'll want to ensure that it blends in as seamlessly as possible with your existing audio visual setup -- large desktop PCs will look completely out of place.
Just as importantly, MCE PCs should have low operational noise. There's nothing worse than having a computer making a huge racket next to your television when you're trying to enjoy something as simple as DVD playback. Look for computers that make less than 30dB of noise during operating, as anything above this will be annoying.
More advanced users will want to ensure their MCE PC comes with at least one TV tuner. Many of the latest Media Center PCs now ship with hybrid tuners that let you watch either analogue or digital (Freeview) television programmes. More advanced models ship with dual hybrid tuners, so you can record two programmes while you watch another (and even a fourth in a picture-in-picture box).
Multimedia file hoarders will need to consider factors such as the size of the hard disk. On average, you'll need around 1GB of disk space for each hour of high-quality video recorded by MCE, so unless you intend to continually delete or back up movies you've already recorded, you should get as large a hard disk as possible.
Finally, ensure your MCE PC comes with all the appropriate connectors to link it to the rest of your AV equipment. If you have an existing amplifier and speaker setup, look at the types of audio and video inputs/outputs available, or you'll have trouble integrating it with your existing hardware.