More Media Center
Following my rant about the way PC manufacturers are designing Media Center Edition PCs, reader Jeff B. was pointed me to Alienware's line of home theater friendly MCE designs. More on that in the Gadget Envy section.
Do-it-yourself home theater PC builders may have the best option. A company called Silverstone offers a variety of sleek black case designs designed to fit nicely in any home theater configuration. Building your own system gives you more control over the components used, which based on my personal experiences with the wireless keyboard and mouse shipping with the HP MCE systems is probably a good thing.
I remain intrigued by the DIY home theater PC, particularly because I retain control of each element in the system, instead of giving decision making over to whoever the PC maker struck a deal with this week. If ATI is currently making better cards than NVIDIA, I can choose the best card, instead of the best card from one of the two video card makers. Sound cards are almost always skimped on by PC makers; good enough audio seems to be the solution and customization isn't an option even at Alienware.
The nuts and bolts that make or break usability are all wireless interface devices. A keyboard and mouse from either Logitech or Microsoft yield similar performance and really boil down to how many extra buttons you need. For a home theater remote there is only one choice; Firefly from SnapStream is simply the best solution on the market. SnapStream delivers a great PVR product for time-shifting your TV viewing habits and the Firefly remote delivers an experience matching the Media Center Edition PC controller.
I previously built my own home theater PC system using various third party apps and hardware. I currently have two official Media Center Edition systems. MCE does provide only slightly better integration with the operating system components like picture viewing and audio playback. PVR functionality and movie playback both work very similarly with 3rd party apps; if you recently purchased a PC, the 3rd party route gives you the best of both worlds without having to spend more money on another PC. If you plan on building a new home theater PC from the ground up, I'm not sure you can beat the prices of the OEM systems.