Skip to main content

How to turn your mini PC into a monster media center

Windows 10 is an awesome platform for a home media device, because there's not a lot it can't do. It also comes in all shapes and sizes, including very small ones, which is perfect for the home entertainment center.

Whether you're looking at using a stick PC or a slightly larger barebones kit, here are some things you can do to help make it the best it can be.

Hardware

You can go a couple of ways to get a great, and very small PC into your home entertainment setup: A stick or a small barebones kit. Each has advantages.

A stick plugs into the back of your TV, completely out of sight. It's inexpensive, has access to all the apps you need and can be powered from a USB socket built into the same TV.

A barebones kit has more flexibility, as well as (usually) more power. Because you're only buying a box with ports, a processor, and a motherboard, you can add RAM and internal storage to suit your needs. You do, however, need to have a copy of the OS, which adds to the cost.

There are also a bunch of mini PCs that sit somewhere in between. Some are more comparable to sticks in hardware but don't attach directly to the TV. Others are like more powerful barebones kits, but with RAM, storage and an OS already installed.

The best barebones PC

The best mini PCs

Expand over your network

Hard drive

6 great ways to back up your PC's data

Whichever method you choose, if you're dealing with your own media you're likely going to want more than the internal storage for your catalog. The easy way is to address this is to just hang an external drive from it. But, in the case of a home entertainment center, this isn't exactly elegant.

A better solution is to use a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive. Loading up your collection of music and video onto a NAS gives you access to it from any compatible device on your local network, and in some cases even when you're away from home.

Consumer-grade NAS drives aren't particularly expensive, especially for the freedom they offer. Or, if you have a USB connection on your router, you can share a regular external hard drive with your network.

The best NAS drives

Software

Kodi

Kodi

Because you're running Windows 10, you could just have a drive full of media and go into it when you want something. But you don't want to do that if you don't have to. Your family doesn't want to do that.

The first part is easy: You've got the Windows Store to get most of what you'll want to deliver your home entertainment. You have Netflix, Hulu, and Microsoft's apps for Movies and TV and music, with giants like Spotify and iTunes with Apple Music soon heading there, too.

The best Windows apps for cordcutters and streamers

What you'll also find in the Windows Store are front ends to three popular pieces of software for creating and organizing your home media: Plex, Emby and Kodi. Kodi is already designed with the big screen in mind, and Plex has the Plex Media Player application which is better suited for use with a PC hooked up to a TV.

Plex

Whichever you choose, you have a powerful tool at your disposal to create the ultimate media center from your tiny Windows PC. And we've got guides on each option, as well.

It's also worth pointing out that if you're using some form of low-powered mini PC as a media box, it'll be much better if something else is handling the harder work, like transcoding and or a DVR for live TV.

Speaking of live TV, it's really easy to pull this in using any of the three pieces of software mentioned above, and in the case of Emby and Plex, setting up a DVR to record content on your behalf is also simple. While it might be better to use a more powerful machine to handle DVR features, your mini PC is perfect for watching recorded content.

Accessories

When using a PC plugged into a TV, you don't necessarily want to plug in a mouse and keyboard. It's not exactly a slick solution.

The simple way around this is to snag a keyboard with a built-in trackpad. This way, you still have the full functionality you need to interact with Windows, but you don't need to worry about wires and can easily sit back on the couch.

A couple of great choices are the Rii mini keyboard (opens in new tab) and the Microsoft wireless media keyboard. The Rii is perfect if you're looking for something closer to a remote control, while the Microsoft option is a full-size keyboard with fairly large trackpad.

See at Amazon (opens in new tab)

Your tips

If you're using a Windows 10-powered media box to deliver your favorite entertainment and have some tips to share, be sure to leave them in the comments below.

Richard Devine is an Editor at Windows Central. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently you'll find him covering all manner of PC hardware and gaming, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

12 Comments
  • Three words: Fire TV Stick
  • Isn't that just an AOSP-stick? That's not good enough.
  • Not good enough for what?
  • I'm using a setup similar to this and its working great. I paired it with a wireless keyboard with a built-in track pad to control it from the couch. I just have it boot into the full screen start menu with all the tiles. If an app isn't available, i just pin the website to the start menu. My family finds it pretty easy to use too. Plus it works with Steam's in-home streaming service so I can stream all my games from my gaming pc that is downstairs.
  • I still use a full size media pc case with WMC with Windows 8.1 since you can't get WMC on W10. Still works great! One input, one box, two remotes, way fewer wires and plugs. No Xbox, because I can play modern games through steam with a wireless Xbox controller. No DVD/BD player because my media center handles it all disc or digital format. No slow power sticks , Apps like HULU and Netflix etc. Plays on my Media Center. No cable box or satellite box , it records all my shows I want. I can also access my music, access the web with full functionally. The best part is, it's wife approve. Easy enough for her to use, one input period! One device, plus a Audio receiver. I hated it when I had six or seven devices all with different remotes, wires and cords and dust everywhere. Nope gonna ride WMC till it's completely dead!
  • Does anyone know if a simple Microsoft Display Adapter for Lumia can be used to connect your Windows 10 desktop for wireless streaming?
  • If you mean the 'Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter', then yes.
  • All it does it says "Could not connect" when trying to Connect using the action center icon. It shows up and logs Connecting... then a big error all the time. Same works flawlessly with my Lumia device.
  • I have long used WMC with a Ceton infinTV 4... started having all kinds of stability issues on Windows 8.1 with it so I rebuilt a machine running Windows 7 with WMC and I am now using Emby as a front end to LiveTV and all my media... Emby is actually pretty great... they have apps for nearly every device out there... and they all support LiveTV... so I am using WMC as the back end TVServer in Emby and it's almost flawless.  I used to have several old XBOX 360's around the house just to use the Media Center exterder app.  Now I can use Emby on my Roku's, Android Phones, iPhone, iPads, XBOX Ones, and my PC... it's pretty much the best of all worlds!  Should be able to extend the life of my media center PC for some time!  You can even configure Emby to work over the WAN so you could use your phone to watch live TV while your not at home... pretty impressive!
  • Get a remote control, a Windows one as for the old Media Centre. Whilst Windows is a bit patchy in recognising the remote these days, packages like Kodi work well with a remote. Way better than using a keyboard and track pad for the actual TV and media viewing.
  • Thanks for the info , have to check emby out.
  • Here are my problems with using mini PCs as media centers: Like it or not PCs - Macs & Linux included - require active administation to stay updated and secure. The more you ask your mini PC to do, the more its workload becomes that of a full-blown PC. Troubleshooting a PC with a mini keyboard and a TV screen is a major PITA compared to troubleshooting one at a desk. PC UIs just do not translate well into living room/theater room UIs. Ergo, my recommendation is to scrap the mini-PC concept altogether. Get a big rig desktop that you also use as your primary machine with proper monitors, keyboard, mouse, etc. Put all your media on it. Install Plex Server on it. Then install Plex on non-PC client devices throughout your home and BOOM! your media is everywhere. This solves the preceding problems as: Any administration you do would be administration you'd do anyway since you actively use the desktop for things other than media. This saves time. You have a full-blown PC that can handle anything (except, perhaps, realtime 4K downsampling) you throw at it. You have full-size, standard interface troubleshooting tools. The client device UIs are built for "lean back" living/media room experiences.