If you're looking to create a specialist entertainment PC, Windows XP could be a reasonable choice. It demands little in the way of memory or CPU power, for example, so it will run well on the majority of older systems. Yet it's still highly compatible with all the hardware you might need: TV tuner, wireless networking adaptor, memory card reader and so on.
There's surprisingly little software support within XP, though, probably because Microsoft hived off most entertainment features into Windows Media Center (WMC). So if you want WMC-like functionality – such as the ability to watch and record TV, manage your music collection or browse your digital photos – then you'll have to opt for a third-party tool. We recommend the free MediaPortal. It's a remarkably powerful program, but be aware that it does occasionally throw up glitches.
Opt for Windows Vista instead and you'll get Windows Media Center thrown in (with the Home Premium or Ultimate editions, anyway), and that makes a huge difference. Hardware manufacturers know that Media Center is the biggest player in the entertainment PC world right now, so they take a lot of care to ensure that their products are compatible. This means that you're less likely to have codec problems. Vista extras such as improved networking connectivity, Windows DVD Maker and HD support in Movie Maker are welcome, too.
MEDIA MOGUL: Windows Media Center is essential for home entertainment PCs, but it's only available on Windows Vista or Windows 7
Windows 7 takes this a step further with improved support for HD displays, including the ability to calibrate a screen to ensure it's accurately reproducing colours. It's easier to share your media files around a home network, and the touch interface support makes sure that everything is easy to use (for those with touchscreen hardware, anyway). However, we'd bet that your budget for an entertainment PC is limited and that you won't want to experience the driver-related issues that Windows 7 is bound to throw up in its first few months. So, while Windows 7 is bound to be a future winner, it's overkill at the moment.
Our entertainment pick right now, then, is Windows Vista. It runs reasonably well on budget PCs, any performance issues it has won't be a big deal for an entertainment system (with the possible exception of network transfers) and there's plenty of compatible software and hardware available.
Meanwhile, Windows 7 is the best pick if you've got lots of money to spend or an HD touchscreen to hand and don't mind the occasional delay when you discover that your TV tuner (or some other piece of kit) doesn't work quite as it should on the new system. If your budget is limited, opt for XP instead. Shop around and you can put together an excellent entertainment system for just a few pounds.
XP: 3.5 / 5
Vista: 4 / 5
Windows 7: 3 / 5