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

Tim Brookes 13-07-2012

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 Raspberry Pi - A Credit-Card Sized ARM Computer - Yours For Only $25 Something big has been brewing in the university town of Cambridge, UK. For the past year a team of academics, businessmen, lecturers and programmers have been making final amendments to a very exciting project indeed.... Read More . Recently we even covered some interesting case ideas 18 Interesting DIY Raspberry Pi Case Ideas The Raspberry Pi is an incredible computer, but its barebones design means it can be slightly fragile. We show you the best DIY cases to protect your Pi. Read More 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.


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:

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 Setup A Perfect Media Center With Plex [Mac & Windows] Plex is widely regarded by many as being the best media player, manager and streaming application around - available for both Windows, Mac and even mobiles (though the mobile apps are not free). If you're... Read More . 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:

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:

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:


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 5 Great Linux Media Center Distributions To Transform Your TV Read More .

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) [Broken URL Removed]

Related topics: Apple TV, Media Player, Raspberry Pi, XBMC Kodi.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Dimas Putra
    December 9, 2012 at 12:14 am

    I'm in Indonesia, and Pi costs about $60. Add more $35, and you will get power adaptor, memory card (16GB class 4), and HDMI cable.

  2. Paul Hays
    November 17, 2012 at 7:35 am

    I am going to put a nettop together with an external HDD to meet my own humble needs.

  3. Declan Lopez
    October 20, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    nice, if i were setting up a home theater i would probably use a nettop because of their small form factor

  4. Edward Bellair
    August 4, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Nice. If only I had more time and money.

  5. Gian Singh
    July 17, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    gonna try this

  6. Rocking Rameez
    July 17, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    nice work try this

  7. Aaron
    July 17, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Hold on for a few weeks, until XBMC for android comes out. For $114.99 from amazon or newegg the Pivos UlTRA SLIM XIOS DS HD will play XBMC out of the box and Pivos is an official XBMC sponsor.

  8. Vysakh P
    July 17, 2012 at 5:22 am

    I'm planning to setup a htpc using beagleboard xm. Please help me to choose the better among raspberry pi and beagleboard xm.

    • Tim Brookes
      July 22, 2012 at 12:47 am

      I would personally go for the Raspberry Pi on the basis that it's cheaper but still capable of running XBMC and decoding HD video. That's not much of a comparison of the two, just my opinion. Let us know which you choose and how it works out!

      • Vysakh P
        July 23, 2012 at 2:01 am

        I heard that raspberry pi doesn't support ubuntu ARM edition but beagleboard xm supports both ubuntu and android. If anyone knows how to setup android or ubuntu on raspberry pi please explain it.

  9. Spencer Vincent
    July 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Apple TV has got to be worst out of that bunch

  10. Kerry Archambault
    July 14, 2012 at 5:15 am

    For the most part, I am happy with my Xbox 360 and regular Media Center connection picking up my media over the household WiFi from my PC and external drive.
    I would like to try other ways that I hear have less codec issues. But, the issues are fairly sporadic and I deal with them by using conversion software whenever they arise. And, I am too poor to replace something that already works.

    • Tim Brookes
      July 15, 2012 at 1:59 am

      Well the RasPi is a cheap alternative that won't end up burning out your Xbox 360. A 360 will cost more to replace than a RasPi, Apple TV or cheap Nettop, and if you use the 360 for watching DVDs you'll find that the drive will inevitably be the first thing to go!

      Of course if your 360 lasts another 2 years then you'll be able to pick up another for next to nothing once the next generation is in full swing. Can't wait for that!

      • James Bruce
        July 16, 2012 at 10:14 am

        :"burning out your xbox"?

        Do people still own those old grey xboxes anyway? The new ones don't suffer the same issues, you know.

        also: DVDs? Really? Is that still a thing?

  11. nigel
    July 13, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    from my reading, it's $35 for a Raspberry Pi with ethernet

    • Saikat Basu
      July 14, 2012 at 10:11 am

      Hi Nigel. you are right. There are two models of the Pi - The Model A will cost $25 and the Model B $35, plus local taxes.

  12. Robert
    July 13, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    I've been using an Acer Revo w/Ion as a HTPC for a couple of years, coupled with my 42" Panasonic 720p plasma, cost $500. + $330. = $830. delivered to the door.
    My teen daughter needed a better replacement for her ASUS Eee netbook, something with more power for her graphic-art programs (she makes and sells digital art), so I moved the Acer Revo to her room and attached it to the back of a new Apex 19" LED HDTV ($112. total at Amazon) for an all-in-one pc for her use.
    I bought a new Logitec Revue (Intel Atom1.2 ghz-Android OS) GoogleTV 3.0 unit and keyboard w/Harmony remote and touch-pad built-in for $107. delivered from Amazon. This Revue keyboard can integrate ALL your TV, DVR, AV and cable boxes, even adding them to your search within the Chrome browser AND I'm watching all my favorite free streaming tv and movie sites over ethernet from Clear ISP @ 1.8 avg., the only real difference is I can't run multiple tabs and there are not many apps available from Google play optimized for the Revue. However I found I could save and create an "app" from any website, cloud service, etc... with a couple of button clicks. I just did an Amazon review for the thing, I like it that much.
    If one was to couple the $112. Apex 19" LED HDTV with the $107 Logitech Revue, they'd have a $219. total delivered to the door Home Theatre.

    • Robert Simmons
      July 13, 2012 at 8:29 pm

      Though it doesn't "do" multiple tabs like windows or apple, it does keep FB and Gmail (among others) open when you click an outside link within those programs for easy return..

      • Robert Simmons
        July 13, 2012 at 8:32 pm

        and it gives your hdtv Picture-in-picture capabilty.

      • Robert Simmons
        July 13, 2012 at 8:35 pm

        and I have it connected via USB to my external HD for media access.

    • Tim Brookes
      July 15, 2012 at 1:56 am

      Thanks for your input, Robert. Sounds like you've put a lot of thought into your setup. I'm sure your input will help others out!

  13. Steve
    July 13, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    I use Plex on a Roku. It is now out of the private channel phase and is in the Roku app store. With how cheap you can get a Roku anymore, this is a great setup. Very easy to use and the interface is great. Other ways to stream are to select blu ray players, PS3, Xbox 360, WD TV Live, and various other players. I run one plex server and client on a mac and have two Rokus at my place. I'm very pleased with the setup and how simple it is to use.

    • Brenden Barlow
      December 12, 2012 at 6:58 am

      i personally enjoy the ps3 to stream with, but ive been considering using a roku (just havent made the leap yet)

  14. Muhammad Ahmad
    July 13, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Good work, will try it later this month.

  15. Anna
    July 13, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Hi, thanks for this!

    I was wondering if links were missing from this sentence above:

    "A remote control, like this one for iOS or this one for Android."

  16. Fayz
    July 13, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I'm going to try the Raspberry Pi setup. If it works, I'll set it up for my parents who are looking for cheap home theaters.

  17. Hernando
    July 13, 2012 at 3:35 am

    On the net top front, Openelec is an awesome xbmc spin off that delivers the xbmc experience with very little overhead. It basically is an xbmc appliance os. Easy to setup and plenty fast on an acre aspire revo. It even has an addon for sabnzbd, sick beard, couch potato and headphones.

    • Tim Brookes
      July 13, 2012 at 3:38 am

      Awesome! Thanks for the recommendation, I will certainly give it a spin.