The 6 Best Home Theater PCs of 2021

Watch your favorite flicks on your computer — just bring your own popcorn

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The Rundown
The Intel NUC 8I7HNK is a powerful beast in a tiny package.
The Mac Mini is a beautiful piece of tech with impressive specifications and an exceptionally high price tag
The best thing about the ThinkStation P340 is the fact that it packs so much high performance hardware into a remarkably small package
The Dell Optiplex 3070 Micro is a great choice if you’re working on a bit of a budget and also have space constraints
The Origin Chronos is on the larger side of PCs that we recommend for use in home theater settings, but there’s a good reason for the exception
Best Pocket Performance:
Intel Compute Stick CS125 at Amazon
The Intel Compute Stick is a remarkably small home theater PC, with a form factor that isn’t much larger than most television streaming devices

Home theater PCs (HTPCs) are computers that are designed for use in the living room instead of the office. A home theater PC can act as a media hub, streaming your digital video and music library to other devices on your home network, or simply to play Netflix, Spotify, and other streaming services on your home theater setup. These flexible computers share a lot in common with the best desktop PCs, but they are typically smaller and more focused on media delivery.

The best home theater PCs are both small and powerful, which means they tend to be expensive as well. If you’re working on a budget, then you can expect to sacrifice either size, power, or both to hit your desired price point. Some more affordable options that lack the power of more advanced home theater PCs include options like stick PCs and Chrome-based systems. You can also use a laptop as a home theater PC in a pinch, but that isn’t the most elegant solution.

Our top pick for the category is the Intel NUC 817HNK. It's a compact and powerful HTPC with a fast processor and video card, allowing it to handle media streaming and gaming in one package.

To help you find the best home theater PC for your own setup, we’ve researched and tested systems from all the top manufacturers, including Intel, Apple, Asus, and others. We’ve identified the best picks, including tiny powerhouses, systems that you can also use for work or gaming, and even options that run on macOS and Chrome OS. 

Read on to see the best home theater PCs below.

Best Overall: Intel NUC 817HNK

What We Like
  • Compact size

  • Built-in Wi-Fi

  • Fast processor and video card

  • 4K support

  • Support six displays

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

  • Fan is a little noisy

  • Skull aesthetic may not fit your decor

The Intel NUC 8I7HNK is a powerful beast in a tiny package. The small form factor makes it easy to slip this unit into just about any home theater setup without an issue, while the powerful internal components mean it’s ready to handle just about anything you throw at it from 4K UHD video to virtual reality (VR) gaming. The included 1TB storage drive might not be enough for your entire digital library, but you can always hook into network-attached storage (NAS) via the included Ethernet port or built-in Wi-Fi.

This home theater PC comes with a speedy quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, Radeon RX Vega M GL graphics, and 8 GB of DDR4 RAM. Those are pretty impressive specifications for such a small machine, and this hardware positions the Intel NUC 8I7HNK as a home theater powerhouse, ready to pipe video to up to six displays at once, or two 4K displays, stream in UHD, and even play VR video games if you have a VR headset.

Best Apple: Apple Mac Mini

Apple Mac Mini
What We Like
  • Compact form factor

  • Lots of configuration options

  • Flash storage up to 2TB

  • Runs up to two 4K displays

What We Don't Like
  • High base cost

  • Upgrades are expensive

  • Integrated graphics

The Mac Mini is a beautiful piece of tech with impressive specifications and an exceptionally high price tag. Available in a wide variety of configurations, the Mac Mini comes with a single HDMI 2.0 port that’s capable of piping 4K video to your TV, and you can also hook up a second 4K display via one of the included Thunderbolt 3 ports. All models include Ethernet for connecting to your home network, and you can even upgrade to 10GB Ethernet and a compatible high-speed network-attached storage (NAS) unit to round out your home theater experience if you like.

The best thing about the Mac Mini, and the thing that makes it so well suited to the role of home theater PC, is the diminutive, unassuming case. This tiny computer is small enough to slide into just about any home theater setup, either alongside or on top of your other components, and the sleek, space-gray case is unlikely to clash with the rest of your gear.

The base configuration, with a 3.6GHz quad-core processor and 256GB of storage, is perfectly suited to a streaming setup, but the integrated graphics, with no discrete graphics card option, means the Mac Mini won’t be doing double duty as both a home theater PC and a living room gaming rig.

"I was able to juggle an impressive number of browser windows, intensive apps like Photoshop and Handbrake, voice and video chat over Discord, and more without running into any real problems." — Jeremy Laukkonen, Product Tester

Apple Mac Mini

 Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

Best for Work: ThinkStation P340 Tiny Workstation

ThinkStation P340 Tiny Workstation
What We Like
  • Easy Portability

  • Monitor mountable

  • Supports up to 6 displays

  • Discrete graphic options

What We Don't Like
  • Base model doesn't have Wi-Fi

  • Monitor mount costs extra

Buying a great home theater PC can represent a pretty big investment, so you might want to think about a rig that could pull double duty as a workstation. The ThinkStation P340 Tiny Workstation is just such a machine, with the bona fides to run both your home theater and get real work done during the rest of the day. It’s also tough, having passed 18 MIL-STD-810G tests, so it’s built to withstand a whole lot more than a bit of daily jostling as you move it between your office and your home theater.

The base model comes equipped with a 10th generation Core i3 processor, which you can upgrade to a Core i5 or Core i7. You also get your choice of 8 or 16 GB of DDR3 RAM, a speedy 256 or 512 GB PCIe SSD, and a couple of different discrete NVIDIA Quadro graphics cards. With power like that, you can push 4K video to multiple displays, or even play games in addition to streaming media content.

The best thing about the ThinkStation P340 is the fact that it packs so much high-performance hardware into a remarkably small package. With optional mounting hardware, you have the option to mount the unit under your desk or even to the back of your monitor. Purchase extra power and HDMI cables, and you can easily pull this little powerhouse out of its cradle at the end of the workday and slot it in place to power your home theater at night.

Best Mountable: Dell Optiplex 3070 Micro

What We Like
  • Lots of mounting options

  • Entry unit very affordable

  • High performance options

What We Don't Like
  • Mounting brackets cost extra

  • Only two high definition video outputs

  • No discrete graphics options

 The Dell Optiplex 3070 Micro is a great choice if you’re working on a bit of a budget and also have space constraints. While this unit is small enough to fit into most home theater cabinets and other situations, you can actually mount it to the back of your VESA-compatible television with an optional bracket. Carefully route short cables behind your television as well, add a soundbar, and the Dell Optiplex 3070 can form the core of one of the stealthiest home theater systems around.

The entry-level Dell Optiplex 3070 Micro offers an excellent mix of affordability and performance, with a dual-core Pentium processor, 4GB DDR4 RAM, and a spacious 500 GB hard disk drive, all with a price tag lower than much of the competition. If you need a higher performance option, you can upgrade to a variety of Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 processors, add a 256GB PCIe SSD, add up to 8GB of RAM, and more.

The only real drawback of the Dell Optiplex 3070 Micro is there isn’t any option for discrete graphics, so you won’t be using this as both a home theater PC and a gaming rig. If that isn’t important, then this line has a whole lot to offer.

Best for Gaming: Origin PC Chronos

Origin PC Chronos
What We Like
  • Home theater and gaming in one package

  • Fantastic performance for the size

  • Some upgrades available

  • Compact design

What We Don't Like
  • No free PCIe slots for upgrades

  • No free DIMM slots for more RAM

  • Manufacturer add-ons are expensive

The Origin Chronos is on the larger side of PCs that we recommend for use in home theater settings, but there’s a good reason for the exception. This PC is still significantly smaller than your typical tower unit, yet it’s powerful enough to run the 4K display in your home theater system and then seamlessly switch over to play many of the latest games at the highest settings. If you’re a home theater buff who is also into PC gaming, the Origin Chronos ticks all the right boxes.

While the Chronos is a bit on the large side, gamers will be immediately comfortable with the size and form factor. It doesn’t conform exactly to the size specifications of any specific game system, but it doesn’t look out of place next to an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, nor will it have overstayed its welcome by the time you upgrade to the next generation of consoles.

The base configuration of the Origin Chronos comes packed with a six-core AMD Ryzen 5 3600 and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Super, which means you can even use it with some of the best VR headsets. You can also upgrade to a variety of more powerful Intel and AMD Ryzen CPUs, and even slot in a beastly Nvidia GeForce3 RTX Titan if you’re really looking to future-proof your home theater and gaming experiences.

The Origin Chronos is a bit pricey if you’re not looking for a home theater PC that can double as a powerful gaming rig, but it’s a fantastic option if that is what you’re looking for. It even leaves you with the option to upgrade after the fact, like a traditional PC, although the PCIe and DIMM slots are all full from the factory, so you’ll be replacing components with upgrades rather than just adding new functionality on top.

Best Pocket Performance: Intel Compute Stick CS125

Intel Compute Stick CS125
What We Like
  • Remarkably small size

  • Decent performance

  • Affordable

  • Full Windows experience

What We Don't Like
  • Limited memory

  • Some versions are expensive

  • No upgradeability

  • Some models are sluggish 

The Intel Compute Stick is a remarkably small home theater PC, with a form factor that isn’t much larger than most television streaming devices. It’s designed to plug directly into one of the HDMI ports on your television, or you can use an HDMI adapter if the Compute Stick is too big for that.

Unlike streaming devices with a similar form factor, the Intel Compute Stick is a legitimate Windows PC. It features the full Windows 10 experience, which means you can use this tiny home theater PC to do anything you can do with any other Windows computer. You can install apps, browse the internet, and, of course, stream media for your home theater.

The Intel Compute Stick comes in a few configurations, so it’s important to choose the right one. The most affordable option packs a lightweight Atom processor that’s suitable for basic streaming, but don’t expect it to do any heavy lifting. More expensive versions are available with faster processors, all in the same tiny form factor.

Final Verdict

There are a ton of great home theater PC options out there, but we feel that the Intel NUC 817HNK (see at Amazon) really ticks all the right boxes. It strikes an acceptable compromise between cost and performance, has the power necessary to play games in addition to streaming 4K video, and is small enough to fit in most home theater settings.

You may want to turn your eyes to an alternative like the Azulle Quantum Access if you’re working on a really tight budget, or something like the NZXT H1 Mini PC if high-performance gaming if your main concern, but the Intel NUC 817HNK definitely represents the best choice for the most people.

About Our Trusted Experts:

Jeremy Laukkonen has written about and reviewed PCs, home theater, and related topics for over a decade, and has been building his own rigs for more than twice that amount of time. 

What to Look For in a Home Theater PC 

Processor

You’ll find home theater PCs equipped with both Intel and AMD CPUs. AMD is a fine choice if you’re after a budget model and aren’t in need of high performance, while Intel typically provides higher performance. The latest AMD processors have flipped that script with fantastic performance from their most expensive offerings, but you’re unlikely to make that kind of investment in a home theater PC.

Graphics Card

If you want the best performance, you need your home theater PC to have a discrete graphics card. It doesn’t need to be powerful enough to play the latest games if you aren’t also a gamer, but it does need to be powerful enough to drive an HD or 4K display, or multiple displays depending on your configuration. If budget is more important, you may have to settle for integrated graphics.

Storage

You’ll need plenty of storage if you want to convert your media library to digital content that you can play on your home theater PC or stream to other devices in your home. Look for at least a 256GB SSD with the option to add more via USB or Ethernet. If you prefer to stream your content, then look instead for a home theater PC with a built-in 802.11ac or 802.11ax Wi-Fi card.

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