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It’s soul destroying process – it will eat away at you until you’re left cowering the corner with a remote control in one hand and a driverless TV-card in the other. I’ve spent the last 5 years of my life searching for it and countless thousands of dollars in the process. I’m talking of course about the holy grail – the ultimate media center. Truth be told, I still haven’t found it. There is no one solution that suits all my needs, that can do everything and do it with panaché – but some of these 5 hardware options certainly come close.

There is of course, always the humble PC laptop – usually cheaper and just as much if not more raw power than a Mac or any of the devices listed here. You then have a whole world of software open to you (try XBMC with our free guide, or Plex Setup A Perfect Media Center With Plex [Mac & Windows] 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 ), but I promise that it still won’t be good enough. Your experience will vary – some laptops can be quite noisy when decoding HD videos, some will be unable to transmit audio over HDMI (or won’t have HDMI at all), your choice of operating system will greatly affect your experience – so that’s why I haven’t listed the PC as a dedicated option in this list. If you have a PC that you’re planning to use as a media center, it’s very unlikely you’re looking for other hardware alternatives, so this article probably isn’t for you anyway. Move along, nothing to see here.

Roku 3

Roku have been in the business of making media centre boxes for a while – and are now on their third generation of devices – so you’d expect something special. With strong support from a number of channels and third party providers, the $99 Roku box is a quick and easy to access hundreds of free and premium streams – HBO Go, Amazon Prime, Netflix – to name but a few. Read our full Roku 3 review Roku 3 Review and Giveaway Roku 3 Review and Giveaway As more content becomes available online, the need for a traditional television subscription may not be enough anymore to justify the costs. If you’re already subscribed to services like Netflix or Hulu Plus, now may... Read More here.

roku-3-streaming-player-review-10

Streaming your own media from a Network Attached Server Synology DiskStation DS413j NAS Review and Giveaway Synology DiskStation DS413j NAS Review and Giveaway To call the Synology DiskStation DS413j a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device is a degrading understatement - but yes, it serves files over the network. To say it has RAID functionality is also somewhat unfair... Read More is somewhat more complicated – you’ll need to download a separate channel, such as the $10 Roksbox, or use a media server and client channel such as Plex.

Pros:

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  • Very affordable at just $100
  • Dedicated player with strong support from third parties
  • Out of the box, easy setup
  • Comes with a remote

Cons:

  • More complicated to setup for your own media

Apple TV

At the same price point as the Roku, an Apple TV is similarly limited in its user experience, but rather good at what it does do. If you’re invested heavily in iTunes media, then the Apple TV is clearly the choice for you; if not, it’s going to be a quite frustrating experience as you attempt to convert everything you own then import them into iTunes. You can also stream from Netflix or just a handful of other third party services.

appletv

Apple TV is an AirPlay target, so if playing movies or games from your iPad or other Mac device to your TV is important to you, it may just about suit your needs. For most people, the Apple TV is a little too niche.

Pros:

  • Only $100
  • AirPlay Mirroring from iOS and OSX devices

Cons:

  • Restricted to iTunes, and a few third party services

Macbook Air

An expensive option if you were only considering it for a media centre, but as a multifunction device, the Macbook Air is arguably one of the best portable lightweight computers you can buy – and it’s completely silent running makes it a great choice for a media centre. Here’s our full review of the Macbook Air MacBook Air (Mid-2012) Review and Giveaway MacBook Air (Mid-2012) Review and Giveaway In my mind, people who purchase the MacBook Air have should have a clear idea of what they wish to accomplish with it. There's only one reason you should own a MacBook Air: for the... Read More 2012 model.

macbook-air-2012-review-9

The blazingly fast SSD means you can start from cold boot in a matter of seconds, with waking from sleep and general application use almost instantaneous. Despite being a full laptop, the high cost of SSDs means you’ll need to either restrict yourself to storing about 10-20 movies at a time, or using it with a separate NAS or external drive Corsair Voyager Air and Patriot Gauntlet 320 Comparative Review and Giveaway Corsair Voyager Air and Patriot Gauntlet 320 Comparative Review and Giveaway Portable hard drives are much more today than a simple enclosure with a wimpy USB 2.0 connection. Modern portable hard drive enclosures support numerous wired interfaces such as USB 3.0, eSATA, or even Thunderbolt; as... Read More . Streaming may take longer to initiate, but the responsiveness of the system in general will be a pleasure compared to other low-powered but dedicated media centre devices.

Both the Macbook Air and Mac Mini can be easily connected to your TV with DisplayPort to HDMI cables (these also transmit audio, unlike some slightly older PC graphics cards).

Pros:

  • A fully functional light-weight laptop
  • Very responsive due to SSD storage
  • Completely silent

Cons:

  • SSD restricts the amount of local storage, so requires a separate NAS or external drive
  • Expensive compared to dedicated media centre devices – around $1000 depending on configuration
  • No IR port to use remote

Mac Mini

At a little over half the price of a Macbook Air, the Mac Mini offer higher performance without the portability; if you’re looking for a permanent media centre but still need the power of a full computer, the Mac Mini is an attractive option. It comes without a screen, so your TV will need to be the main output.

mini

With hard drive capacities starting at 500 GB, there should be ample room for your movies, and since it won’t be moving around, attaching additional external storage is a practical option too.

The Mac Mini is also compatible with an Apple Remote, unlike the Macbook Air.

Pros:

  • Fully functional Mac
  • Larger drives, 500GB or more for local media storage

Cons:

  • Still expensive, from $599

Raspberry Pi

The Pi is the cheapest and smallest device on offer, but the performance and ease of setup reflects this. On the one hand, you have a low cost, open source computing device that can run a variety of operating systems; on the other hand, none of them run particularly well.

muo-rpi-usb-stick

I was using a custom install of OpenElec Media Center for a few weeks; even installed to USB, the interface was extremely slow, though movie playback was actually stutter-free with audio passed through to a separate hardware decoder (there isn’t enough power to decode DTS streams and playback 1080p). It was satisfactory, until something resulted in my install becoming corrupted – this is the kind of thing you will have to deal with, as the Pi can be quite temperamental 3 Reasons Why Your Raspberry Pi Doesn't Work Properly 3 Reasons Why Your Raspberry Pi Doesn't Work Properly I've been living with the Raspberry Pi for several months now, and have found this astonishing little computer to be even more amazing than expected. Despite its diminutive dimensions, the Raspberry Pi is as fruity... Read More .

If you like to have things exactly as you want them, don’t mind messing around with various ISOs until you find something you like, or want a little project box that can do more than just a media centre – the Pi might be great for you. Here’s Christian’s tutorial on getting started with RaspBMC How To Make Your Raspberry Pi Into a Home Theater System How To Make Your Raspberry Pi Into a Home Theater System Four weeks on and I’ve been playing with my Raspberry Pi in various ways, from using it to browse the web and standard day-to-day computing tasks to playing around with the various configurations that are... Read More .

Pros:

  • The hacker’s choice thanks to a variety of OSes
  • Only $35
  • May work with your existing TV remote thanks to AnyNET+ protocol; if not, XBMC has a great mobile app for remote control

Cons

  • No Netflix client
  • Very low performance and sluggish interface
  • Very difficult to setup

Until recently, the Boxee Box The End of Boxee on the Desktop & What to Use Instead The End of Boxee on the Desktop & What to Use Instead Boxee fans - it's over. There may be more fun to have with the Boxee Box, but Boxee on the desktop isn't coming back. It's time to find something else if you have a computer... Read More would have been included on this list too – it was a similar device to the Roku, though with far more troubled past – they started out as a software application, but soon dropped support for that in favour of the more lucrative hardware sales. Boxee has since been purchased by Samsung, and though the hardware is still available to purchase through retail channels, I wouldn’t suggest buying into a dead product line.

Do you have a better solution for a media centre? Have you finally found the ultimate solution? Please, for the love of all things good, let me know in the comments so I can finally put my search to rest? For the record, XBMC is not it.

  1. KeJorn
    November 3, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Apple TV, Roku, and others have limited apps.
    Good luck finding one that can not only offer Netflix, but HBO Now, AMC, SlingTV, VUDU, etc...
    Some do a few.. others do not.

    Android boxes make a lot of sense simply for the app flexibility. If you can download it for your phone, you can download it to your TV Box.

    However, those looking at Chinese made boxes should beware.
    Chinese are well known for piracy. I would not trust their boxes, esp if preloaded with Kodi.
    You do not know what they have added. Perhaps they record your login and passwords for different services. Just be careful.

    • James Bruce
      November 3, 2016 at 9:26 am

      So you're recommending an Android media box, but just not a Chinese made one? You do realise they're ALL made in China , right?

  2. Sascha
    August 26, 2013 at 10:57 am

    I have an AppleTV and a Raspberry Pi connected to my TV - and although I am a great Apple Fan, I must say the Raspie wins on almost any aspect.

    Setup was pretty much plug and play (copying some files to an SD card was the hardest part) and I can control all functions via the TV remote (yes, no additional remote is definitely a Plus)

    Then there are all these Plugins: I have access to several broadcaster's media libraries (like, BBC) and of course YouTube...

    Oh, and there is even AirPlay on the Raspberry, which was really the reason I bought the AppleTV in the first place. Works perfectly.

    The only problem I've encountered is that there is no "on" button. So if I switch the Raspberry off, I can only get it up again by power cycling. Then again, the AppleTV can't even be switched off in the first place...

    The only aspect where AppleTV wins is access to the iTunes store. If you want to rent movies from Apple to watch them on your TV, the Apple device is your choice. Otherwise: Buy a Raspie for a fraction of the price (but don't forget that you need to buy an SD card, a case and a power supply as well).

  3. JudgeX
    August 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    I use XBMC. My setup is absolutely unquestionable. I spent maybe 2 hours configuring it after install. 2 hours of setup versus purchasing hundreds of dollars worth of equipment? End result is better, too.

  4. Simon S
    August 14, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    I love my MacBook Air, but silent it is not.

  5. Chris G
    August 8, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    I just run a Linux server in combination with my ps3. I can write a script to automate anything I want, and can control everything from any smartphone or computer nearby.

    • Chris G
      August 8, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      I can even access it when I'm not on my home network such as work or a friends house.

  6. RDC
    August 5, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Seriously, why weren't any of WD media player range considered here? Though I haven't used them, but they do fall in this category!

  7. Zbuckone
    August 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    This is all very confusing to me. But, I just bought a Samsung Smart TV so I am hoping that is the answer, at least for me. Also the model I bought can be reeducated every year to keep it up to date. This was one of the main selling points to me.

  8. Humphrey
    August 1, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    I use WDTV in combination with a NAS ... very stable. (Wireless)

  9. Vince A
    August 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Nice

  10. Garey B
    August 1, 2013 at 6:31 am

    What about Media Browser with an Xbox 360 as an extender. Or maybe the PS3 media server software. Of course this could be another expensive route if you don't have a PC or any of the other hardware mentioned but if you do that's probably about the cheapest way to go. If then you don't like the free software mentioned above a Roku box would would be my choice along with Plex which is easy to setup. If my crazy ass 72 year old mother in law can set it up anyone can.

    • James B
      August 1, 2013 at 6:56 am

      I've always found Media Center Extender to be seriously laggy on the 360 - it does *work* , but just not that satisfying for me. For ocassional use, I think it might be fine.

      • chtrich
        August 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm

        I love my OPlay! box. It plays any video file I throw at it. I just hook up and external hard drive or jump drive and it works like a charm.

      • chtrich
        August 1, 2013 at 3:49 pm

        oops, this should have been a comment, not a reply to a comment. :-)

        I love my OPlay! box. It plays any video file I throw at it. I just hook up and external hard drive or jump drive and it works like a charm.

  11. Dominic C
    August 1, 2013 at 5:29 am

    I just use a really old laptop. Runs windows Xp and Ubuntu, take out all programs leaving just the browser and the mediaplayer and hook it up to the tv. Use a bluetooth mouse and keyboard and it works fine. Pros, built in cd player? plenty of HD space for media storage, able to stream videos from my phone but I only did that to test it out, not practical when the laptop has more processing power.

  12. Mike B
    August 1, 2013 at 1:54 am

    Running XBMC on the raspberry pi is the way to go. It works great!

    • James B
      August 1, 2013 at 6:57 am

      It really doesn't. Even the slimmed down OpenElec runs terribly. Are you overclocking or have some kind of magic going on with your Pi?

      • Mike B
        August 1, 2013 at 9:31 am

        The key to the pi is setup. I run raspbmc. Once you get it going, it is clear and smooth as pi! One key is internet, is your service fast enough. xbmc has more media available then I can ever make use of!

      • Alfredo
        August 1, 2013 at 1:31 pm

        I run Openelec in a NON overclocked Raspberry PI and it works absolutely fine, I have SD, 720p and 1080p without problems, decoding in some cases DTS.

        All the media is stored in a dedicated Windows Home server, connect by ethernet (with a PLC) to the PI.

        I think the only y point is to have a Class 6 SD card and leave confluence as skin.

        • MakeUseOf TechGuy
          August 1, 2013 at 1:40 pm

          I use Class 10 to boot, run everything else form USB. I dont have problems PLAYING media, it's just the general interface that is frustratingly slow.

  13. Bob
    August 1, 2013 at 12:25 am

    Did you consider the new Chromecast? I've just been reading about it and it seems like somewhat of a competitor for Apple TV. In fact, refurb Apple TV's are $75 now and it was commented that that was to compete somewhat with Chromecast.

    • James B
      August 1, 2013 at 6:59 am

      Not a comparison - the Chromecast doesn't actually play anything, it's more like a wireless video receiver. You still need a Chrome browser somewhere to play the media; Apple TV runs apps by itself.

  14. Shafiq Khan
    July 31, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    +1 for Roku 3... Using Plex makes it a complete setup.
    I also use the Playto Universal app which has dnla support :-)

  15. Mayan Avitable
    July 31, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    You should check out Vizio's CoStar: http://www.vizio.com/costar/overview
    because it does everything the ROKU, and other similar devices do. Plus it's a Google TV unit with lots of apps like Amazon, Netflix, games, YouTube. Check it out You can surf the web, check your email. It's a smart TV.

  16. K. Murphy
    July 31, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    Chromecast??

    • James B
      August 1, 2013 at 6:59 am

      Chromecast isn't a media center, just a wireless video adapter. In and of itself it can't do anything.

  17. Mihovil P
    July 31, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    what about old laptop?

  18. Someone else
    July 31, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    "xbmc - but I promise that it still won’t be good enough"
    "For the record, XBMC is not it."
    Can you elaborate why? Would be helpful to know your specific objections or problems with it.

    • Justin Pot
      July 31, 2013 at 9:41 pm

      Because James hasn't bothered to put in the time to find the plugins to make XBMC awesome, but absolutely loves making broad-sweeping statements that discount the positive experiences of thousands of users.

      Having said that, we love him. Not sure why, but we love him.

      • James B
        August 1, 2013 at 7:01 am

        Installing plugins on XBMC is a damn ballache, and there are better "versions" of XBMC like OpenElec which I do use.

        The meta-data handling of files is terrible (comparing to Plex), so you need another external app to create all the relevant XML files and download artwork (or a plugin, presumably).

        It doesn't handle live TV either without yet another server (as opposed to say built-in Windows Media Center which has fantastic PVR capabilities).

        • Justin Pot
          August 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm

          There's nothing out there with the number of extensions, though. If I can imagine it I can find an extension for it – everything from watching CNN to live hockey games to Reddit and beyond.

          Metadata handling is fine, provided your files are named consistently. I've been naming video files the same way since Boxee, so it doesn't really miss anything for me. Are there apps that can magically figure out disparate naming schemes?

          And I don't really watch TV, so screw that.

          We should argue about this stuff out loud, once a week, in a forum where people can be entertained. And we should host it at makeuseof.tv

        • James B
          August 1, 2013 at 2:19 pm

          Plex does, yes. You don't need to mess with naming, it just infers it and looks up and finds the best match. If XBMC did that, I'd be sold. In the age of web automation, I shouldn't need to rename things to conform with some archaic scheme. That's just nonsense.

          Excellent idea about http://makeuseof.tv - consider it done!

    • Howie
      August 1, 2013 at 12:10 am

      I am curious why XBMC is not considered, especially since it's a great media center application that can be adapted or installed to many of the platforms mentioned in the write-up. Perhaps, as Justin states, you don't use plugins. Of course it's free, so that may be the reason.

  19. bart
    July 31, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    Are there not other alternatives? what about any small factor pc with atom or that new amd? That would play everything!

    • MATT
      July 31, 2013 at 10:31 pm

      sure there is some alternatives , as the android HD box player such as the MK908 .

      please makeuseof , make a review of the android HD boxes :)

      • Zinc Whiskers
        August 1, 2013 at 12:14 am

        What about the WDTV?
        Or any GTV device?
        Or any Rockfish based Android TV stick?

        Seems like the Mac Fan boy just threw the Macbook Air and the Mac Mini in for the hell of it with no explanation.
        Where's the Windows PC?

        • James B
          August 1, 2013 at 7:03 am

          I have two Android TV dongle thingies I'm reviewing now - they should be up later this month for a giveaway. Didn't include as I hadn't had a chance to play with them yet. I'd already mentioned at the start that you could of course use a PC, but I wouldn't be listing it since they vary so much.

      • KeJorn
        November 3, 2016 at 9:26 am

        I would be cautious of Chinese made products.
        Piracy/Identity theft being a real concern.

        • Janet Bayes
          November 5, 2016 at 7:21 pm

          Really? Are you serious? All my products for the TV, of, laptop etc are made in China....

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