I’ve been building a media center recently. Actually, scratch that – I’ve been building two. One is a compact device (my Raspberry Pi) running the RaspBMC distribution of XBMC, while the other is a traditional HTPC home build – a media center in a slimline PC case with added TV card.
At this stage I haven’t quite decided which system I’m going to stick with long term, so I have a sort of competition running between the two. Covering everything from hardware and additional storage to useful add-ons and network play, the device that is eventually chosen will be the one that I decide has the best chance of playing everything.
So how do you build a media center PC that can play anything? A device that can deliver as much good quality, free TV as possible?
Well, you need to make sure you’ve got the right hardware, suitable storage options and the best media center platform, before spinning this off with plugins and additional features that will give you the television experience you’ve been looking for.
The Hardware Side Of Things
There are many different pieces of hardware that can be used to build your own PC media center, from an Xbox 360 to a Nintendo Wii, all the way down through standard PCs and dedicated set-top boxes to Android devices and Raspberry Pi computers. Regardless of which platform you eventually select (see below) your chosen hardware should be networkable, powerful enough to deal with HD video and offer enough storage to access music and video.
For my own purposes, I need a device with an optical drive as I regularly review DVDs. USB ports and a card reader are also vital for viewing photos, music and video.
Whichever hardware solution you choose, don’t forget a remote control! This might be a game controller, a keyboard and mouse or a smartphone running a suitable remote application.
Choosing The Right Platform
There are many media center platforms available for Windows, Mac and Linux, but by far the most popular at present is XBMC. Originally released for the old Xbox games console, XBMC is available for all major desktop computer platforms and is capable of playing back the vast majority of media formats.
Its user interface is straightforward, offering sections for music, video and pictures (as well as up-to-date weather reports!) and is enhanced by a large selection of add-ons that introduce new features and online channels that can be subscribed to for free.
You can check 5 Great Linux Media Center Distributions To Transform Your TV for further information about the various media center platforms. If you’re not using a games console, however, then I would recommend XBMC – it’s what I have installed on both of my media center candidate devices.
Extending Your Platform With Add-ons
The beauty of XBMC, (versions for Windows, OS X, Linux, Apple TV, iOS, Ubuntu, Android and Raspberry Pi are available from the XBMC download page) is that it can be extended considerably thanks to a vast selection of official and unofficial add-ons. There are many uses for these add-ons, from streaming TV and managing torrent downloads to playing games and skinning the user interface.
While the basic XBMC package will enable you to watch DVDs, video files, listen to audio discs and sound files, enjoy photos and check the weather, with add-ons you can:
- Integrate TV channels from a TV card thanks to a MythTV add-on
- Stream live sport
- Stream live TV
- Access Internet radio
- Watch YouTube on your TV
- Enjoy video channels from popular websites such as Wired
- Much, much more!
The options are considerable, and add-ons can easily be added to XBMC via the System > Add-Ons > Get Add-Ons menu. A good list of additional add-ons can be found at the XBMC unofficial repositories list – these should be downloaded in their ZIP format and saved to your media center.
Installation is achieved via Settings > Add-Ons > Install from ZIP File. After this is done, the chosen add-on will be available in the Get Add-Ons menu as above.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that you can get hold of and stream virtually any TV show, movie or sports event using the right add-ons. The Bluecop repository is a great solution, offering shows from various subscription channels such as CBS, SyFy and the History Channel, as well as output from Hulu.
Network Play, DLNA & UPNP
Being able to play media across a network is important. Most media center platforms support this – for instance, you can stream videos and music from a PC to an Xbox 360.
With the XBMC platform, other computers on a network can be accessed so that media can be streamed to them. If you have a large selection of video clips on your desktop PC, these can be sent across the network to your XBMC device for enjoyment – the same is true for images and audio clips.
Users with an iPhone, meanwhile, can use AirPlay to send video from their device to XMBC, as long as AirPlay is enabled in Settings > Network > Services.
Additionally, DLNA and UPnP have some limited support, enabling you to wirelessly send video from an XBMC to a TV (albeit one that natively supports the transmitted video format).
Time To Cut The Cable?
We all watch TV in a different way. This is why XBMC is probably the best media center platform available, and when coupled with the right choice of hardware can deliver the best results: a media center that will play any file required with the minimum of fuss and no preparatory file conversion.
If you’re able to get all of the TV viewing that you need through XBMC and the storage solutions you have added, then it might well be time for you to ditch your expensive cable TV arrangement in favour of watching your own collection of videos and streaming more – and importantly, relevant – TV from the Internet.
Is XBMC the solution for you? Does it tick all of your boxes, or do you have an alternative that is even more flexible and offers better add-ons? Have you got a better media center solution that will play even more formats? Tell us in the comments!
As for me, I’m still weighing up the pros and cons of a lightweight, small and easily secreted Raspberry Pi with the all-in-one storage solution of the more traditional HTPC…