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Ditching cable? Don’t buy a smart TV and don’t mess around with Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or any set-top box. These devices severely limit what you can and can’t do with them, and are usually no more powerful than a mid-range PC from a few years ago. Give yourself the flexibility of a regular computer – you won’t regret it.

James outlined why you don’t need a smart TV What Is a Smart TV & 6 of the Best On The Market Today What Is a Smart TV & 6 of the Best On The Market Today Most televisions you look at now will be smart TVs, but what is a smart TV and which ones are the best on the market right now? Read More , saying basically that the “smart” bits will be obsolete long before you should be buying a new TV. I’d say the same goes for set top boxes.

It’s not complicated to hook up a desktop computer to your TV and set it up as your XBMC media center. If you try XBMC and don’t like it, that’s okay: you could set up Plex instead, or look into other options. Setting up a computer is a little more work than an out-of-the-box solution, but the advantages far outweigh the downsides.

Here are a few reasons to use a computer as your media center.

No One Can Tell You What To Watch.

You just want to watch stuff; media companies want to control what you watch, and where. A computer means you can watch whatever you want, because clever developers work hard to ensure these sites work with software like XBMC. Even better: if that fails, the option of simply opening the browser is always present. You’ll never be completely blocked.

Hulu, to use an American example, offers thousands of shows and movies online for free (with ads). You can watch them on your computer without a subscription, but if you want to watch them on an Apple TV or a Roku you need to pay up.

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Hulu, which is owned in part by the major broadcasters, don’t want you using their service on a TV without paying. The workaround? Plug a computer into your TV, then use your browser to watch. Hulu can’t block that without blocking all the browsers on Earth.

Any company producing a device specifically for streaming television needs to deal with media companies for content – and media companies, at the end of the day, prefer you pay for cable, instead of watching their content online for free. A computer hooked up to your TV gives you flexibility, even if the user interface isn’t always ideal.

You Can Upgrade And Replace Hardware

Dedicated set top boxes are appliances, which is to say they’re not designed for you to upgrade or repair at home. Want a bigger hard drive? That’s going to be tricky on an Apple TV, to say the least.

A desktop computer, on the other hand, is easy to upgrade piece by piece – by design. You’ll have the freedom to upgrade your graphics card if your picture is choppy, to install more RAM if performance is slow, to add a TV tuner if you want to record live TV. Running out of storage space? Add as much hard drive space as you want. Want to play some games? Buy a cheap USB gamepad, or set up your console controllers to work with your PC.

Set-top boxes are designed to do one thing; computers are designed to do everything. If you want hardware options, get a computer.

You Won’t Get Screwed

Here’s the main reason a computer is better than a consumer device: it will keep working.

I was a pretty huge Boxee fan back in 2010. I had the Linux version of the software installed on an old computer, and the old computer plugged into my TV – and I loved it. From playing back local media to streaming shows from across the web, it was pretty close to perfect. I used the software every night, and wrote almost a dozen Boxee tutorials for this very site.

Then, in late 2011, Boxee announced they would stop updating their Windows, Mac and Linux versions 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 . One final – extremely buggy – version of the software was released, along with a blog post saying there will be no updates.

Boxee said we could get support by buying their dedicated device, the “Boxee Box”. I was skeptical.

“If Boxee can’t support its desktop users anymore,” I wrote in early 2012, “How do I know they’ll keep supporting their box users?”

At the time I wasn’t sure that was a fair question, but it didn’t even take a year for Boxee to stop supporting their Boxee Box altogether.

dead-end

Now, there are devices on the market that had a much longer shelf life than Boxee ever did: Roku and Apple TV, for example. But the fact remains that these platforms are useful only if the ecosystem surrounding them provides ways for you to access the online content you care about – and that’s something that can stop. If you have a dedicated device, you’re basically stuck with a brick.

When Boxee died on the PC, I switched to XBMC. If XBMC dies, I’ll have other options.

You Have A Choice Of Software Platforms

Which brings me to my next point: choice. If you buy an Apple TV, you basically need to stick to the software that comes with it. If media content you want to watch isn’t supported, you’re mostly out of luck. Sure, you can hack the older models and run alternative software, but a regular computer gives you such flexibility without the need for tutorials.

If you have a computer you’ve got a diverse range of options. I’ve already mentioned XBMC and Plex, but there’s more. You could try Windows Media Center, which we’ve called the best PVR software The Best PVR: Windows Media Center! The Best PVR: Windows Media Center! Despite the perceived image of Microsoft as a lumbering beast with bloated software that ships full of bugs, they have actually produced some fine software over the years. Today I’d like to highlight Windows Media... Read More .

You Probably Already Have A Viable Device

But here’s the best part of this approach: you’ve probably already got a device for the job.

An old Mac Mini is perfect for this – it’s the right size, and in some cases even comes with a remote. But if you’ve got a desktop computer from the past ten years gathering dust in your closet, there’s a good chance it can run XBMC without issue. It doesn’t take a lot of power to run XBMC – an underpowered Raspberry Pi can run it just fine 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 .

You can certainly find a computer for the job without breaking the bank. Setting it up won’t be instant, but in the end, you’ll have a setup with a lot more flexibility than anything else on the market.

Am I Completely Wrong About Everything?

Have I persuaded you, or is there something great about dedicated media devices that I’m missing? Let’s talk more about this in the comments below.

I know that dedicated devices are better in some ways, including ease of use and price (if you’re comparing to a brand new PC). But I believe the choice offered by an actual computer offsets this. If I’m wrong, tell me why below.

Image Credits: Hand with scissors Via Shutterstock

  1. pmerritt
    November 28, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    ShieldTV can completely replace a HTPC if loaded properly.

  2. SWP
    August 21, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    what about DRM ...
    if you want to watch protected content, you need a cableCARD tuner like HDHomeRun Prime. If you want to record. The only reasonable option is Windows Media Center running on a mini-system like a GB-BXi3-4010.

    WMC mostly works ... at least as well as the rest of Windows. I need to reboot the cpu at least once a day or windows loses its mind. (Task Manager - restart at 4am daily)

    Unlike my Linux NAS (where the recordings live, where all my backups for Macs and PCs live, where my iTunes library lives) which hasn't rebooted since its last firmware update in 2014.

    I'm looking forward to the forthcoming HDHomeRun DVR ... which will run on my NAS. If it works as well as their tuners ... I will be one happy camper.

  3. Arthor Wright
    January 23, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    I agree with the author regarding the value of using a PC for TV and other entertainment.

    The Roku we have been using has too many quirks and limitations.

    In the family room, we have a desktop PC connected to the Internet, to the TV via HDMI, and a wireless keyboard/touchpad.

    Everyone seems to be gradually using the PC more and the Roku less.

    • Justin Pot
      January 24, 2016 at 4:17 pm

      I love Kodi, but the ability to fall back to the browser when things get wonky is the best part of using a PC.

  4. Andrew
    November 27, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    I did the "google streamer" and M8 type boxes. If you only watch medium to low quality Amazon, Netflix, KODI streams off the internet and such they work well. I have a networked HD Cable card tuners, the two streamers i had were either froze or dead in about an hour with real HD content. Those boxes max out at 2000Kbs bit rate content, any thing more they plixelate, lose or delay audio and over heat and shut down all together. Even the highest quality & bit rate content you can get off say N/Flix is still average to low quality compared to your cable HD or a DVD. Its simple math & common sense really once you can figure it out. The key is to NOT let your being frugal or budget over take your common sense. Do you really think that andoid box witch is phone hardware stuck in a plastic case is gonna run your big pretty HD TV smoothly at 1080, or even 720.

    Its well worth it and a good investment to spend the extra money for a proper piece of equipment for the job its supposed to do.. I have 1 NUC, 3 ZOTAC boxes as streamers. I have 2 HDHomeruns networked as cable TV receivers. Also an old PC in my dungeon i added 2 x 2TB hard drives in to do all my recording and movie storage.

    If your going to do it, do it right the first time. Dont waste money trying to find the right piece of equipment. Buy something the first time you know is going to work

  5. Mart Davies
    November 10, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    I completely agree with you that a PC is a far better interface and I have been using my pc connected to my tv for quite some time with XBMC and Plex installed. I did this via a HDMI card I fitted which works fine. The only problem with it is the noise of the fan which I think would be eliminated with use of a streaming box.
    I was thinking of either buying something like the MXQ Quad Core S805 Android 4.4 Smart TV Box XBMC which I am told Plex can be installed. As I only use my system to watch movies, this seems to be the better more economical option.
    I have also seen these Nettop PCs such as the Ace Revo. Do you know if these are quieter than a standard tower?

    • Justin Pot
      November 10, 2015 at 2:48 pm

      I don't know anything about either of those boxes, sorry.

  6. Jeff Schallenberg
    November 7, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    I'm missing something.

    How do you connect a PC to a TV if it doesn't have an HDMI video/audio output?

    Most old PCs only have a graphics card with a VGA or a DVI interface.

    • Justin Pot
      November 7, 2015 at 4:27 pm

      That's true, but many TVs also include a VGA input, so I'd check for that first. Otherwise, you can get HDMIt-to-VGA/DVI adapters for next to nothing on Amazon.

  7. Frank Marvin Garcia
    October 16, 2015 at 2:13 am

    I'm so glad I found this article and you've answered so many questions for me already! I've been researching my best options for 'cutting the cord' and I wanted the best option. My friend has a Roku but it seemed limited. Another has a Smart TV but it seemed really slow and even with the remote keyboard, typing seemed to take a while. Although I knew that, I still went out and bought a "Smart DVD" player in the hopes that it would be all I wanted. It had many of the apps (Hulu, Netflix, etc.) and it did work like a Smart TV, but, it didn't have a web browser so I returned it. It was after that when I started thinking, "If it's a browser I want, why not just hook up a computer?!" Well, I think that's what I'm going to do!
    So, again, thanks for the info above, and I do plan on buying a decent desktop to connect to my TV. What I'm hoping is that you have some info on 'specs' that I need to look for in a computer. Do I need a certain type of graphics card and if so, what type? What kind of speed, memory, etc. I found some information on using a "Tuner" but do I need one? I know what I'm doing when it comes to using a PC to jump on the internet or using it as a 'computer, but certainly not an expert on all that it could to for my TV.
    Any info you could pass on would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!!

    • Justin Pot
      October 16, 2015 at 1:43 pm

      You really don't need much to watch TV on a computer, low specs will work fine. I myself have an i3 Processor that I might upgrade, but that's only because I like gaming on the same machine. 4 GB of RAM is more than enough, I'd think, and you only need a lot of storage space if you plan on ripping your DVDs/otherwise aquiring media.

      If all you want is a browser, more power to you, but I highly recommend Kodi as a way to tie everything together.

  8. Will Smith
    September 19, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    So I am doing some research on flexible TV viewing. I would be interested in hearing opinions on a KODI TV computer which is an ARM based computer (I think) running Andriod XMBC box.

    It seems to offer a lot of flexibility and I need that to run some VPN software to enable access to US only content via VPN. The box I am looking at is from AliExpress and is $32 USD. It runs KitKat but I think it is upgradable to Lollipop. Any opinions? It has Wifi and Lan access.

    Here are the specs:

    Remote Control:
    Included
    Brand Name:
    MXQ
    Package:
    Yes
    Model Number:
    OEM
    Solution:
    Amlogic S805 Quad-Core Cortex A5 1.5GHz
    System:
    Android 4.4 KitKat
    RAM/ROM:
    1G/8G
    Internet:
    LAN,WiFi2.4G Hz Wifi
    GPU:
    Quad Core MALI 450 GPU

    If you are interested in the purchase link:

    http://www.aliexpress.com/item/MXQ-XBMC-Preload-smart-S805-Android-4-4-TV-BOX-Quad-Core-1GB-8GB-Cortex-A5/32364867258.html?spm=2114.01010108.3.2.ffma6G&ws_ab_test=201526_5,201527_4_71_72_73_74_75,201409_1

    • sleightahand
      July 5, 2016 at 9:28 pm

      Make sure you get one with 2 gb of ram. The 1gb versions are clunky and slow.

  9. Bob Amato
    September 16, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    Couldn't agree more, never use Roku anymore, chromebox connected to the pc with a laptop remote, watch anything and everything for free.

    • Justin Pot
      September 16, 2015 at 2:43 pm

      Sounds like a great setup, thanks for stopping by!

  10. onepoorguy
    September 13, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    I have been running my set-top box into a TV card for a long time. Plays through WMC great. Can't get a lot of TV channels anywhere else that I'm aware of, and I watch more than HBO and Netflix. I'm bummed that WMC is going away with Win 10. Means I can't get Win 10 because I'm not willing to lose this functionality. I tried Media Portal, but I can't seem to get the right encoder so the audio and video are seriously out of sync (by several seconds). Kodi won't work without something like MP in the background doing the encoding (I already tried that).

    I'm all for using the PC as the media center, but it's far from a slam-dunk. There's a lot of stuff that is difficult (or even impossible) to do. :-(

    • Justin Pot
      September 13, 2015 at 6:57 pm

      Yeah, I'm digging more and more into PVR stuff right now and hope to point out a few options, but there's nothing perfect out there right now. Really seems like an opportunity, if anyone is willing to go after it.

  11. Johnny Wilson
    July 30, 2015 at 12:55 am

    http://kodinow.com/ heres your box

  12. Montana Burr
    July 29, 2015 at 2:00 am

    Just wanted to point out something that the article didn't mention:

    If you want to connect a PC or Mac to your TV, you'll want a cable. Yes, there are wireless options, but a wired connection is always the best. For PCs, you'll want either a VGA cable or an HDMI cable, depending on which display outputs your PC supports. For Macs, you'll actually also want an adapter, since Macs use a DisplayPort cable to connect to other monitors. There are multiple kinds of adapters. I have so far had experience with two: a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter and a DisplayPort-to-VGA adapter.

    • Justin Pot
      July 29, 2015 at 2:48 am

      It's a good point, thanks for making it.

  13. Byron S
    May 27, 2015 at 5:01 am

    After the version of Adobe Flash on the Boxee Box stop being supported, I just installed Kodi (XBMC) on one of my Boxee Boxes http://kodi.wiki/view/Boxee_Box I still use my Boxee Box as a Netflix player, its browser, TV Tuner, the Watch Later and social sharing features which I have yet to replicate under Kodi.

  14. CBrown
    March 19, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    I love this article, I'm not a computer whiz, but I am pretty sure I could make this work. What operating system do you recommend? I have always preferred windows, but I havent tried windows 8. I have also used Ubuntu, but I found it limiting. Also, I choose to use an old-style tv, cause my kids are very destuctive (they broke an LED tv), is there a cord or adapter that you recommend for hooking up the computer to an older tv?

    • Justin Pot
      March 20, 2015 at 5:01 am

      I'm surprised to say it, but I just upgraded my system to Windows 8 and I really like it for a media centre. The start screen is terrible on a desktop computer or a laptop, in opinion, but it's pretty cool on a TV. Linux is great too, though, and you can customize it in all sorts of fun ways.

      As for hooking up the computer to an older TV: I've no idea. I think you need a video card that supports it, I've not had much luck with adapters myself but I haven't tried in a long time.

  15. Paul
    February 20, 2015 at 10:57 am

    Hi, I live in the UK. Your article about putting the internet onto a tv using a regular pc interests me very much: I keep searching for a cheaper solution: A set top box which simply gets the "full shilling" internet, just like a pc can, but so far I cannot find such a thing. I believe the box would have to incorporate a High End Browser and Flash Support in order to receive all that the true internet has to offer - just like a regular pc!
    As I say I keep looking and hoping soch a set top box will become available. Do you think it ever will? I am wanting to access proper film archives like veehd.com and stagevu.com, but so far all my enquiries meet with the answer that the current internet boxes cannot do this.
    Any help with my search would be appreciated. Thanks.

    • James Bruce
      February 20, 2015 at 11:18 am

      No, Flash is dying anyway, and doesn't even support mobiles nowadays. Any Android TV box will give you a "full browser" experience though.

    • Justin Pot
      February 20, 2015 at 3:42 pm

      I'm going to stick with my advice: just find an actual PC. If you want something small, the Mac Mini can do everything and there are plenty on the used market.

      • Erik
        October 11, 2016 at 2:57 am

        Can you not use a laptop to plug into a tv and net the same result as with a PC

        • CMO
          December 3, 2016 at 2:55 am

          Yes you can. I am even using a cheap Insignia 8" Windows 10 Tablet which works fine and can be set up to output 1080p to a TV via its mini HDMI port.

  16. Menz
    February 10, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    i have a small response to your statement:
    "Hulu, to use an American example, offers thousands of shows and movies online for free (with ads). You can watch them on your computer without a subscription, but if you want to watch them on an Apple TV or a Roku you need to pay up."

    if you have a Roku, you can get an app called PlayOn (yes there is a feel but it is small or you can get a lifetime license for cheaper than paying Hulu monthly for the rest of your life and you need a PC on your network, not needed to be hooked up to your TV to run PlayOn) and in PlayOn you can add the Hulu channel and see all the content you would normally need a PC (as you suggested) streamed to the Roku

    • Justin Pot
      February 10, 2015 at 10:42 pm

      It's true, there are workarounds, but it's worth noting that Hulu can break tools from working if they hit a certain level of popularity. They've done it in the past: Boxee was a prominent example a few years ago.

      PlayOn is great, but this is worth keeping in mind.

  17. Kenny Stier
    August 19, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    Decided to go with the Roku because it has a remote! Carrying around a keyboard and mouse is a pain!

    • Justin P
      August 19, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      Setting up a remote with your computer isn't hard, I guess I should have mentioned that...

  18. Mike Smith
    August 10, 2014 at 12:36 am

    It seems like I am coming full circle on this. If I don't need a screw driver and can't get inside, it will just be a bookend and rather quickly too. I've been giving away useless old Apple TVs and underpowered mac mini's - My next upgrade (six years is long enough) will yield a nice little project box. _ I just netted $140/month by cutting the cord - can get 22 local channels - most in 1080p HD - not the 720p "HD" the Cable DVR provides with a new antenna (in the attic) and can invest some in some ongoing flexibility and choice. Of course a TiVo Roamio would make this all simple (though costly) and would miss the absolute freedom of choice and the fun of a hobby in my retirement.

    • Justin P
      August 11, 2014 at 1:35 pm

      I love the attitude – when it comes to computing, freedom and a fun hobby often come hand in hand.

  19. Kory Arthur
    August 8, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    I have an itx server that dishes out Plex, PlayOn, and Twonky media servers to all my devices. It also handles torrents, music casting, and home surveillance which can be accessed remotely.

    • Justin P
      August 11, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      That's pretty cool. I've tried PlayOn a few times, and could never really figure out what to use it for. What do you use it for?

    • Kory
      August 11, 2014 at 3:22 pm

      I use PlayOn for streaming sports via frontro w and some tv shows mostly ala cart type stuff.

  20. Stefano
    August 8, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    what about TV guides on the PC solution? that's the only reason I use Tivo to record free over the air local channels... the guide is just the best.. priceless

    • Kory Arthur
      August 8, 2014 at 8:05 pm

      WMC has a built in guide much like Tivo, or a cable providers. Why pay for something that's free. Also, check out Channelmaster if your looking for an alternative to Tivo.

    • Justin P
      August 8, 2014 at 9:48 pm

      XBMC can do one better than just a guide. http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/watch-live-streaming-tv-xbmc/

  21. Michael
    August 7, 2014 at 10:49 am

    this sounds great I think I will try this in the next few weeks, especially WMC, great article

  22. Michael K
    August 7, 2014 at 3:10 am

    We use Windows Media Ctr (WMC) on a mini-pc and it works great. The dvr functions without a problem and has a lot of recording/setup options. We stream our music collection from another pc into WMC and it works flawlessly. Same with our home videos and photographs. Best of all: it passes the wife test, who sets of recordings, listens to music, and so on, without having to get me to make it happen. It comes with a Netflix addon, I added Hulu desktop, and I'll be checking other addons as time goes by. We have a blu-ray player with all sorts of "smart" options, as well. And we cut the tv cable and get local HD channels with a regular rabbit ears antenna (there's no need for a phony "digital" antenna). I installed XBMC but the interface and useability is not as smooth and easy as WMC, although I appreciate all the hard work that has gone into it; it's time is coming.

    • Dejjem
      August 7, 2014 at 3:16 pm

      @MichaelK XBMC is HIGHLY skinnable. As an example of what it can do, do a google search for images on the "Aeon MQ5" XBMC skin...

  23. Sandy Coulter
    August 7, 2014 at 2:24 am

    I've been using a PC to stream to my old CRT TV since before set top boxes were available. Unfortunately I don't have space for a full size PC near my TV, so I have been doing it with a "media center" laptop that has S-video output directly to my TV with sound going through a stereo receiver. Then I have shortcuts in Chrome to all the free streaming TV sources I can find online, some of them live. I also have a handheld mouse that I use as a remote from my chair, but often it is easier to get up and do it right from the laptop. I recently replaced the HDD with a 250GB SSD to remove the last possible bottleneck. I do not store commercial videos on the PC because I have a DVD player to play those. The picture is not perfect or even comparable to a DVD, but the price is right!

    • Justin P
      August 11, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      I love hearing how people hacked their own systems together.

  24. Mark
    August 6, 2014 at 11:28 pm

    Try the GBOX MX2 by Matricon. I have the Android version running XBMC Gotham 13.2 i used to use a OC on my comouter but tjus is solid and tiny and fast. It only codt about 10 bucks andwill run most android apps tooo! Try http://i.totakbmc.tv For COMPLETE REPO FOR ADD ons

  25. David K
    August 6, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    My wife & I use a windows PC attached to our flat screen - we read & write E-mails, surf the web,
    watch videos,. It's simple, easy, familiar. It cost us no more than a dedicated media player & we can do whatever we need or want with it.

  26. J.c. R
    August 6, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I tried to use the "Smart TV" after years of using my computer. It was a total FAIL when comparing the features, quality and friendliness. Computer wins hands down. I don't even attempt the Smart TV any longer. The lack of buffering is the biggest setback for Smart Devices.

    • Justin P
      August 7, 2014 at 1:58 am

      Such buffering. Glad you found something that works for you.

  27. Carlos Z
    August 6, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    How about me? I have been using a PC as the main entertainment center since 1999, and connected to the net. I have used every front end there has ever been, and at this moment I am using media browser 3, that works by itself or with Media Center or XBMC.

    • Justin P
      August 6, 2014 at 10:24 pm

      I need to give Media Browser a look, apparently. Thanks for the comment.

    • Dejjem
      August 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm

      @Randall, Are you using by any chance using the onboard graphic card to output to your projector? I had this issue when the CPU was trying to decode the picture, no discrete graphic cards (nvidia/ati) were in the PC and the CPU simple wasn't coping especially during slow/panning scenes.

      Solution: Put in a low-end graphic card in your PC.

      Two other tips:
      a) Make sure you also have the latest flash player.

      b) Make sure that XBMC is really offloading the picture to the graphic card. If XBMC or your codecs are set wrong it could still be trying to use your CPU and ignore the discrete graphic card.

      Also you are on Windows right not linux or such ?

    • Randall
      August 8, 2014 at 3:06 am

      Dejjem, thanks. Yes, I'm using Windows 7. I did try a discrete graphics card. It wasn't a very good one though. It was an Nvidia G100, I think. Maybe a better one would solve my problem. XBMC works great for what I use it for. I'm not too concerned about it though since there's no way to get any of the big streaming services onto it. I know there's XBMCFlicks, but, like was mentioned before, it's really just opening up a Chrome window, and there's no way to get Hulu, Prime, Vudu, etc., into it. The main point of the article is that a PC offers complete flexibility, but that's really only true with a browser. No 10-ft interface software that I know of offers integration of Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Vudu, Crackle, Google Play, etc. JRiver comes closest I think. I really wish I could just get it to work well in a damn browser. It may not be the most elegant solution, but you really can have anything you want in a browser (I like to have quick access to stuff like Jinni too), tabs offer a great way to quickly switch back and forth among all the various services, and bookmarks work for a universal queue.

    • Dejjem
      August 8, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      @Randall You're right, XBMC especially Gotham isn't good for any of those... Maybe what you need is a 10 foot content aggregator like -> http://eclipse.tv/vod.html or a 10 foot web browser optimized for the TV like -> http://kylo.tv/. Coupled with any low end graphic card on the market today should be enough for what you want ...

      I think the G100 actually has video acceleration but it's OLD... ION1 level I believe, if I'm not mistaken... Not sure if it would support 1080p smoothly. I would buy any low-end card of today. They're so cheap.

      ALSO you may have been suffering from the fact that a couple of years ago Flash didn't support hardware video offloading. Not sure if this was in 2010 or not. Websites (and XBMC) used Flash ergo the jittering.

      BTW I love Jinni :) Also just realized I posted under the wrong thread :) Sorry it just gets too confusing with so many comments...

    • Justin P
      August 11, 2014 at 1:30 pm

      Kylo hasn't seen an update in a couple of years, and is blocked by a number of sites including Hulu. Probably not recommended.

  28. Randall
    August 6, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    I'll tell you why you're wrong in hopes you or someone else can finally help me find a solution. I'd love to use an HTPC and bought a custom built one back in 2010 for this purpose. But the judder on panning scenes for streaming content drives me up the wall! I'm not talking about Youtube videos; I don't care about stuff like that. I'm talking about major services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Vudu. PQ is okay otherwise, though it can be difficult to get black levels and stuff set right too. I've eliminated obvious factors, such as a slow internet connection and even tried installing some additional hardware. Heck, I'd like to start over and build a new one myself this time, but I'm afraid I'd have the same problem. As you note, any PC from the last 10 years or so should be up to the task. Please help.

    • Justin P
      August 6, 2014 at 10:23 pm

      You might have thought of this already, but if you're using VGA this can be a problem. Consider trying HDMI.

      Another thing might be the need to avoid Flash. Programs like XBMC stream the media directly, giving you a much better framerate than flash-based players can offer.

      I might be out of my depth, though. Maybe someone else can help.

    • Randall
      August 6, 2014 at 10:45 pm

      Thanks for the suggestions. I'm already using HDMI. Unfortunately, XBMC won't work for any major streaming service. There's XBMCflicks, but it's really just opening Chrome. I know there are ways to get any content a person could want illegally, but I'm not willing to go that route. Plex, XBMC, WMC, Media Portal, Moovida, Boxee, Hulu Desktop--I've never been able to get any of them to work as good as a Roku or Apple TV as far as PQ goes. Part of it may be due to the fact that I'm trying to make it work with a projector on a 106" screen. At that size, any artifacts are of course magnified.

    • Randall
      August 6, 2014 at 10:57 pm

      I should add to that OTA TV looks great. No issues with it at all. I still use XBMC as sort of a fancy podcast player, and it works great for that. Actually, I still use my PC for most uses period. I just have it running through the input on a Sony Google TV. For most stuff, I can use the voice search on it to transition pretty quickly. (Amazon Fire makes a big deal out of voice search, but that's one thing Google TV got right a long time ago.) I still wish I could just use the PC though. Really, I just want it to work in a browser because I can use simple bookmarks as a universal queue that way.

    • Dejjem
      August 8, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      @Randall You're right, XBMC especially Gotham isn't too good for any of those...

      Maybe what you need is just a 10 foot content aggregator like -> http://eclipse.tv/vod.html or a 10 foot web browser optimized for the TV like -> http://kylo.tv/. Coupled with any low end graphic card on the market today should be enough for what you want ...

      I think the G100 actually has video acceleration but it's OLD... ION1 level if I'm not mistaken... Not sure if it would support 1080p smoothly. I would buy any low-end card of today. They're so cheap.

      ALSO you may have been suffering from the fact that a couple of years ago Flash didn't support hardware video offloading. Not sure if this was in 2010 or not... Websites (and XBMC) used Flash ergo the jittering... Make sure you update Flash to the latest version.

      BTW I love Jinni, especially the IOS version on my IPAD :)

  29. Halifaxguy
    August 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    I haven't waisted money on cable in years. I have an AppleTV hooked to a 65" 3D TV and Dmart 3D BluRay and Theatre Suround. The AppleTV is how I wirelessly watch conent from my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook. I love being able to press that one Airplay button and it all just works. I'm able to do work on my MacBook from the sofa while Airplaying anything I want to the "Theatre"...

  30. Don
    August 6, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    For the first time just now reading this article, I learned of XBMC. Looks like I need to learn a lot more. Any suggestions on how/where to get started, in addition to the XBMC site?

  31. George L
    August 6, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    XBMC on a $100 OUYA works great for me.

  32. DonGateley
    August 6, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    There are still (and always will be) content providers who contract with STB's to do their DRM for them. You will never get this content without one. One example is Amazon which requires compliant hardware beyond a PC to see their streamed content in other than standard definition.

  33. Steve
    August 6, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Well, I just discovered, quite by accident, XBMC and have been having a ball with it. I bought an OUYA to run it on and it works great.

  34. StoJa
    August 6, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    XBMC is changing it's name. It's going to be called "KODI" when V.14 comes out later this year.

    • Justin P
      August 6, 2014 at 10:20 pm

      Yep, wrote this article before then but it's worth noting. I've got a few years worth of XBMC articles and I'm wondering if I should go back and edit them, what do you think?

  35. Almost a Geek
    August 6, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    I use Apple TV and an iPad or Apple computer with AirPlay to stream virtually any content available from an app or from the Internet to the TV. You can browse the Internet on a TV screen just as you would on a computer screen. The quality on the TV is better than cable, in full HD.

  36. Mathew P
    August 6, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    I rely on my DD-WRT router to host and share my multimedia files over an SMB share (I'm still working on getting DLNA to work in DD-WRT..), which I can play on my TV through my Chromecast using LocalCast.

    I transcoded most of my blu-rays in h.264, so they play without any issues.

    • Mathew P
      August 6, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      Forgot to add, my router has a USB port, but I guess it was somewhat obvious.

  37. Paul
    August 6, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    I've been using an old PC plugged into a 32 inch TV in my living room for a couple of years... it worked pretty nicely, especially as I had on old (though once expensive) wireless Microsoft keyboard with a built in trackpad. Sadly it's just died - think it's the motherboard. I already have an Android phone and tablet - I mostly use Netflix and the UK's TV catch up services so Chromecast looks the obvious way to go ...

  38. Robert L
    August 6, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    All of this is great. I don't have cable and just use my PS4 and HD antennae for most of what I need.

    My biggest need is live sports. I like football, basketball, UFC. I cannot get those without cable or one of the monopolies. I know i can get some on Justin.tv and other channels, but that is not reliable. Will XBMC get me those?

    I am considering getting a slingbox and hooking it to a freinds tv. Would that work?

    • Justin P
      August 6, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      Regarding XBMC: There might be a channel called SportsDevil, which might offer streams that might be illegal.

      I myself use NHL Gamecenter, but I'm a hockey fan who doesn't realize other sports exist (exception: futbol's World Cup).

      A slingbox hooked up to a friend's TV might work, if they don't mind you freeloading. Never thought of that.

    • likefunbutnot
      August 6, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      @Robert L,

      I believe Front Row Sports is the normal go-to for streaming sports crap. It's in a legal grey area, so it's not going to be on any STB-type devices, but it's definitely an option for cord-cutting sports fan.

      Most non-NFL sports do have legal streaming options, though that varies a lot depending on the obscurity of the team and the sport.

      Personally, I'm not interested enough to care other than to say that ESPN is the biggest chunk of cost on a basic bill and therefore a big part of the problem.

  39. Alexis C
    August 6, 2014 at 5:11 am

    You were convincing me until I remembered in the limited space of my TV table will never fit a CPU and get enough ventilation.

    • Justin P
      August 6, 2014 at 1:13 pm

      Consider a rapberry pi, then. Or a new TV table.

    • likefunbutnot
      August 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      ...or an Intel NUC

    • Alexis C
      August 6, 2014 at 6:20 pm

      Thanks guys. Actually, I have a xtreamer sd1 for 4 years now and a couple of days ago I ordered a minix neo x8h with Android and native xbmc app. You should check it out. Fantastic machine on paper.

    • likefunbutnot
      August 6, 2014 at 10:08 pm

      @Alexis,
      Prepare to be disappointed. I suspect you'll find their default launcher leaves a lot to be desired. You can do better by flashing that box to Linux in order to get a better XBMC configuration.
      I have a Pivos Xios myself, but it got shelved in favor of running XBMC off the FireTV in my back bedroom. The FireTV's extra RAM and CPU cores just make it the best all around option.
      The only Android

  40. ArtV
    August 6, 2014 at 2:11 am

    Justin, Justin, Justin ... it took you all this time to figure this out for yourself ??

    Where have you been hiding my friend ??? Those of us paying attention did this a number of years ago ... did you just get your first cup of coffee yesterday ??

    I haven't had cable tv for nearly 7 years and put the extra money saved into high speed internet - also bought a cheap pc with a big no name LCD tv for a screen and have been watching lots of free content for some years ... however, just like you I did try the Boxee, XBMC and Plex routes and found them just too tedious to setup and manage ... a Plain Jane Windows setup with a remote keyboard (like the Logitech K400) works just great ...

    • Justin P
      August 6, 2014 at 1:12 pm

      Ha, this isn't a new discovery to me – I've literally never had cable. I used a ten-year-old used computer as my media center for years, upgraded a couple years ago to a newer PC. I just wanted to find a way to share this, and the result was the above article.

      But seriously, XBMC is amazing once it has all the things you want. For me that's my YouTube subscriptions, NHL Gamecenter and PBS – which works great in XBMC.

  41. Perry
    August 6, 2014 at 2:02 am

    I've been extremely happy with my Chromecast. Anything I can play in my browser can be presented on my TV, wirelessly. For $30, you really can't lose.

    • Justin P
      August 6, 2014 at 1:10 pm

      I have to admit, the Chromecast avoids a lot of my criticisms above. It's an affordable device that gives you a lot of flexibility – if you use it with another device.

  42. Cristina
    August 5, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    I've been using MediaPortal for almost 2 years. It's awesome! And I'm the wife, who spent all the time researching it and setting it up so I could ditch cable for my family. We get channels through antenna in HD, and have a tuner card in the htpc to record live TV.

  43. Darryl Gittins
    August 5, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    The trouble with using a PC for this is that every time you want to sit down to watch something, you have to start screwing with the computer. 1st, wait for it to start. Oh, and then get prompted to install updates. Oh, the sound isn't working. Need to figure out which of the 6 different places the sound might be turned off. Oh, wait. Now I have to reboot to finish updating the computer. Nearly there... Oop - there's that pesky Java prompt again asking me to update.... and on and on it goes. And now your popcorn is cold and you're about ready to throw the TV and the computer into the street. An Apple TV or a GTV always just works. It starts instantly and doesn't drive you bonkers with popups and error messages and noisy fans and so on.

    • Justin P
      August 6, 2014 at 1:04 pm

      This never happens to me, and I use my XBMC setup every day. I keep the computer suspended instead of shutting it down, though.

    • Stuart
      March 17, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      Not everybody has such a short fuse of patience and wants to throw their toys in the street

  44. Shawn
    August 5, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    Also, the emergence of Raspberry Pi has made this approach even more affordable.

  45. Neville Scollop
    August 5, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    My setup: PC running Windows 7 with Smart DNS Service from overplay, i can watch BBC and ITV in Germany for $5 a month. Home media server running XPenology and usenet for Movies and Music. Amazon S3 for backing up the family photos and important stuff.

  46. Scott M
    August 5, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    The only real issue I've ever had with using a computer as a media server has always been Metadata. It can be a real pain if you don't keep on top of it, and most servers that I've seen don't know what to do with your files if they're not labelled the way they want them to be.

    • Justin P
      August 5, 2014 at 8:25 pm

      Yeah, this can be a pain, but if you use a program like http://www.filebot.net it's a lot easier.

    • likefunbutnot
      August 5, 2014 at 10:08 pm

      Also take a look at TheRenamer.
      And/Or MediaMonkey and/or MusicBrainz Picard for dealing with audio data.

      To be honest, both Plex and XBMC are pretty decent at guessing and categorizing content even if you can't be bothered to organize properly. The right way to deal with organization is to just start a new folder structure that matches your expectations and stick with it going forward. The old stuff can be slowly added here and there when you have time to fix things.

      I have several tens of terabytes of data collected and what I am mainly telling you is that tools exist to make even the biggest metadata cleanups manageable.

    • likefunbutnot
      August 5, 2014 at 10:25 pm

      Here's the thing in favor of STBs: Wife/Child/Mom approval factor. We're nerds. We will sit down and spend a day figuring out how to bend something to our will. If we weren't, we wouldn't be here on MUO.

      The person you share your life with probably isn't like that. In some cases, the person may not even be able to handle "Change the input on the TV", let alone navigate to a folder with specific content using a skinnable 10' interface on a non-remote input device.

      You flip on your FireTV or Roku 3 and stuff is much closer to idiot-proof. There's very little fussing to be done with those boxes, and that's how the non-geek in your life will want things. The boxes also don't really use power in the same way as anything PC-based and they're not going to have anything remotely like a fan in them, so they don't make noise, either.

      That being said, there are down sides to STBs as well: No single device has every service you might want to access, though in some cases there are services on STBs that aren't available on computers, either. STBs generally don't handle local content very well; almost all of them need a local DLNA or Plex server to be useful if you have a library of content handy. STBs also tend to have limitations in audio and video quality support that may or may not matter depending on the rest of your A/V setup (e.g. no native 24Hz refresh support, no DTS etc). Many STBs (coughRokucough) have slow, ugly, information-poor UIs, which can matter a great deal for a service like Netflix or Youtube where there's some expectation of interactivity under other circumstances.

      I quite like the Amazon FireTV. XBMC sideloads on to it quite nicely and it has excellent clients for Plex, Youtube and Netflix. It doesn't have all the oddball content support ("Oh look, more Churches and weird international sports!") that Roku does, but it's much faster and has a much more polished interface.

  47. ed
    August 5, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    I use both methods. I have a Roku 3 hooked up to the same TV I have a custom Linux-powered XBMC PC hooked up to.

    I use the Roku 3 for Nimble TV so I can get my live TV and DVR service over the internet. Nimble provides the channels for you through a deal with Dish Network if you don't already have cable. I use the cheap $30/month package to get all the basic NYC channels plus some cable channels like History, TLC, Food Network, HGTV and a few dozen more. It's a nice setup because I can also watch Nimble TV on a PC or tablet as well. Too bad the actual experience provided by Nimble sucks so bad. A different bug or issue pops up every week, then is resolved, then something else pops up... E V E R Y W E E K for months now. The minute Aereo comes back, Nimble will go out the window!!! I also use the Roku for Amazon Prime.

    The PC is strictly for XBMC and gives me all the "premium" channels and movies, plus my local media and Firefox browser and the occasional DVD that will soon be a thing of the past. What I don't like about Linux on this PC is the inability to play HTML5 and flash-based videos from a browser as smooth as can be played from a Windows PC broswer. Seems that HTML5 and flash optimization is not as smooth for Linux as it is in Windows. If browser-based video was smooth and fluid, I could almost get rid of the Roku.

    • Justin P
      August 5, 2014 at 8:20 pm

      I'm not sure Aereo is coming back, but we'll see. This sounds like a pretty great setup, overall, glad it's working for you.

    • Harry Wittmer
      August 5, 2014 at 10:27 pm

      Ed. or someone who cab answer this

      Hi. I have Comcast cable and I am very tired of paying their bill. How do I get premium channels with XBMC? I have XBMC on my PC and would love to see premium stataions on my PC but I don't know how to get channels as Showtime, HBO, Starz, Cinamac etc.
      Please let me and I am sure, the viewers know.

      Thanks
      Harry

    • likefunbutnot
      August 6, 2014 at 1:21 am

      @Harry Wittmer,

      You don't get "channels" with XBMC. You can access static content that you've somehow obtained through special internet machine (probably through software that rhymes with Qorrent or Qewsgroups). You need a decent amount of local disk space to accommodate this.
      There are XBMC addons for legal (Hulu, Netflix) and quasilegal streaming services (First Row Sports? Is that still a thing?), but these addons are as often broken as functional.
      XBMC can also act as a front-end to some other services such as Pandora and Youtube, but its interface for those things is unpolished at best. It's not an ideal interface for those things.

      If you're looking for something that straightforwardly allows access to content of questionable legal status, you might look at Popcorn Time, which will probably cover your needs for recently aired TV and the like just fine. The developers say it has a builtin VPN, but personally I doubt it's as good as they say it is.

    • nameofemail
      August 6, 2014 at 2:01 am

      Harry:
      As likefunbutnot said, you do not get channels, but rather, you get access to the shows and movies produced by these channels through video add-ons.

      Take a look here:
      http://www.makeuseof.com/pages/xbmc-full-html
      In particular xbmchub and 1channel.

      Also here:
      http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/set-fusion-installer-xbmc/
      Installing Fusion from XBMChub will give you access to add-ons such as 1channel and Icefilms. Which will allow you to stream and watch shows and movies just fine without actually torrenting or downloading.

      As another option, outside of using these add-ons, Amazon Prime and Netflix are cost effective alternatives to the added premium channels offered by cable companies.

      Disclaimer: Certain countries allow the free streaming of shows and movies while it is illegal in other countries to stream the same shows. Check the laws in your country or use a VPN if you are so inclined.

    • Ben L
      August 6, 2014 at 3:11 pm

      Have you tried Pipelight?

    • Dejjem
      August 7, 2014 at 3:26 pm

      @Harry Wittmer, You can get channels on XBMC just not for 100% free. You will have to install an addon to some live channel streaming services (That you pay monthly for & I'm not sure they are 100% legal everywhere...). This addon will change according to which subscription service you choose. I'm intentionally not naming anything here.

      Then install another free addon like "FTV Guide". Viola!! You have premium channels with all the EPG info etc...

      One Caveat - Don't expect this to be as reliable as standard cable TV but GOOD, 99% reliable services exist.

    • Mike
      August 11, 2014 at 2:54 pm

      I can get 100% free actual channels on XBMC. I just hook up a TV tuner device to the computer, connect a good antenna, and run a TV server (tvheafend) in the background. XBMC connects to it via its PVR add-ons. The server also sends the TV signals through the network so that any device that runs XBMC can watch it. It gives me full DVR-type capabilities, including recording, pausing, rewinding/fast forwarding live TV. Where we are, we get about 80 OTA channels (although only about 45 are in English).

  48. Hugo
    August 5, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    I use the smart capabilities of my tv basically to watch netflix and the media that i have in a openwrt nas over dlna. So i don't need any aditional PC.

    • Justin P
      August 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      Sounds perfectly workable, if you have a smart TV. Glad it's working for you.

    • likefunbutnot
      August 5, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      DLNA has some pretty severe limitations, primarily in its crummy presentation, reliance on playlists for audio management and the fact that the client and server normally pass MPEG2 video and two-channel audio instead of whatever your source might happen to be. That's fine for a mobile client, but if your source video is high-bitrate x.264 with a DTS soundtrack, it's a let-down. DLNA requires connected devices to be on the same LAN.

      If you can, move up to Plex Media Server. Plex will deliver content that's transcoded appropriately for the capabilities of each connected client and can be made share content over the internet with anyone you've invited to use your libraries. As a fallback, yes, it's still a DLNA server.

    • lyle
      February 26, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      i have a smart tv also, but the problem with it is that it uses yahoo widgets and doesn't have a real browser. they say a browser would be difficult to operate with a remote. that's their reason it isn't included. you can only access the apps they want you to, w/o the ability to enter a simple link.

  49. StoJa
    August 5, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    XBMC is the greatest thing ever. Nothing else is even close, IMO.

    • Howard B
      August 5, 2014 at 9:00 pm

      Plex.

    • rich
      November 24, 2014 at 10:13 am

      Mediaportal IMO and I've used them all

    • Mike
      February 10, 2015 at 12:25 am

      I haven't tried Mediaportal, as it's Windows only (I'm a Linux guy and won't touch Windows, for personal preference reasons). But I've tried Plex, and I think XBMC/Kodi is better, IMO, just for the fact that you can fairly easily add complete Live TV support with full DVR functionality to it. Plex is good if all you want to do is stream on-demand media from place to place, but I much prefer the flexibility of XBMC/Kodi.

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