The media center is the ultimate living room experience; one PC to play everything, one PC to find and download, and one PC to bring in all the family and bind them in front of a glowing widescreen TV. And if you didn’t get that reference, you ought to watch more movies. But with a few hacks, your humble media center can do so much more.
Let’s take a look at 10 ways to supercharge your media center experience.
Play Retro Videogames
Personally, I think old games are overrated, but if you’re itching for some finger twitching and you run Xbox Media Center, check out the Rom Launcher plugin, which you’ll find under the Programs add-ons menu. Justin first showed us this back in January, and it’s superb – along with the other 4 XBMC plugins which you really ought to go check out right now.
Automatically Download The Latest Episodes of Your Favorite Show
Requirements: Usenet provider (limited torrent support)
Integrating nicely with XBMC, SickBeard will seek out new episode of your favorite show, download from your specified NZB source and USENET provider, then add them to your library with all the right metadata added. While we don’t condone piracy, if you were the type of person who enjoys watching the latest shows for free, this is a tool you would probably want.
Get Hulu And Netflix US Selections, Even From Abroad
I don’t think Americans quite realize how privileged they are when it comes to access to media; everyone else in the world, we get shafted. However, if you’re a Netflix subscriber in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter, you can quite easily gain access to the vast US selection – and to Hulu and other regional services – by using a simple bit of DNS hackery. Tunlr is a free service but no guarantees are made and Netflix isn’t supported, but on the paid side, I’ve found UnoTelly to be very reliable for under $10 a month.
Unlike a full VPN which tunnels all your traffic through another country, UnoTelly and other DNS hacks only redirect the packets of information pertaining to your location when viewing regional locked services – there is no slowdown in internet speed and you’re able to watch in full HD if your connection is fast enough.
Add a Remote Control
Requirements: Mobile device, or Universal Remote and IR receiver
If you have one of those awesome universal remotes and some kind of IR reader for your PC, you can set it up to control your media center using LIRC or the WinLIRC port for windows. It’s a pretty complicated setup though, so head on over to the project page for instructions and supported devices.
A far easier option is to use your iPad or Android device as a remote control for either Plex or XBMC. The Plex client (iOS, Android) is far more polished in my opinion (pictured above), but it also costs $4.99; the official XBMC remote (iOS, Android) is free (pictured below).
Minimize or Hide Hardware
Required: time, effort, or money
Did you know a $35 Raspberry Pi can run XBMC? Indeed it can, and with the size of those things you could even bolt in it on the back of your TV! No more ugly great tower or desktop PCs.
Alternatively, what about hiding your existing bulky hardware into furniture, or swapping out your ugly tower case for a sleep HTPC case that makes it look like just another bit of AV kit? Don’t forget check on motherboard sizes though – many HTPC cases will only accept Micro ATX.
Go For The Cinema Experience with a Huge Projector
Okay, not exactly a hack as such, but projectors are seriously underrated bits of kit; yes, they can be difficult to view in the daytime, but who watches TV or movies in the day anyway? You ought to be outside! Nothing beats the cost effectiveness and big screen cinema-like experience of a projector, added to which their portability lends itself to impromptu garden movie screenings in the summer and hilarious Halloween effects.
You can get an HD 3D projector for as little as $450 on Amazon, capable of projecting a far bigger image than you could ever afford from a TV at that price – all you need add is a blank white wall.
Neither XBMC nor Plex handle TV recording, though they’re the best solutions for playing your downloaded or ripped media. If you do want to record TV, you’ll need a separate package such Windows Media Center (not included with Windows 8 but currently free for Windows 8 Pro owners), or Linux users can check out Myth TV. Personally, I just phoned up my cable ISP, added TV services, got a free 500gb TiVo box, and am now paying £10 less per month than I was before.
I rarely watch TV to be honest, so having a separate bit of software on the media center and the hassle involved with setting it up versus simply adding it to my cable internet package was an easy decision to make. You’ve also got a lot more considerations when it comes it comes to signal format in the UK; the analogue signal has now been completely switched off – rendering a lot of TV cards useless – while newer devices can sometimes only record HD channels from FreeSAT signal and not over the air digital broadcasts – it’s a mess, basically.
Resume Playing From The Bedroom, or Anywhere
Required: Plex, or XBMC
If you have Plex, the good news is that you can already resume playing your media from any Plex client you own; since media is served from one central location, there’s not additional setup and everything is happy in the world.
Sadly, XBMC isn’t quite as easy since it’s designed to only really play local media. You’ll need to install MySQL in order to setup a shared database of your media, and get more familiar than most of us like with the command line. If you absolutely must run XBMC clients but love the networked capabilities of Plex, consider the PleXBMC plugin, which is also capable of resuming playback from the last know position, though isn’t quite as nicely integrated.
Add Creative Lighting
Watch the video, and try to tell me that’s not the most awesome ambient lighting setup, ever. Though this video is from a Russian-only device, similar project files and software are available for Arduino. The only downside is that it’ll work with anything from your PC, but not raw TV signals or your Xbox 360. Here’s a simple 1 channel project that averages the colour of the whole display, while this is a more complicated setup that gives you about 8 channels (potentially more) for a multicolor backlight.
Got any more media center hacks? Tell the world comments below. If you’re just starting out on the path to media centre bliss, be sure to check our free PDF guide.
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