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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), 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 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 here.
Streaming your own media from a Network Attached Server 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.
- Very affordable at just $100
- Dedicated player with strong support from third parties
- Out of the box, easy setup
- Comes with a remote
- More complicated to setup for your own media
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.
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.
- Only $100
- AirPlay Mirroring from iOS and OSX devices
- Restricted to iTunes, and a few third party services
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 2012 model.
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. 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).
- A fully functional light-weight laptop
- Very responsive due to SSD storage
- Completely silent
- 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
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.
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.
- Fully functional Mac
- Larger drives, 500GB or more for local media storage
- Still expensive, from $599
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- No Netflix client
- Very low performance and sluggish interface
- Very difficult to setup
Until recently, the Boxee Box 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.