Computers are capable and versatile devices. Media playback is one of the most common (and fun) uses. The home theater PC (more commonly known as a “HTPC”) rose to prominence in the 2000s, with dedicated software and releases such as Windows Media Center. While proprietary media centers are readily available for purchase, Linux distributions offer a versatile solution to creating an awesome HTPC.
Looking to build a HTPC? There’s a slew of fantastic Linux media center distros awaiting.
The Kodi entertainment system originated as XBMC, or Xbox Media Center. Kodibuntu is a standalone operating system based on Lubuntu, a lightweight version of Ubuntu. You’ll enjoy a snappy, resource efficient experience since Kodibuntu is based on a lightweight distribution.
You can install Kodibuntu on a hard drive, bootable disc, or flash drive. Many add-ons are available — these are akin to apps on devices like a Roku. In a few clicks you could be watching on-demand content from ABC and NBC and streaming from a Plex server to your Kodibuntu box.
Kodi recognizes local content almost perfectly. Several scrapers search for metadata from sources like TVDB. Because files don’t always adhere to a strict naming convention, mis-identification occasionally occurs. For instance, DVD extras might display with the wrong data (I’m that guy who actually watches the special features). There’s a reason Kodi stands as the go-to HTPC program: it’s simple but packed with features.
GeeXboX is a full-fledged media center operating system. It’s a lightweight distro available on desktops and embedded devices. With a tiny footprint, you can run it straight from a flash drive (as I did) or perform a traditional install. GeeXboX is based on Kodi, so chances are you’ll appreciate the familiar user interface.
GeeXboX’s main draw is its small footprint. The latest version, 3.1, is only a 160 MB ISO. As a result of its minuscule size, GeeXboX makes the perfect distro for booting off a USB drive or installing on older hardware. The Kodi skin remains intact, save for the GeeXboX logo. Thus, there’s all the customization of its HTPC sibling. GeeXboX played every file I threw at it and managed great performance with 1080p files.
OSMC, or Open Source Media Center, is a super lightweight iteration of Kodi. It’s a Debian-based distro available for the Raspberry Pi, Vero, and Apple TV. The OSMC community offers regular updates to the operating system for this Kodi-based release. Running on Linux, OSMC benefits from massive repositories. That makes OSMC truly embody the open source in its name.
I have OSMC running on my Raspberry Pi. Access to standard apps like Crunchyroll, Funimation, ABC, NBC, and CBS, as well as the ability to play any file I chuck its way make it a winner. Plus, it’s the perfect companion for my Plex server with the PleXBMC add-on. Granted, I have three devices hooked up to my TV with Plex apps installed (a PlayStation 3, Roku 2 XS, and the Pi). What sets OSMC apart is the custom skin that resembles the Mimic Skin. It’s visually appealing with its flat design.
Watching what you want when you want is a luxury that’s been perpetuated by on-demand, digital delivery, and DVR. MythTV was developed to enhance the DVR experience, and Mythbuntu adds the functionality of Ubuntu. The interface is tailored for a DVR format, with options to watch live TV, manage recordings, and view a media library.
Mythbuntu is perfect for those seeking a simple yet powerful DVR management solution to integrate with a TV tuner, this is it. As someone sans-TV tuner, I tried it for local playback which did work, but if you’re like me and don’t have a tuner, you’re better off with a solution like Kodibuntu or GeeXbox.
Want the best of retro gaming and home theater awesomeness? Recalbox is your distro of choice. It’s a combination of the EmulationStation frontend and Kodi. Built from the ground up for Raspberry Pi, it’s a Linux-based operating system. By default Recalbox boots into EmulationStation, but can be rebooted into Kodi.
I’ve used this a lot on my Raspberry Pi, and it’s simply brilliant. As a gamer and HTPC enthusiast, I found myself constantly swapping micro SD cards. Recalbox completely changed that dynamic. Instead, I now use one card and merely switch seamlessly between Kodi and EmulationStation depending on whether I’d rather watch or play.
Sabayon Linux is a Gentoo-based distro aimed at offering a slew of default applications. As a result of the hefty default apps, Sabayon diminishes post-install work. There are several varieties, and the GNOME and KDE iterations include Kodi, a media player (VLC on KDE, Totem for GNOME), and music player (Amarok for KDE, Exaile for GNOME).
Since it takes an all-in-one approach, Sabayon posits itself as a great out of the box HTPC distro that doubles as a straight up desktop experience. You can even run Kodi without loading the desktop, a super neat feature that enhances the media hub aspects.
LinuxMCE takes the media center hub and adds an automation twist. In addition to the standard media metadata organization (found in other releases such as Kodi), there’s an onus on streaming and automation. You can listen and view content in multiple rooms, control audio and video equipment, and play retro games.
Want to have a smart home, not just a media hub? LinuxMCE monitors sensors and security cameras, connects with lighting and climate controls, and can even serve as a VoIP and network management hub. Consequently, these added smart home features position LinuxMCE as a great alternative to pricier proprietary devices, and offer a sweet DIY home automation solution.
LinHES stands for Linux Home Entertainment System, and this particular release derives from MythTV. Boasting a 20-minute transformation from blank device to HTPC, highlights include watching, pausing, and recording live TV, DVD playback, metadata, and music playback. Because of this ease of install, it’s a solid pick for DVR enthusiasts.
LinHES is a pretty functional HTPC solution that’s akin to a beefed up Mythbuntu. Because LinHES is centered on the DVR capabilities of MythTV, it’s a bit more suited to non-DVR users, but still lacks the features found in non DVR-centric releases.
9. Roll Your Own HTPC Distro
Want a killer HTPC distro? Try creating your own custom mix. My AMD-powered laptop is running Ubuntu 16.04, and I cobbled together an HTPC by installing a smattering of my favorite media-centric apps. I use Kodi to play my files locally. Plex Media Server streams from my laptop to my Raspberry Pi (running OSMC), PlayStation 3, Roku, Galaxy S4, and Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition. The awesome Stremio serves as a hybrid for seeking where to play certain content, as well as live TV.
Of course, installing the components like VLC, Kodi, Plex, and Stremio means more work than a simple out of the box distro, but the results are satisfying. Take advantage of these top media server software options for Linux to roll out your own HTPC distro.