The original Xbox Media Player was conceived to transform the media capabilities of first-generation Xbox consoles. Once your Xbox had been modified using a simple software hack, turning Microsoft’s demi-PC into a media centre was an absolute must. It worked a treat, give or take a few bugs and the odd crash.
From this homebrewed creation came the marvelous XBMC, which has been since ported to a myriad of systems (and had its original Xbox support dropped). The once console-only media centre has evolved into a successful cross-platform media player, and has even spawned its own child projects.
If you’re at all interested in building an XBMC media centre or replacing the software on your current one, XBMC might just be the well thought out solution you’re looking for.
XBMC comes in a wide variety of flavours, allowing you to use it on any operating system of your choice. On the downloads page you’ll find the usual Windows installer and a Linux setup guide, which differs according to your distribution.
For this article, I used the Ubuntu 10.10, which can be installed via the command line:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:team-xbmc sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get install xbmc
Mac users old and new will be pleased with both x86 Mac OS X and old-school PowerPC versions available. There’s even a version for the Apple TV, if you’re looking to replace the software with something a little more open source.
My favourite version, however, has to be the Live CD.
The addition of a Live CD means you don’t even need an operating system, just burn XBMC to a CD or create a bootable USB stick and go. XBMC Live uses a stripped-down Ubuntu-based Linux operating system, with the desktop completely hidden from view for a set-top box feel from the second you turn it on.
You can install this version of XBMC straight onto the device you wish to use, or keep a portable version to hand for when you need it.
Once your chosen version has booted, you’ll be faced with the XBMC main menu, which allows you to choose from Weather, Pictures, Music, Videos, Programs and System. There’s also a news ticker at the bottom of the screen which by default provides news related to XBMC and its community.
The Weather pane is a simple Weather.com lookup based on local towns. Pictures, Music and Videos are portals to your local, networked and cloud media. Programs accesses add-ons, and System is used to configure the media centre.
Sources must be assigned to media destinations (which is simple), and once added, your sources will appear in your chosen media’s sub-menu. XBMC supports a decent selection of network protocols including SMB (that’s default Windows sharing or Samba on Linux), UPnP and ReplayTV as well as all your locally connected storage devices.
You can even add multiple paths within the same source, so if you’ve got lots of media fragmented across the network you can add it all as one source and label it accordingly.
XBMC doesn’t limit you to a library mode for accessing your media, but also allows you to keep it simple with filetree view. You’re then free to organise everything the way you want it (and if you’re like me not worry about pesky incomplete tags in MP3 files).
It’s the little things like filetree view and custom media sources that makes XBMC a mighty powerful media client, and one that’s presented in what feels like a very logical manner.
Playing media is entirely self explanatory. You’ve got the usual on-screen display to control playback, video or visualization settings and enable other options such as subtitles and playlist commands. There’s support for a variety of different remote controls, or you could use a wireless keyboard or even a games controller.
Once you’ve realised all your media works a treat, can be organised however you’d like and you’ve been blown away by how gorgeous the whole thing is tied together you’ll probably want to download some add-ons.
These vastly extend the capabilities of your new media centre, and are easily installed without any need to restart your machine. Each media submenu (Videos, Music, Pictures and Programs) has an option to download add-ons, as well as the System menu for an overview of what’s available.
From simple email checkers to more elaborate services including GrooveShark, the Transmission Bit Torrent client, podcast tools and on-demand video streaming services. To install simply find one you like, select it, hit Install and enjoy.
Skins are also handled via this method, and you can alter your appearance settings in the System menu. These downloadable extras have the potential to turn a simple media centre into an all-round entertainment device. Oh yeah, and there’s a MAME Frontend available too – nothing beats playing arcade games from the comfort of your sofa!
Once you’re done you can choose to exit XBMC, go into standby, shut down or reboot your box all from a pretty menu.
I could probably write the same amount again about why I’m so in love with XBMC, but it’s easier to discover for yourself. If Boxee is great for those who live for cloud-based TV then XBMC is the tool for anyone with a media collection that’s pushing into the terabytes.
If you like your Boxee that little bit more customized, have a finely-tuned web browser with a ton of extensions and have a spare PC that’s itching to be used for something worthwhile then XBMC might be what you’re looking for.
If you remember the original, you’ll love the progress that’s been made.
Is XBMC the best media solution? Do you prefer Boxee, MythTV or Windows Media Centre? Let us know what you think in the comments!