When I was about 12 years old my cousin had a Sinclair Spectrum with rubber keys, 48K of ram and a tape recorder for loading and saving programs. He had bought it second hand and it came with tapes containing programs that the previous owner had written, or more likely transcribed from some or other magazine.
One that fascinated me was a simple database of music singles. Lots of old stuff, Elvis, Buddy Holly etc. What really interested me was the notion that in the future with a database like that you could actually play the songs, rather than just look at information about them like Record Label, Year, Songwriter etc.
When I got my first PC years later I tried creating a database that had all that information and the music too. I think I copied about 3 songs to WAV format before I realised that the whole process would be too tedious.
Today you can rip your CD’s to your hard drive. The software can pull in all the tedious information from the internet. It can display cover art, even the lyrics of the songs. We have reached, and passed where 12 years old me wanted to be.
A few years ago I had another vision of the future. Instead of getting up off my ass and finding a particular DVD I should just be able to select the movie I want on my computer, just like I do with music. It should have all the extras that a DVD contains. In short I wanted my DVD’s available at the click of a button.
Naturally, I didn’t want to be stuck watching DVD’s on 15″ PC monitors. I saw myself plonked on the couch in front of my TV, with surround sound, nice lighting, and all my DVD’s available through a snazzy user interface.
Back then the technology for that still wasn’t around, and to the extent that it existed it was as tedious as my early experiments with music were. But, technology has caught up, and as of today my entire collection of movies is now residing on a couple of hard drives. TV Shows are next up.
I’m sitting on my couch as I type this (on a laptop). My TV is just over there. Surround Sound? Check. Proper lighing? Check.
All my DVD’s available through a nice user interface. Check.
After that long meandering introduction, here’s the details of what I’ve done. There was a bit of trial and error and a lot of miss steps along the way, and if this post saves someone else some time It will have served it’s purpose.
I started by trying out Microsoft’s built in media center. I very quickly got tired of it. I didn’t like the look. It seemed to hang fairly regularly. And I couldn’t figure out how to get it to do the things I wanted, like play a DVD from my hard drive, or download details about movies and display nice cover art etc. It may be that it can do all these things, but it can’t do them out of the box.
If I want to go down the road of third party plug-ins etc then I might as well go the whole way and see what alternatives there are to media center.
One of the first alternatives I found was MediaPortal
It seemed to do much of what I wanted. I installed the wonderful StreamedMP skin which also gave me the fantastic MovingPictures and MyTVSeries plugins. I also used Daemon Tools Light which allowed me to play ISO files. I could rip my DVD collection to ISO files and they would play within MediaPortal.
I was living the dream.
But there were problems. MediaPortal was slow. My machine was well above the suggested spec, but it was damn slow. It would also freeze A LOT. It was virtually impossible to scroll through the list of movies without it locking up. If the machine ever went into sleep mode you might as well give up and reboot.
I upgraded to Windows 7 and the freezing seemed to be less of a problem, but the remote control no longer worked.
Also, from time to time when I would try to play an ISO file it would take literally minutes to load. Up to 7 or 8 minutes.
It was as if MediaPortal was copying the entire ISO over a network before playing it, even though the ISO was a local file.
Other times it would start playing immediately. Really annoying.
I upgraded to a Beta version of the latest Media Portal release and the remote started working but it was all still very slow and buggy.
To be expected from a Beta, and I waited patiently for a more stable release.
The MediaPortal guys seem to have shifted attention to MediaPortal 2 which seems to be a complete rebuild. It might be fantastic, but in the meantime I’m trying to get my PC to play movies. Eventually a newer release emerged and I upgraded. It had a few improvements, but in fairness it wasn’t dramatically better. Still very slow. Still the occasional freeze up. Now when an episode of a tv show ended MediaPortal would vanish. it was still running, but you had to hit Alt-F4 to shut it down, then restart it.
Around this time I had lunch with a friend who suggested Boxee. As soon as I got home I installed it. It was a revelation. It was fast. It was pretty slick looking. It would play ISO files without needing to mess around with Daemon Tools or virtual drives. Did I mention that it was fast?
Sadly, Boxee requires you to create an account. There’s a whole social network thing going on. The problem is that Boxee is commercial, and I’d really prefer not to have a commerical company watching me log in and keeping track of what I watch. I see no reason for it. By all means create a social layer if you want, but if I don’t like it then let me use the software without logging in.
Boxee also had serious problems matching up my movies and tv shows with information from the internet, and had no way of allowing me to manually override it’s mistakes. Boxee’s reign on my HTPC was short. The end was swift and brutal.
It got me thinking though. I checked out XBMC which is the daddy of all these programs. MediaPortal branched from XBMC. Boxee branched from XBMC. I’m sure half a dozen other media centers have their origins in it.
So I installed XBMC.
The clouds parted, the sun shone on the TV, and god himself sighed with pleasure (I later discovered that was my hard drive groaning, but that’s a different story). XBMC loaded fast, it was really responsive. It matched up my movies pretty well. I could manually overwrite it’s mistakes. It loaded and played ISO files blazingly fast. I really can’t stress this enough. To test it I tried running XBMC on a laptop connecting via WiFi (G) to the network. It loaded an ISO file over the network and played it instantly and flawlessly.
best of all when I played a movie using XBMC my AV Receiver would flash up Dolby or DTS in all the right places. Somehow, without me having to spend days on forums and hack my registry, XBMC just seemed to work. Glorious surround sound, movies like they should be. I added the Transparency skin, which improved the whole look of things.
I installed no plug-ins. I installed a few skins which literally could not have been simpler.
I can’t stress strongly enough how much easier the whole process of setting up and using XBMC has been compared to MediaPortal, or even Boxee. It is genuinely a classy piece of software.
It’s not perfect. I have a few problems with my remote, but as far as I can tell I’ll be table to get to the bottom of those.
It seems to me that XBMC doesn’t upscale DVD’s as well as Boxee, but I might be imagining that.
XBMC doesn’t do Recording or Timeshifting of Live TV, infact it doesn’t do TV at all, other than playing pre-recorded episodes. That isn’t a problem for me, my cable set top box never played nice with computers in any case so I wouldn’t have been using that feature.
XBMC is the first media center application that I can honestly suggest to non techie users (The so-called Wife and Kids (WAK) demographic).