Goodbye MediaPortal Hello XBMC

Posted: February 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

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).

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Comments
  1. bulkzooi says:

    I have experienced the exact same route you had. Enjoy!

  2. Finn Nissen says:

    Tried a lot of MC software, and i have to agree, XBMC is the best. It have some bugs – i have to reset my computer from time to time, to avoid “lag”.

    By the way – Boxee is build on an earlier version of XBMC.

    Mediaportal is pretty nice, BUT the fact that it can’t play directly from iso’s makes it useless (IMHO).

    Now i’m just waiting from a new release…… just can’t wait 🙂

  3. Bronson says:

    Nicely written article.

    I just switched from Mediaportal to XBMC. Dunno why I ever ran MP in the first place.

  4. daltonr says:

    Things have moved on a bit since I wrote that. XBMC has had a major release (Dharma), which kicks ass. If I thought getting previous versions up and running was easy, Dharma partically installs itself.

    My remote issues are gone, I have XBMC working nicely with a Logitech Harmony One.

    I’ve migrated my whole setup to a MacMini and XBMC came along for the ride pretty flawlessly.

    It’s so rare when technology just works. I’m enjoying this while it lasts.

    • Ian says:

      daltonr:

      I’ve been using a version of Dharma that has live TV incorporated, on PC only, and it totally kicks ass. However, the kicker is that it uses Mediaportal’s TV server as the backend (Team XBMC does not wish to create its own TV server backend). It works quite well, with perhaps the exception that scheduling TV could be better handled within XMBC in regards to recurring recordings. WAF is VERY high.

  5. Frede says:

    I have been using mediaportal for some years, and i have never experienced any problem, neither playing iso’s or any thing else, it is however critical that you install and select the right codecs, and you should probably have atleast some kind of 2 core CPU.

    I can se the advantages in XMBC as so far you don’t have to download any codec, iso handlers and so on.

    But since MP also handles my TV soulition pretty solidly (DVB-IP, Cabel) thats the program i will recommend.

    If you use Moving Pictures and My TV series, along with the subtitle plugin, nothing can be simpler, for instance you get a recorded tv show from your recorder (or dl it..) put it in the folder for tv series, and voila, when you start my tv series, the episode is there, with description, and an option to automaticly download the correct subtitle before playing. The same functions can be used in moving pictures.

  6. Akhil says:

    Can XBMC play 3D files and do Bitstreaming HD Audio? If not then its not still the best Media Center..

  7. Akhil says:

    I will still prefer Media Portal because its based on FFDSHOW and you can play files with your fav codecs. Like i prefer Core AVC Professional for x264 files.

  8. Maximillion says:

    Ok Either you were smoking something while you were using mediaportal or
    you just are not tech savvy…Before you come down on me… Let me tell you
    my experience.. Ok Old School here Vax Vms Prime with Primose Assembly
    language 8088 Perl C Java etc etc… I have been working with computers
    since 82 my first being a timex sinclair 1000…. So Um Yeah I think i know what
    I am doing.. Ok First off I have converted captiveworks cw3/4k over to mediaportal
    Why you might ask because XBMC SUCKED…. Buffer buffer buffer with nav-x
    and it wasn’t the connection The vdr in the linux distro SUCKED HORRIBLY..
    Crash crash crash… It was all out junk and as for it doing tv? Ummm Obviously
    you do not know what you are talking about because it does with TVHeadend
    and other little programs that i will not mention here…. Um yeah it runs just
    like a set top box and can do fta (AMONGST OTHER THINGS) Evil Laugh…
    However Mediaportal with mdapi filter and acamd.. In plain english Kicks the
    ever living CRAP out of Xbmc….Obviously you are not a hacker just a long
    winded bafoon trying to get attention because obviously you have stepped into
    a realm you know nothing about…. I have 7 cw4k’s running Mediaportal
    and getting Tv (Premium tv) i might add.. So just to set the record straight
    you really need to think about what you are saying and actually invest time
    and check plugins out for the remote that doesn’t works because everyone of
    mine does with slight modification to the keymap tables..Not to mention With
    the proper Codecs that would stop the studdering Not to mention from the sounds
    of your article you have no skills with computers otherwise you would have found
    this all out and this STUPID article wouldn’t exist… Before you shoot something down
    spend more then 20 minutes on setting it up….

    What an idiot…

  9. Pete says:

    Mediaportal, MDAPI, Acamd, Streamed MP = Massive win.

    XMBC is for console kiddies – easy to use and pretty – but limited in functionality.

  10. Kevin Freels says:

    Been a long time user and fan of media portal, but recently I had an issue that is driving me away. The lag always bugged me but it was always a significant improvement over getting up off my ass and finding a DVD. I have about 2000+ movies ripped to avi format now and a good 50 buried in the mess I had to over-ride the moving pictures auto-find information with the correct title information despite it being on the lowest available level of auto-approve.
    Recently I had a problem that turned out to be my router. I replaced the router and the problem went away but while I was troubleshooting I set the player to use an external player. Now when I put it back, it flashes several different screen resolutions and then comes back to the movie selection page. I have yet to find the time to dive in and really solve it. I did get a default config file and compare line by line to see where I may have changed something and even loaded MP with the default config file and still no joy. It is something deeper.

    And that’s where I think the author is coming from. Like me, all he wants to do is be able to scroll through his list of movies quickly, with some basic information he doesn’t want to re-key, and then choose a movie and watch the damned thing. He doesn’t want to have to screw with extra plugins, configuration changes, slow scrolling, or anything else. Just launch and watch. When new movies are added he wants to ability to correct any errors but that’s about it. Like me, he has better things to do besides “hacking” the media software, like actually using it. That’s why he recommends it for the “Wife and kids” group. Because they aren’t hackers.

    And that’s why I just loaded it to try it out. My first impression is very good. It is indeed much faster. It flows well and hasn’t hung me up yet. Sure, I could get in and fix what is wrong with media portal……..again. But just like keeping an old classic car running smoothly, I don’t want to mess with it. I just want to turn the key and drive. And it appears that this is what XMBC gives you.

  11. Bobafet says:

    end of the days it comes down personal preference and personal need. I use mediaportal due to recording and timeshifting tv. XBMC is a lot simplier to use without tv functionality. end of the day it back to personal preference and personal need.

    It a shame people have to add derogatory remarks and comments to feebly push there view point.

  12. tlsh666 says:

    I have made a reverse journey to you.. tried XBMC but found the Live TV integration to be horrible and buggy in almost every way. (I tried 5 separate back ends and the only one that came close to working nicely was MythTV on Linux). MediaPortal is absolutely more complicated to set up but the Live TV functionality is a revelation. I have run DVB-T TV for the past 3 years on WMC and MediaPortal is the only thing that comes close to recreating the native Windows performance and ease of use.
    The other real bugbear for me with XBMC was playback of old AVI files – MediaPortal has far superior codec for handling upscaling – I played with postprocessing on XBMC but found I needed to set thing up on almost a series by series basis to stop seeing horribly upscaled image quality on old AVI files. With MediaPortal it just works..

    I’m still very much a novice on MediaPortal but the more I understand about it the better it is becoming.

  13. Meli says:

    I have tried both MP and XBMC, for me MP is for the win, all the issues you complaint about never experienced them, my remote worked out of the box, all my movies and series automatically scanned and uploaded unlike XBMC which seemed to have issues with some of my series,suppose it comes down to choice for me MP for now, its still the best

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