Best Free Media Center Software

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Introduction

Product 1High Definition TVs are the long overdue technical revolution bringing computer capable monitors to our living room. Home theatre and media center PC's (HTPC) are the perfect companion for these big screens for enjoying computers from the comfort of your sofa. Listening to music, viewing your online foto album or watching your digital videos with family and friends (or even alone for that matter) was never more enjoyable.

However, considering the larger distance between you and the screen most of the regular computer software is hard to read. Media Center Software is specifically addressing that by using large fonts and visual objects and providing specifically designed user interfaces for "sofa surfing".

Besides the built in media player and codec support, another great feature that good Media Center Software delivers to your finger tips is the intelligent managing and organizing of your media files, combined with downloading online information for movies, music or videos. Also, most of these programs come with a plugin API enabling you to install plugins for popular online sources like YouTube or Apple Movie Trailers.

I have been playing with Media Center Software now for a while, on Mac and Windows, and I would like to share my experiences with some of the best free products out there.

This is not a complete list of course and media center software is a lot about taste as well. If you like, leave a comment at the bottom of this page to share your view with us.

 

Rated Products

Kodi  

Awesome, attractive, easy - enjoy your media on any screen


Our Rating: 
5
License: Free
One software package, easy installation and setup, attractive GUI, multi platform, plays any common media
No client/server separation for multi host setup, mouse support sub-optimal
Read full review...

Plex  

A beautiful and powerful client-server based media center software


Our Rating: 
4
License: Free
Client-server architecture for multi-client, great GUI, media management, customizable, Windows client free
Online account needed for some features, mobile apps commercial at high price, setup requires experience, streaming experience dependent on environment
Read full review...

 

Related Products and Links

I also found the following products that I did not find appealing enough for me or a final release was not available yet. If you are interested in this kind of software I recommend to test drive them.

Windows Media Center - Poor video format support. Not available for Windows 10 anymore
Front Row (Mac OS) - Unattractive GUI to me, poor video format support. Removed and discontinued in MacOS 10.7
MediaPortal (Windows) - Room for graphical improvement, a bit complicated to use and configure
MythTV (Linux) - Looks promising, can't test because not using Linux

If you like customizing your media center software, this is an excellent address for backdrop images:

Home Theatre Backdrops

 

What do I need for a Home Theater setup?

Home TheaterA Home Theater System is in principal the combination of an HDTV, a computer and an appropriate sound system. Modern TVs and computers now support HDMI and/or DVI digital output/input interfaces which makes it easy to send high resolution computer video output to your TV. While DVI (Digital Video Interface) only transports video signals, HDMI (High Definition Media Interface) also transports the audio signals. So if your computer and TV supports HDMI you just need to connect them with an HDMI cable and you can already use your computer with your TV as the monitor.

A Home Theater System is considered incomplete with proper surround sound. You will need an audio amplifier that can process surround sound. If you are planning to get one, make sure it supports the modern DTS HD audio format. Blu-Ray DVDs often come with an additional uncompressed master audio track that amplifiers need to able to process. You will be amazed how much more sound you get when listening to the uncompressed audio track. Besides the amplifier you need the speakers of course, 5 plus one subwoofer would be the basic setup. If you are not into all these details, your local Hifi/TV/Video store will offer several ready to go home theater sound systems incl. everything.

When it comes to the computer that you want to use in your living room you would want to consider some requirements. Mine were that I needed a small and quiet little box that fits easily on a shelf in my TV stand. It needed to have digital output for video and audio and must be powerful enough to play media files. Bluetooth keyboard and mouse was a must and LAN connectivity was also important. I found all these properties in the MacMini which is also very affordable. I wouldn't chose Mac OS for my workstation but it does a very good job as a home theater PC. Kodi and VLC Media Player are the most important applications I use on it.

A good forum where you can get into more details about all these components is AVForums.com.

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Comments

I don't see any discussion of Universal Media Server.

Can't believe Emby isn't even mentioned :-) ( http://emby.media/ )
If beauty, lightweight,and great versatile creation of your library is your thing: give it a go :-) Together with for instance Sonarr, it transformed my TV Series collection (as well DVD sets as the normal season based series) in a beaut ! On all my devices,, separate templates for tablet, pc, tv, phone.. perfect image via web as well. Enough very powerful plugins which take care of subtitles etc. are all there as well.
IMO opinion : blows all the above away.. but that might be my personal taste.. i just love the fact that any device is a media player now :-)

I went looking as a result of this article between kodi and plex, two big issues are do you have the power to run kodi, as plex needs much less and the wealth of addons for kodi which look really good. Anyone have thoughts about this.

 

I found this comparsion interesting

http://www.htpcbeginner.com/plex-vs-kodi-comparison-guide/

Someone enlighten me on what he is talking about. I am really good with computers, but have not watched any TV programs over the internet. Muchless tried to save them to the computer. Could he not use a downloader program like Ant, or DownloadThemAll to just extract it from the website? Like I said, I have never attempted any of that but would like to learn for future reference.
Another question I ave is, what exactly is tthe upside to an ISO image as opposed to just the file? I read a little on it, but haven't really studied it that much.

Please post such questions in the appropriate area of the freeware forum: http://www.techsupportalert.com/freeware-forum/

MythTV has a Windows option that you can review. It has some of the same features as Plex including some of its drawbacks. The front end has a theme that is very close to the XBMC default theme as well.

As far as age goes.. I believe that MythTV is older then XBMC. After all it is the "Mythical" Home Theater PC software.

Also, there are several bootable distributions that would allow you to boot of a USB stick or CDRom and get the experience for brief reviews

I've been using LinHES for a whole now which does have a bootable option which would not modify your existing HD unless you asked it to.

XBMC has a free full Android implementation now that you could look into. There might be a plugin available for plex.

Hi wjs thanks for your input on this. It's true, the media center software out there has come a long way meanwhile. I recently saw a few great XBMC How To videos (in German tho, but if you're interested anyways, search for "xbmc workshop" on Youtube). One of the show how to store the XBMC settings on a NAS system using MySQL. You can then use tablets and other devices with the same settings. Best regards George

Hi people, I am a bit of a noddy on software but would really like to find a free alternative to Windows media center.
my chief reason for wanting it is to copy tv programmes to the computer
I have tried xbmc but got lost in the process and could not understand the answers in other posts. As i said, a noddy!

hope someone can help

Watch youtube videos on XBMC, it is definately the way to go. Do a search on xbmc hub wizard....this will completely pre-configure XBMC for you with a lot of popular features until you get comfortable setting it up for yourself. Make sure to get the latest stable release of XBMC! I briefly tried PLEX...simple to set up and has a very clean interface, but seemed very limited on the types of video it supports. If you have a lot of iso, video-ts or bdmv files, they will all need to be converted to play on PLEX. If you want to configure xbmc yourself, on the xbmc website, click the wiki's link on the top of the page. Under general topics, select first time user, then select quick start guide. This will walk you through step by step with pictures.

Best answer I've heard so far!

Hi George. I'm one of the MeediOS developers. I'd be interested in any feedback you had. Always working to make MeediOS better. You indicated you could not manage your libraries which is actually one of MeediOS strengths compared to other options. Could you provide some more color? Thanks!

I must admit. Having used both xbmc and plex, plex is the answer to building a htpc.

Xbmc is incredibly unstable. I used it in 2010-2011 only because, even with the constant crashing it was still the best. Xbmc had god awful mouse interactions. I constantly felt lost navigating through all their menus to find the one thing I was looking for. Sure if you're used to it and have that muscle memory for menu navigation it may not be so bad. Also, Xbmc felt dead, releases were sparse and plugins didn't work half the time.

Plex is the best solution I've seen. Immediately pulls down media info without a hitch and the way they split it into two applications makes perfect sense. If you're creating an htpc chances are you don't always care to be chained to your TV to view the last 5 minutes of some media. Thus having a lightweight server to serve it up to multiple devices, remote or local, is great. In addition my CPU never was pegged like yours. A full scan of over 1200 video media files took far less time than you quoted and barely touched my CPU. I'm only using $250 i7 920. In addition, their server is closed source. Xbmc is open source. Thus there is a need to have separate code bases.

All in all, I wrote this because I felt this article was not fair to Plex and users shouldn't run to Xbmc just because there is a misunderstanding with plex's capabilities.

Hi delmos I can only agree with most of what you said. Let me emphasize again that I really like Plex as well and I have used it for quite a while too. The advantages you list are obvious, especially when you want to distribute your media over several devices. The last thing I want to be is unfair towards Plex. It is a great contender and I also urge all interested users to try it out as well. The only reason why I put XBMC a tad above Plex here on TSA is its simplicity. One setup, launch, enjoy. Usability is another plus in XBMC. But again, Plex is a great media center software as well. Thank you for putting that into another perspective. Update: After giving the current Plex release 0.9.9 another test drive I must add that all performance issues I had with 0.9.4 are gone. Much improvement there. But there are two more downsides I see with it. One, for some features an online registration is required. Privacy and data security is not clear to me and might be an issue. You can get around it during setup but the Plex installation is confusing and rather making you believe that an account is required. Two, the Android Plex Player App is commercial. Not only that, Plex is asking €3.50 for it which is rather high in my opinion. I assume this will be the same for the iOS app. A Blackberry App does not exist. Best regards, George

I downloaded XBMC this past Saturday and everything worked fine with no problem. However, it crashed the next morning and when I tried to restart it, I completely lost the sound in it. There's nothing wrong with my sound at all on my iMac Mavericks OS X 10.9.1 and I downloaded XBMC 12.3 which is the latest version. I checked very carefully not once, not twice, but many times all the audio configurations and specifications but still no luck with the sound and audio. I might also add that I accidentally turned on some video screen that shows all the data while playing videos and I can't remember how to turn it off. Can you tell me how to fix the audio/sound plus the video data turn off? I tried leaving a question on xbmc.org but there's no way in doing so.

Sincerely,
Tommy

Hi Tommy I am sorry that your first experience with XBMC was so bad. I had XBMC running on a Mac for a quite a while and had no such problems you describe. I gave up on Mac's tho years ago and am not familiar anymore with their recent technology. The sound problems you describe might have something do to with how XBMC plays together with Mac OS. The Xbmc.org forum should be a good platform to post your question. You have to register an account tho to post. If you accidentally switched on an overlay display during video, press M during play and navigate through the menu from where you can get into quite a few setup screens. Are you talking about the Codecinfo? (http://wiki.xbmc.org/?title=Codecinfo) I am aware that my review and classification of this category is based on my personal preferences and requirements. I understand it more as a guide to what's out there, reflecting my exeriences with the products I have tested. I am sure that in other environments and with different requirements a product other than XBMC might be a better choice. I have listed a few alternatives at the bottom of the article that you might want to test too. Best regards, George

I'm registered with x b m c . o r g and it says to click on the top or bottom where it says to start a new topic. However, there's no such thing at all on the website which makes it very frustrating as heck. Do you have any other suggestions to try with the sound with XBMC? I sure would appreciate it.

Thanks,
Tommy

Hi Tommy after regsitering at the XBMC forum, you first have to navigate to the forum of your interest, e.g. .../forumdisplay.php?fid=56. There you will see a "Post thread" button. There is a thread in that forum that sounds similar to your issue. Check it out: .../showthread.php?tid=185395 Best regards, George

Can you please tell me which software I can use to stream from my pc to devices around the home and away from it that does not need a dedicated pc and most importantly streams subtitles? (subs being essential for my deaf son.)

Hi Wity I cannot recommend a specific tool from the top of my head. How fast is your local LAN/WAN? Would it be an option to simply share a drive in your home network and just play the movie from any device mapping to that drive?

Hi everyone, is there a media center which can handle the PDF file format and or Epub format as well. It would make good sense to view technical manuals and Ebooks on the Large TV screen , streamed from my PC. Any help would be much appreciated

Hi slicerman there is a vast amoutn of XBMC plugins available. I briefly browsed through their forum and found several hits on PDF and eBook. I also saw an artice about adding a custom XML file to your settings so you can launch a PDF viewer from within XBMC. I am not sure what exactly you are looking for. Why don't you give the forum a shout and see if you can find something that suits your needs: http://forum.xbmc.org Best regards, George

Hi George , thanks for the fast and helpful reply. However it appears that there is plenty of talk about the need for both Pdf and ebook file addons for XMBC, but thats about as far as it goes , everybody recognises the need but no progress as yet, unfortunately.

As I understand it a number of the TV manufacturers etc signed up to an international standard to provide access to music, pictures and video formats a number of years ago. I suspect that the lack of movement towards incorporating into that agreement, pdf's and ebook formats may well be by design. Aimed at encouraging and protecting the companies sales of "tablets" ebook readers and to a lesser extent laptops.

It seems most likely that XMBC and the like in the freeware / shareware domains are going to be the only hope.

Thanks Once again George.