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High 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.
Kodi (previously know as XBMC) can probably be considered as the one that started it all. I find it outstanding in this category and earns the Gizmo's Top Pick title rightfully in my eyes.
Created in 2003 by a group of like minded programmers as XBMC, today's Kodi is a non-profit project run and developed by volunteers located around the world. More than 50 software developers have contributed to Kodi which is available for more than eight platforms (e.g. Windows, Mac, Linux, Android) and in over 30 languages.
After years of constant work and improvements the product has far seperated itself from its Xbox roots. The team has therefore decided to rename the product, now called Kodi.
Kodi turned out to be the most reliable and easy to use product for me. It played all media files I fed it with, it offers convincing media library features and is highly configurable with custom skins and backdrops (wallpaper images you can select as backgrounds for different screens). If you are a bit famiiar with XML files you can even tweak it some more from under the hood.
Kodi offers good mouse support throughout the application which is not always self understanding as I learned. Most annoying for me still is that you cannot freely pick a position in your media file by clicking on the progress bar while it is playing. Instead you have to type in a time position via the keyboard. Don't ask me why the simplest media player can do that but most of the Media Center Software cannot.
Maintaining your media library is simple joy with Kodi. Point to a folder containing your files, indicate what type of files there are (Movies, TV Shows, etc.) and Kodi does the rest. It scans all subfolders and files and downloads all relevant information (text, thumbnails, sounds, etc) from the Internet. Of course you need to name the files and folder sensefully but that's really all it takes. Next time you navigate to your Movies gallery you will probably sigh a little "wow". In some rare cases Kodi picked the wrong or no informaton for some exotic items I had. I wish I had a little more manual overwrite options through the GUI for those cases.
I recently added a NAS to my home network. All my media is now on that storage device. It was as easy as everything else in Kodi, to setup all my clients (Windows and Android) to access the media from the NAS. I can now enjoy my media with Kodi from any device wherever I am.
There is much more to say about the endless features but I will leave that to the excellent Kodi home page. In the end you need to give it a test drive in order to see it yourself.
The community around Kodi is large. You will find a large amount of plugins, skins and other goodies for it. The support through the Kodi forum is excellent and helps a lot when you start playing around with it.
Plex Media Center is a strong contender for Kodi.
Plex or PlexApp, previously only available for Mac OS, has entered the Windows and Linux world as well. Knowing that Plex started as a fork of Kodi initially in 2008 I was eager to have another look at the newest release 0.9, specifically since I abandoned my Mac Media Center computer and replaced it with a Windows based PC.
Be aware that Plex is taking a different approach than Kodi by splitting the software into two pieces, a server and a player. You have to install both even though you might only use one computer. As an alternative to the player you can also use a browser to connect to the Plex server but features are restricted. While this architecture is a great way to support a multi-client environment, it is also makes the setup more complicated and the usability less appealing. For setting this up properly some advanced knowledge in network computing is helpful. Plex offers documentation that explains step by step how it is done.
You can also download the Plex server for the most common NAS drives. That is a real nice feature. Supported are all common NAS manufacturers like Synology or WD. NAS drives are network storage devices but can also run server applications. With Plex offering such a release, your NAS will hold all your media files and functions as your Plex server at the same time.
The Plex Media Server bases on Apples Bonjour service for Windows. It loads itself into memory at start up and functions as a web server. Thus, there is no GUI but you access the Plex Media Server (or Plex Media Manager) via your browser. In your browser you can setup some basic configurations and also tell the Media Server where to find your media files, sectioned in Movies, TV Shows, Photos, Home Videos and Music.
One of the first questions tho that Plex prompts you with are your login credentials for the Plex online services. I am always very careful with privacy and data security and I do not see any reason why I would have to create an online account in order to enjoy my local media. I can only assume that media information, watching habits and other personal information could be uploaded to the web which in my eyes is a clear No-go. I found a way around it at last but it is not obvious and should be offered more prominently like with a "No, thanks" button.
After a while, Plex had scanned all my media and presented it conveniently in the server's browser interface, including all kinds of online information about movies and artists. A few things were not recognized even tho all naming conventions and tag info were met. The Hollies were an unknown artist for example, I wonder why.
After that, I installed the Plex Media Center player on the same computer. It worked like a breeze and after starting it, it prompted me to enter a code at the Plex website. That, however, is only possible when you have an account there which I clearly said No to during the server installation. Again, it takes a bit to figure out how to avoid that code/account thing, leaving the impression that Plex wants to trick literate users to give up and finally create one. I do not like that at all and would wish for a more prominent placement of "No thanks" button.
After skipping the account creation, again, the player connected to the server flawlessly and presented all media to me in a great big screen skin. Both, the Plex skin and the MediaStream skin that come with the player are beautiful. An appealing skin is important for a big screen presentation of your media.
Playing and showing your media is great in Plex. No problems occurred on that front and the player handling is very close to that in Kodi. Well, let's say as long as I played media on the same computer. Since the whole idea of Plex is to support a multi-device environment, I headed to my Android tablet on the balcony. To my big disappointment, Plex is asking € 3.50 for the App. I do find that a lot. I then tried the browser, challenging me to find out what the URL of my server on the other computer is. Unfortunately the server does not tell you. I figured out the IP and port and launched it on Android. It turned out that standard FF for Android could not play any of the movies because of unkown MIME type. The Android browser tried its best but the streaming experience was not what I expected. It was not fluent and player navigation was not satisfying. This is not necessarily Plex's fault and can have many reasons, also related to my networking environment. There was no other traffic on my WiFi and I could not pinpoint this effect to a specific circumstance. Fact however was that my tablet was not providing me with a satisfying watching experience.
I do not use Apple devices so I cannot say anything to the iOS app. A Plex player for Blackberry does not exist, only a third party player as a trial which will charge you in the end as well.
So all in all, I am fond of Plex but with mixed emotions. I see clear advantages in the client-server approach but the downsides are also obvious. For a single machine I’d say that Plex is as good as Kodi once you have set it all up. But if you only have one computer, then Kodi is still my preferred choice being completely free, not asking you for an online account in order to use certain features and being just one application that does it all.
In a multi device environment I would surely go with Plex and work some more on figuring out a better streaming experience. Asking for a relatively high price for the mobile player apps is a bummer and makes it not really "free" anymore. But let's say we are in a gray area here because you don't have to use the player after all.
Windows Media Center is a quasi free product since it comes with Windows similar to Front Row on the Mac. In comparison to Front Row I find WMC visually more appealing though and not so proprietary-minded. Navigation is easy by mouse and keyboard and nicely animated with visual and audio effects. When it comes to functionality though WMC fails badly once you have seen Kodi in action.
Where to add files and folders to your media library is not too difficult to find in the menu but it is disappointing when you view the results. There is no automatic download of movie information or images. Your library is basically just a list of file and folder names WMC found. TV Shows I recorded as MKV files were not even recognized at all. The video library features are a failure all along.
On the other hand, WMC handled my music library pretty well. All my MP3 files are properly tagged and album cover shots are embedded. WMC traced through those in a breeze and viewing your music library afterwards is very rewarding. WMC offers several filters to view by, like Artist, Genre or Year. You can setup individual playlists using those same filters or by just adding individual songs.
WMC also does a decent job creating a pictures library from your digital images. It is a pleasure to view them through the GUI or have slide show started that smoothly animates each image.
If you are only interested in music and pictures, WMC is a good choice and probably already installed on your Windows machine. In my eyes it is not at all suited to manage your movies and videos.
There is a free third-party plugin available trying to fill the gap of a visually attractive media browsing. It is a bit complicated to configure and has room for improvement, but if you want to stick with Windows Media Center then you should definitely have a look at it. The plugin is called "Media Browser". You can find it here.
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.
Boxee (Windows, Mac, Linux) - Requires Boxee account and login to use it.
If you like customizing your media center software, this is an excellent address for backdrop images:
Home Theatre Backdrops (The site is currently dead. Too bad. Let's wait a bit before I take the link out for good. Maybe it will come back.)
What do I need for a Home Theater setup?
A 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.
Many languages available. New product name "Kodi" from release 14.0 on
Plex Media Center
Windows Media Center
This article is maintained by George