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.

Discussion

XBMC Kodi (XBMC) can probably be considered as the one that started it all. It is truly 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, XBMC is a non-profit project run and developed by volunteers located around the world. More than 50 software developers have contributed to XBMC which is available for Windows, Mac and Linux and in over 30 languages.

After 11 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. From the next release 14.0 on it will be named Kodi.

XBMC 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.

XBMC 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.

XBMC Movie GalleryMaintaining your media library is simple joy with XBMC. Point to a folder containing your files, indicate what type of files there are (Movies, TV Shows, etc.) and XBMC 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 XBMC 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.

There is much more to say about the endless features but I will leave that to the excellent XBMC home page. In the end you need to give it a test drive in order to see it yourself.

The community around XBMC is large. You will find a large amount of plugins, skins and other goodies for it. The support through the XBMC forum is excellent and helps a lot when you start playing around with it.


PLEXPlex Media Center is a strong contender for XBMC.

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 XBMC initially in 2008 I was eager to have another look at the newest release 0.9.5.4, 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 XBMC 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 offers documentation that explains step by step how it is done.

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 XBMC. 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 visible. For a single machine I’d say that Plex is as good as XBMC once you have set it all up. But if you only have one computer, then XBMC 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 CenterWindows 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 XBMC 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.
Freevo (Windows, Mac, Linux) - Visually not very appealing to me
Front Row (Mac OS) - Unattractive GUI to me, poor video format support
MediaPortal (Windows) - Room for graphical improvement, a bit complicated to use and configure
MeediOS (Windows) - Still in Beta phase, wasn't able to manage libraries
MythTV (Linux) - Looks promising, can't test because not using Linux
SesamTV (Windows) - Requires username and email 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?

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. XBMC 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.

Quick Selection Guide

Kodi (XBMC)
4
 
Gizmo's Freeware award as the best product in its class!

Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
High usability, great GUI, media management, customizable, large community, beautiful skins available, lots of add-ons
Mouse control improvable, manual editing of media info insufficient, video file classes don't include plain video files
http://www.xbmc.org
http://xbmc.org/download/
13.2 "Gotham"
63 MB
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Unrestricted freeware
A portable version of this product is available from the developer.
Windows, Mac OS, Linux

Many languages available. New product name "Kodi" from release 14.0 on

Plex Media Center
4
 
Combines a web service with a stand-alone program
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
http://www.plexapp.com
0.9.9.7
43 MB (Client), 56 MB (server)
32 bit but 64 bit compatible
Feature limited freeware
Windows, Mac OS, Linux

Media management from anywhere via registration to myPlex. Privacy and data security might be an issue.

Windows Media Center
2
 
Runs as a stand-alone program on a user's computer
Attractive GUI, good management of music and pictures
Too much nested menus, fails in managing movies and videos
32 and 64 bit versions available
Unrestricted freeware
Windows XP Media Center, Windows Vista, Windows 7

Comes with Windows XP (Media Center Edition), Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate) and Windows 7 (Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, Ultimate)

Author

This article is maintained by George

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Comments

by RobertC138 on 2. December 2014 - 11:42  (119932)

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.

by Anupam on 2. December 2014 - 12:51  (119935)

Please post such questions in the appropriate area of the freeware forum:

http://www.techsupportalert.com/freeware-forum/

by wjs on 31. October 2014 - 16:46  (119420)

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.

by George on 31. October 2014 - 19:59  (119423)

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

by transitman on 4. October 2014 - 19:18  (118965)

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

by c on 12. October 2014 - 1:29  (119136)

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.

by Jethro321 on 14. October 2014 - 14:17  (119174)

Best answer I've heard so far!

by ccrocker on 15. September 2014 - 23:10  (118598)

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!

by deimos on 28. March 2014 - 5:23  (115360)

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.

by George on 28. March 2014 - 7:37  (115363)

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

by thomash63 on 6. March 2014 - 0:42  (114828)

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

by George on 6. March 2014 - 11:26  (114834)

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

by thomash63 on 6. March 2014 - 19:39  (114843)

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

by George on 8. March 2014 - 10:38  (114891)

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

by Wity on 5. February 2014 - 22:03  (114270)

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.)

by George on 8. March 2014 - 10:41  (114892)

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?

by slicerman on 2. February 2013 - 6:11  (105039)

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

by George on 2. February 2013 - 9:41  (105050)

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

by slicerman on 6. February 2013 - 4:49  (105125)

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.

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