The overload of media content
Watching video content from the comfort of your living room has always been something that people want. Young or old, male or female, the hours most people spend in front of their television set is increasing each year. This isn’t really a surprise now, is it? We get bombed with video content, be it by your regular TV channels, youtube, Netflix, or Stievie, Yelo and TV Overal in Belgium. The problem most people are having is the fact that they need several devices to look at this content: a TV for… well… watching TV, an iPad or any other tablet or computer for youtube, Stievie, Yelo … Preferably a smartphone so they can listen to music as well. The list goes on.
My friends know I’m kind of a techie and above all an audio and video freak. I received a lot of questions from friends over the past months, asking if there’s a way to combine all those things into a single system, so you can watch movies or tv shows, listen to music, watch regular TV, youtube, without leaving the comfort of your couch. Of course there’s a way: by installing a HTPC/Media center. But the obvious follow-up question is the big “how”? Hence this series of posts. I’ll describe in detail what setup I have a home, what my choices were and why, which alternatives there are and so on.
This post will talk mainly about the software I installed on my media center, why I chose certain apps and how to configure them. Part 3 of this series, coming in a few days, will talk about peripherals: storage, receiver, speakers, and so on.
If you happen to have missed it, here’s a link to part 1: the hardware.
XBMC: the heart of the setup
XBMC is short for Xbox Media Center. This little piece of open-source software (i.e. free!) was first developed around 10 years ago for, as its name suggests, the Xbox gaming console. The goal was to create a program that would run on a modified Xbox and allow the console to play video files. Since then it evolved into a program that runs on Windows, Linux, iOS, Android and so much more. I cannot stress how good this program works: you can play your favorite movie and tv-shows (duh!), you can sit down with the family and enjoy some music with it, or even look through your photo collection. But so far nothing out of the ordinary, right? There are a lot of media players which do the above. But here’s the thing: when you tell XBMC where your media is located (on your disk, on a network, on a DLNA server, elsewhere…) it keeps a database of this media. It will automatically check IMDB.com (The Internet Movie Database) and tv.com for information about your media: a short summary, actors, what rating it gets, when it was released etc. It keeps track what you watched, or where you stopped watching so you’ll never have to remember by yourself. You
downloaded bought a movie without subtitles? No problem, XBMC will download those for you, with just a click of a button. Are the subtitles just a bit out of sync? No worries, with a nice GUI you can adjust them on the fly.
Still not convinced? When you have set up XBMC on one pc, you can watch this content on any other device running XBMC on the same network without having to configure everything. That’s still not all, from any UPNP capable device (UPNP = Universal Plug and Play) you can stream your media content to XBMC: have a great song on your smartphone? Great, select XBMC as output in your music player and enjoy the song! You want to share a nice youtube video with the family? Same thing, just stream it to XBMC! If that doesn’t convince you, I challenge you to try it out and experience it for yourself.
On a more technical note: the team behind it is very passionate about their little piece of software, and it shows. It supports all the latest codecs and formats (MKV, Blu-Ray, DVD, AVI, Divx, Xvid, Mp4, Mp3, … all without a codec pack!), supports the latest HDMI (and other) video/audio standards, passthrough lossless video/audio and tons more!
The guys over at xbmc.org have written a great wiki which covers every aspect of XBMC, so if there’s anything you’d like to know or find out, head on over there and take a look.
Small sidenote: XBMC will evolve into Kodi in a couple of weeks. Kodi is the new name for the software; the team behind it wanted to change the name since it has nothing to do with the Xbox console anymore.
Netflix, Yelo and my choice for Windows
As I indicated in my first post, I installed a Windows 8 on my HTPC (it’s free for almost a year). As most of you will know, Windows 8 comes with a Metro interface – an tiled interface which you also encounter on Windows Phone(s) and previously on Microsoft’s Xbox.
I installed Netflix, made a little tweak to my PC so I could watch it in Belgium (note: this post was drafted before Netflix was available here), and installed Yelo, Telenet’s app to watch digital TV on smartphones, tables, or in this case: on a Media Center.
Now if you remember part 1 in this series, you might remember that I talked about the Logitech Harmony Touch remote. This is where it all comes together: I pick up this one remote, turn on the TV and have everything at my disposal. Without touching a mouse or keyboard (do remember that this is still a pc we’re talking about) I can easily switch back and forth between Netflix, XBMC, Yelo and whatever other app I want to run.
The other advantage that Windows gives me, personally, is the fact that I have a little tool which is constantly keeping an eye on all the tv shows I’m watching and automatically notifies me when a new episode has been aired by sending a message to my smartphone. (Geek much!)
Other than what I’ve written down here, there is no easy way to explain how or why this system work brilliantly for me. If you’re not convinced, try it for yourself, I’m always eager to listen to feedback or remarks. The only thing I can tell you is that I’ve been looking into a decent setup for the better part of 2 years and this is the end result. I looked into a lot of different systems and ways of working, but I didn’t find anything that suited my needs better than this.
The last part in this series, for now at least, will be coming over the next couple of days. You’ll read about what receiver I have, what speaker system I chose, what kind of cabling choices I made and why. It won’t so much focus on the actual audio/video part as the other posts in this series, but it might be useful for some of you nonetheless.