Best way to marry my hard drive to my TV
July 13, 2009 6:45 AM   Subscribe

Is XBMC on an XBox still the best solution for playing home network media on my TV?

I work from home and generally keep movies running on the TV all day (keeps my inner distractable imp distracted while the rest of me gets work done). This is probably why my DVD players have an average lifespan of less than a year, and I'm tired of buying new ones.
I'm looking to find a way to hook up my media-rich external drive to my TV so I can play stuff from there instead of the DVD player, at least sometimes.
I found this AskMe question from 2007 recommending modding an XBox, but two years is a long time in tech innovation, so I want to know if this is still the best way to go or has something better emerged form the primordial pixelated ooze since then? I've been seeing DVD players with USB ports, for example, but I'm not sure how those players would deal with various media formats (.avi, .iso, .mpg etc.)
I have an old, pre-HDTV TV that is still very nice, a low-end Sony DVD player (no USB port), a wii and a PS2, if any of those are of use.
posted by Billegible to Technology (32 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Given that an XBox should be close to free nowadays, and you don't need HD, it is still the best option.

(Since the XBox can't generally handle 720p, it's not a good choice for HD content.)
posted by smackfu at 6:48 AM on July 13, 2009

I just set up a Mac Mini as an HTPC, running the Plex application. (There's also the popular Boxee, which the XBMC people made, but I found it to be rather buggy and less intuitive than the Plex navigation) So far I'm incredibly happy with it -- I'm streaming Netflix, Hulu, and all my downloaded movies/TV shows from an external drive. It's also nice that the Mini is damn near silent, compared to the loud fans in my Xbox.

If you do get to an HDTV at some point, the Mini can drive full 1080P with a DVI-->HDMI cable.
posted by olinerd at 6:56 AM on July 13, 2009

XBMC has served me really well. The only issue I've had with it is that the XBox remote messes with my TV, so I have to use a wired controller.

Wii media centre software is very much in its infancy, so probably not worth considering that as an alternative.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:11 AM on July 13, 2009

I have yet to see anything that comes close to XBMC. All it's missing is Hulu.
posted by valadil at 7:17 AM on July 13, 2009

The xbox and xbmc is not the best option anymore for many reasons.

First - it is an energy hog - you are running a whole console just to watch tv.

Second - the xbox is loud - fan noise, drive noise. Both are annoying.

Third - xbox and xbmc choke on file formats that are becoming more popular - anything high res overwhelms it's capability.

Forth - xbmc seems to moving away from improving the xbox version these days and is focusing on cross platform efforts. I've stopped upgrading my install because they never fix any of the bugs that matter to me and haven't added anything important to me in ages. That and upgrading your xbmc is always a gamble and I got tired of troubleshooting. I am guessing this trend is only going to get worse as they quite correctly recognize that there will be fewer and fewer xbox classics out there.

Fifth - it is not easy to hook up a usb drive to an xbox classic - this is hardware hacking solder country. Also uploading files to an upgraded drive is a bit of a pain - ftp - bleech compared to just being able to plug in usb.

Sixth - it is kinda huge compared to other options.

That said I modded my xbox about 5 years ago - it cost me £50 for a used xbox, a spare hard drive and £17 for the mod chips. And I have used it daily since and it has all my music, all my rented ripped and returned movies and can browse my network shares and taught me how to do ninja attacks and be an ultimate warfighter..

What you need to know about the other options - old tvs sometimes don't work with digital media players even though they have the right connectors - I have an svideo to scart converter that only does low res black and white on my antique tv set. It sounds like you also have an old TV so be careful (ignore scart though - it is a UK things).

My next box will probably be something like popcorn hour.
posted by srboisvert at 7:27 AM on July 13, 2009

I wouldn't argue with any of that (except that it's hard to avoid the energy usage on any solution.) Personally, I just replaced my XBMC with a HTPC (running XBMC).

But all the other options are much more expensive. You can get an XBMC for under $50, or even free from someone who just wants to get rid of it. Popcorn hour is $200 and has no hard drive. A mini or other PC is $300-400.
posted by smackfu at 7:40 AM on July 13, 2009

The Xbox w/ XBMC is a great set up if you don't need HD. I recently replaced mine with a Popcorn Hour A-110 which has more bugs, but does HD and has some other nice features that XBMC doesn't have. I'd still be using XBMC if I hadn't gotten an HD tv.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 7:53 AM on July 13, 2009

But all the other options are much more expensive. You can get an XBMC for under $50, or even free from someone who just wants to get rid of it.

Don't discount the cost to run it over its lifetime. When I replaced a Dual G5 tower with a Mac Mini, my electricity bill dropped by about $15-$20/month.

Also, consider two things:

- An original Xbox is going to be very long in the tooth, in terms of hardware. Things are going to start breaking.

- You don't have HDTV now, but are you sure you won't in, say, 2 years?

I'd advocate getting an AppleTV and putting Boxee on it, or something like Popcorn Hour.
posted by mkultra at 8:00 AM on July 13, 2009

Third - xbox and xbmc choke on file formats that are becoming more popular - anything high res overwhelms it's capability.

Total disagreement here. Your question mentions this is not an HDTV. If you use a new release of XBMC for the Xbox, I have literally never seen it choke on a file format. It is true that XBMC on the Xbox will choke on High-Def, but this is a hardware limitation.

I think the principal points against using an Xbox are that it takes a bit of geekery to do the soft-mod (though honestly, it's not that bad), and the Xbox's fans are quite loud. Other than that, it is probably the best, and definitely the cheapest, for your needs.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:22 AM on July 13, 2009

nthing the Mac Mini. the quality i get thanks to a dvi hookup directly to my tv instead of component video is awesome.
posted by jedrek at 8:26 AM on July 13, 2009

If you're not doing HD video then go for the Xbox w/ XBMC. Softmodding is easy as pie (here's a Lifehacker article on it). I had two Xboxes running it for a while until the hard drive in one died, one in the livingroom, one in the bedroom. I have a fileserver in my office that sends video to everything. Sure it's a bit loud, but I've had no problems with XBMC, it's played any file format I throw at it without issue (again, except HD content). It'll cost you less than $100 to do it, including the cost of the console itself and the materials to softmod (which the Lifehacker article goes over).
posted by booticon at 9:54 AM on July 13, 2009

As a counter-point, I've had an original Xbox with XBMC, but I almost never use it in favor of the Xbox 360 or PS3's built-in media streaming capabilities. They'll play most .avi and .mp4 files you'll find online; I think the PS3 may also play various MPEGs and (with the right streaming software) ISO-type files. The 360 has Netflix instant streaming, which is fantastic, and may also play those movie files with the right streaming software. It's also half the price of a PS3.

The original Xbox is cheap though, so you're not out a whole lot if you don't like it. The softmod process requires you're rather tech-savvy, and you need to scrounge around for spare parts/making cables to get the hacked savegame on, figure out how to get onto the scene's FTP server, etc. (although the last time I did this was several years ago - perhaps it's easier now).

With the newer setups all you do is install media streaming software, point it at a folder and you're basically done.
posted by agentmunroe at 10:13 AM on July 13, 2009

Second the Popcorn Hour. Worth every penny, (and I also have an XBMC).
posted by EdoubleG at 10:49 AM on July 13, 2009

I too used to use XBMC as the perfect media center, but found it getting long in the tooth as far as files containing 720p were concerned, which is a hardware problem, not a software one. About a year ago I swapped out the Xbox in my living room for a 360 for other reasons, and at the time the 360 did not yet have Divx/Xvid support though it was rumored to be coming soon. At that point, I switched to watching most of my media files on my MythTV box that I was already using for its intended purpose as a DVR. The hardware in my Myth box isn't anything to really write home about either (Athlon 2800+ CPU, 512MB RAM), but it had more horsepower than the old Xbox and 720p played OK. I pretty much use it to watch most of my stuff to this day, but some 720p doesn't work, and it politely tells me to f-off if I even think of trying a 1080p file. Also, the video player that Myth uses (think it's Mplayer, not sure) doesn't have anywhere near the polished control interface that XBMC had, but my needs are fairly simple - highlight the file on my network storage in question I want to play, hit OK twice on the remote, and it starts playing.

Nowadays the 360 supports Xvid/Divx in addition to WMV, so I use that to play anything that the Myth box won't handle by copying it onto a thumb drive and sticking it in the 360's front USB port. Works fine for the most part, but there's some stuff it won't handle as well (anything with Matroska - .mkv for example), and the 360 cannot see my home RAID array as that's on a SaMBa share, not a windows machine.

So that's what I personally use to replace XBMC. I will be the first to admit it is a step down compared to what I used to have, in part because things are no longer unified, but it is not a large step down. I notice that the XBMC project now has multiple platforms that it supports, so when I rebuild my Myth box I might see about integrating that instead of the default player for the video side of things. You might want to see about either getting an AppleTV as others have mentioned and using the XBMC port on it, or just custom-building a Windows or Linux box to run XBMC on directly.
posted by barc0001 at 11:14 AM on July 13, 2009

If you don't need HD the original Xbox with XBMC is amazing. I have used mine on a daily basis for years and I love it. It will play literally any file. If I had an HDTV I would probably just get a Mac Mini and still use XBMC.

Considering what Xbox's cost, I would just do that until you get an HD. In a few years if you get an HDTV there will be better & more powerful solutions and you'll get more bang for your buck.
posted by bradbane at 11:38 AM on July 13, 2009

I'm still using a modded Xbox with XBMC as an HTPC. After replacing the fan myself with a larger, quieter one, I have no problem with the noise (I also replaced the hard drive, but don't recall the original having been conspicuously noisy.) And XBMC deals very well with talking to samba shares.

If you don't need HD, I think this is still a good, cheap approach.
posted by Zed at 12:34 PM on July 13, 2009

I'm actually using BMCX on a bare PC - motherboard, video card, and USB stick to boot. It works great. The XBMC team has pretty much abandoned the XBox as a platform due to the above mentioned hardware limitations. But since they're now using Ubuntu under the hood, they can use the proprietary video drivers for modern video cards.

Right now I've got an AMD something or other CPU with a massive heatsink and a passively cooled video card. The whole setup is almost completely silent, and doesn't require much power during idle. I picked up a Windows Media Center remote because XBMC supports it natively. It all more or less just works.

The nice thing was being able to test it on a regular PC and play around with it before committing to it. They've got a nice LiveCD distro of it out. Just burn a CD and boot off of that to test it.
posted by krisak at 1:42 PM on July 13, 2009

I bought a SageTV when my modded XBox w/ XBMC died (probably the HD, just too lazy to fix). I'm using it in stand-alone mode streaming files off a network drive, just like the old XBox.

Pros: It's functional enough, plays HDTV and H.264 fine, and has a real remote. (I really hated using a wireless XBox controller as my remote.)

Cons: Its user interface and all-around polish is light-years behind XBMC. Honestly, I wish they'd just open up the hardware and let users install XBMC on it. The hardware is nice enough, although it looks like a well-executed senior EE project. The software is mediocre and fairly frustrating to use.

The ultimate solution would be XBMC on a quiet HTPC platform with enough horsepower to support HDTV and probably an iPod Touch as a remote.
posted by LordSludge at 2:02 PM on July 13, 2009

I can second LordSludge's comment (I've got a PC in a different room running SageTV). The UI looks pretty basic - however, it can be skinned to look and behave better. On the other hand, it tends to just work, and work well. Install Windows, install the video drivers, and it just kind of goes.

Plus they have a 21 day free trial, so if you have a PC handy, there's no reason not to give it a try.
posted by krisak at 2:11 PM on July 13, 2009

I ran a nice SageTV HTPC for about 5 years. I really liked it, but I got tired of the noise and general tweaking and the precipitous drops in WAF when it was on the fritz. The power supply finally gave up the ghost, so it seemed like a perfect time to pick up a Popcorn hour. I got the A110 and it's been working great for about 2 months.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 3:33 PM on July 13, 2009

I picked up an older version of one of these, an Acer AX1300, although I paid more than the current $350 price tag. Physically bigger than a Mac Mini (although smaller than an XBox), but significantly cheaper. It's got plenty of horsepower and mine is practically silent.

It comes with Vista Home Premium (and now a Windows 7 upgrade, I'd imagine) and hence Vista Media Center, although there's nothing stopping you from putting another Media Center program on top if you prefer.. You'll need to add a WMC Remote + IR receiver to use it from your couch, call it $30. If you want to use it as a DVR, you'll need a 2/3 height TV card (I went for a more expensive option, a HdHomeRun instead).
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 6:08 PM on July 13, 2009

I should have been more specific -- what I now use is the SageTV HD-200. It's meant to connect to a SageTV server, but you can run it in stand-alone mode and just play files off a network drive or a connected USB drive. I gather that it's pretty similar to the Popcorn Hour box mentioned upthread.

I miss my XBMC, because the interface and general functionality was just soooo much better, but the old XBox just didn't have the horsepower to play hi-def. I have a projector shooting a 120" screen, so resolution is pretty important.
posted by LordSludge at 8:05 PM on July 13, 2009

Silly me wrote a lot but didn't answer your question.

If you don't care about hi-def or H.264 -- and it looks like you don't -- go with XBMC. You can install it on your old HTPC, you can buy them pre-modded on eBay for around $60, or you can actually have my old XBox if you want it. It already has an Xecutor3 chip soldered in; I think it just needs a hard drive. Just MeMail me. It really does make a kick-ass video jukebox -- you can even setup video playlists, shuffle play movies, whatever. And the visuals for mp3s are freaking incredible...
posted by LordSludge at 8:21 PM on July 13, 2009

(Since the XBox can't generally handle 720p, it's not a good choice for HD content.)

***** The Xbox plays HD just fine. *****

It won't play HD encoded in x264, but it'll play DivX at 720P just fine and dandy, even in MKV containers. You can play 720P XviD files as well, but the bitrate can't be as high as for DivX (about 4 mbit/s for XviD, but you can go as high as 15mbit/s for DivX). If you've got a large x264 library, running them through MeGUI or something similar with a couple of particular settings will turn them into perfectly playable 720p XviD files.

See here for more info, including a step-by-step guide.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:46 AM on July 14, 2009

It also depends on your setup and what you already have running. You already have a PS2, which suggests that you might be a big of a gamer. If that's the case, you could look at picking up an Xbox 360, which would let you stream anything you want from your PC, including Netflix Watch it Now movies, as well as do some gaming. It's the setup I have and I've been quite happy with it.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:08 AM on July 14, 2009

It won't play HD encoded in x264, but it'll play DivX at 720P just fine and dandy, even in MKV containers.

If you are willing to re-encode all your content, lots of things become options. Apple TV, for instance.
posted by smackfu at 7:29 AM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!

Haven't marked any favorites yet because every comment was great.

To sum up, the recommended options are:

1. XBMC on an XBox. Pros: cheap to pick up, still works like a mofo. Cons: equipment is getting older and is no longer supported. No HD.

2. XBMC on an XBox 360 (inferred that this is possible). More expensive but hardware is current, supported, and I could use it for games too (question: does XBMC co-exist with gaming or does it replace the functions in the console?). Also sounds like an XBox 360 can handle a lot of media right out of the box.

3. XBMC/MythTV on a spare PC box (HTPC). This is tempting, as I do have a few older PCs lying around that I rarely use. I'd probably just need some cabling and maybe a new video card for output. Cons: uses more electricity (but on the other hand is usually running ayhow).

4. Mac Mini with either Plex, Boxee. This option is out for me as I'm not willing to spend $800 on a Mac Mini.

5. Popcorn Hour/AppleTV: looks good but costs more than options 1 or 3.

6. PC with SageTV (separate from #3 as it seems to require newer hardware). If I had to buy a new video card for it I'd just go with #3 as easier.

I'll probably take a first stab at an HTPC with XBMC on my second-string box, and if that doesn't work out I have a great excuse to pick up a, XBox 360/

Thanks again everyone, this was really helpful.
posted by Billegible at 8:15 AM on July 14, 2009

Billegible: As far as I know, XMBC does not run on the 360. Although yes, the 360 can play DivX/XviD just fine. There are several ways to get videos to the 360 (frustratingly enough, Samba is not one of them): you can run XP Media Center, or Vista Home Premium or Ultimate; you can run a UPnP server like Orb or TVersity (these will also transcode video you have to play on the 360).

What I'm doing to get video to my 360 at the moment, since I'm not running Windows at home, is running TwonkyMedia Server. Runs on Windows/OSX/Linux, and I currently have it running on Ubuntu Server. Seems to work just fine for me.
posted by booticon at 9:26 AM on July 14, 2009

To sum up...XBMC on an XBox...No HD.

posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:17 PM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: Oops, sorry obi, my bad.
posted by Billegible at 6:16 AM on July 15, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks again to everyone - went with the XBOX in the end. Had a little trouble with the FTP but eventually connected thanks to this excellent guide.
posted by Billegible at 2:35 PM on July 27, 2009

Response by poster: Just one last update - in the end, after getting the xbox and all the necessary mod trimmings, I spent a week hunting down obscure connection issues and finally stalled at the last hurdle, not getting a consistent FTP connection to the external drive.
Bought a WD TV for a hundred bucks after seeing it mentioned here, and got it up and running and watching all my media in five minutes flat.

Thanks for all your advice though - didn't work for me but hey, it happens.
posted by Billegible at 1:45 PM on September 2, 2009

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