I need help picking media center software. What fits my seemingly simple requirements?
March 10, 2010 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I came into some hardware I have no other use for, so it's time to try some "media center" software! Yay! Difficulties: Spouse-friendliness is important, I don't know the media center scene very well, the hardware I have isn't all that fancy, and my patience for scouring all the different projects' forums to sort them out is somewhat limited. Can you help me sort out my options and pick something that's close to my requirements?

The only non-negotiable requirements I have are that whatever I install absolutely must have some form of Hulu support, and absolutely must not require a hardware purchase (software I can get away with if it comes to it). The primary use cases will be playing movie files over SMB file sharing, and Hulu-watching, with occasional playing of the KEXP audio stream expected. Music browsing and playing over SMB would be nice, too. Being able to divert audio to an Airport Express would be kind of snazzy but I'm not hanging my hat on it. Other things like Youtube support would be neat but aren't required. Recording is not needed at all.

Hardware-wise I have a kinda old Toshiba that I just got for free. It's not especially fancy, from the P4 era, and has a pretty weak GPU (Intel 854). It has a VGA output and my TV has a VGA input. The TV expects to stretch 1024x768 SVGA into a 16:9 aspect ratio, so supporting that display method would be really nice. It will access all content via SMB over 100bT Ethernet.

So far the only thing I've done is try a live CD of XBMC. The default UI is pretty ugly and spouse-hostile due to the gaudy pictures of rendered sports cars and cheesy metal textures, but I assume that can be changed. It does seem to expect the VGA output to be stretched, which is good. Hulu support for XBMC appears questionable, third party, and possibly no longer functional depending on which forum thread you read. It most certainly isn't available out of the box.

I've read a little about Boxee, which seems to be an XBMC port of some kind, but last I heard they had dumped Hulu support which means I can't implement it.

I hear Microsoft bundles something like this with Windows 7 Ultimate, but I didn't run across anything like it when I played with my copy. I'm not a huge fan of those guys, but if they have something that works or if there's a Windows-based solution that's pretty good, I'm game.

What is out there that works? My ideal is to spend minimal time doing installation and integration, but I'm willing to do some gruntwork to make this go, I'm willing to build things from source as needed. I'm not above and would probably prefer running things that might not be officially sanctioned by the Television-Industrial Complex. It's just that the information quality out there is so bad -- mostly web forums full of people not getting answers to their questions -- that I don't really even know where to begin. Surely I'm not better off just installing a general purpose desktop OS on it and not doing the media center thing at all.

So tell me: If you were to recommend a really sweet media center setup, for maybe not the most awesome hardware, what would it be?
posted by majick to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I did this sort of thing just recently. I picked up an old P4 Dell tower with weak onboard graphics, and turned it into a home media center. I didn't pick up any hardware or any software, just used what was there.

"Borrowing" the concept of TV Shack I simply built a web page that shows links to all of my movies and music on my network drive. The interface couldn't be simpler, and using a wireless mouse I can control it from my couch.

For my music I used Winamp, and for movies I used CyberDVD, which had come with a DVD-drive I had purchased earlier. I use Firefox as the web browser. The first time you click on a playlist or a move file, Firefox asks which program to open that file with. I made the selection, and then checked the box to remember that selection. So now when I click on a file, it launches the proper program automatically.

It works rather well, and playing movies and music is easily handled by the old Dell tower, even with very weak onboard graphics. The tower is connected to my HDTV, so I simply played with the resolution on the input corresponding to the computer until I got the best picture. Honestly, it doesn't compete with Blu-ray, but it looks just the same as any other DVD player I've ever seen.

I stream Hulu, my Netflix subscription, and South Park Studios without any issues, using cable broadband as my Internet connection.

Feel free to MeMail me if you want more details.
posted by doh ray mii at 8:48 AM on March 10, 2010

Sorry, should have said I didn't pick up any extra hardware or software.
posted by doh ray mii at 8:56 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: That's a pretty neat idea, and not far off from what I'd wind up doing if none of the slicker media center software meets my minimum requirements. My ideal, though, would be to go with something a little more fancy and more "spouse-friendly" than "here are some files; clicking on stuff opens VLC; and here's Hulu in a web browser."

If the media center scene comes up bust, though, expect to hear from me!
posted by majick at 9:11 AM on March 10, 2010

You expect too much without being willing to spend any money. Hardware wise, you aren't going to be able to run the fanciest prettiest looking media center. If you were willing to invest in a sub ~50 dollar xbox you could have XBMC and you would be cooking. Otherwise I think your going to be in trouble.
posted by lakerk at 9:30 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Hmm, that's odd, because as I said XBMC is already up and running. It just doesn't have Hulu support and it's not clear that it's capable of it any more, so it doesn't meet my requirements.
posted by majick at 9:35 AM on March 10, 2010

Try TVersity, which claims to have Hulu support. I never got it to work with my XBox, but I have to admit not trying very hard. I upgraded to Windows 7 almost immediately after trying, and just stopped messing with it.
posted by valkyryn at 9:56 AM on March 10, 2010

Windows 7 Media Center comes with all versions of 7, not just Ultimate. It's not bad on its own, but with a few plugins might do most of what you want. You can install the free Hulu Desktop app separately and then add a Plugin to WMC that will launch Hulu Desktop, and go back into WMC when you close it. There's a similar plugin to launch into and out of XBMC. Between these 3 apps and plugins, I can control (almost) everything I need to on my HTPC with a universal remote.
posted by Roommate at 10:10 AM on March 10, 2010

I think that SageTV with the playon will get you what you want. With playon, you can access hulu, netflix, amazon VOD, youtube, google videos, and a whole bunch of other sources. You should also be easily able to access the media content on your network. Support on the forum is pretty good.

There is a vibrant community of people creating plugins to do all sorts of things, like the plugin that lets one access playon.

However, I think that in all cases, with media center software, you will have much fewer headaches using them with a hardware extender, whether it's an XBOX, SageTV HD Theater, etc. Additionally, SageTV has great DVR features, but it sounds like you're not interested in that.

I'm a pretty technical guy, but I want my media system to "just work", both for my own entertainment, as well as to keep my wife happy. So far, so good (over the past 2 years). Please drop by the forum and ask some questions. I think that you'll find people helpful.
posted by reddot at 5:26 PM on March 10, 2010

I've read a little about Boxee, which seems to be an XBMC port of some kind, but last I heard they had dumped Hulu support which means I can't implement it.

Yes, but Plex picked it up for Mac XBMC.


I have NOT tried it because I'm a non-techy scared wussy girl, but it looks like it might be an option for you.
posted by misha at 11:15 PM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: "Try TVersity" -- Spent a little time doing just that. The verdict is that it's really designed to be some kind of back end that drives your PS3 as a media player. Its support for web content is literally to pop open a web browser and leave it at that. That's not a really great HTPC experience for the end user.

"Windows 7 Media Center...with a few plugins might do most of what you want." -- I may play with this when there's more memory in the thing. As it stands there isn't enough to even boot a W7 installer, but that'll be fixed some time next week.

"I think that SageTV with the playon will get you what you want." -- These guys seem really eager to sell me some hardware and not very eager at all to explain what the profusion of software packages they offer are. That's all well and good, but the hardware I have is the set top box. I don't need more hardware. The hardware I have is going to literally sit on a shelf atop of the DVD player with the screen closed, so there's really no point in buying another piece of hardware to do the job I've allocated this hardware to do. I'll look more closely at this solution and perhaps give it a try.

"Plex picked it up for Mac XBMC." -- Plex looks really neat. I spent about 15 minutes seeing if I could get OSX to run on the Toshiba, but unfortunately none of the EFI bootloaders I could find worked on it. So it's not going to be running Mac software any time soon that I can see. I'll try again when the rest of the memory arrives.

"I simply built a web page that shows links to all of my movies and music" -- I'm still not super clear how I'd make the UI all that spouse-friendly. It seems as though there'd be a lot of JavaScript to write to make it function much like a media center, and I'm not sure my rusty JS is up to the task.

"Moovida (formerly Elisa) is a project to create an open source cross platform media center solution..." -- A lack of Hulu support is filed as a bug on their bug tracker, but their response pretty much boils down to "we realize this is critically important to getting our software used by people in the States, but we're not in the States so we can't really work on it yet." It's a shame, because it looks pretty slick.

Anyhow, folks, thanks for all the suggestions. From what I can see it really looks like the state of the HTPC software world is pretty sad. It appears nobody is using commodity hardware on the set-top any more, so nobody's making software for that purpose apart from XBMC.
posted by majick at 5:58 AM on March 11, 2010

SageTV Media Center is software you run on your computer. I agree that their website sucks. You don't have to buy any hardware to use the software. And it has a 14 day free trial.

What are you going to use for a remote control for this setup? A keyboard and mouse, or a proper A/V remote?
posted by reddot at 10:58 AM on March 11, 2010

Response by poster: I'll probably just keep it to a keyboard for the time being, although I'll also likely rig up my iPhone (and some other devices that are in the same room) to emit keystrokes at it over VNC. It's not the most spouse-friendly solution but it'll use what I already have lying around the house, and that's a priority for this project.

I'll take a poke at SageTV this weekend. It does seem like a pretty promising solution if I can get my head around the Sage architecture and contort their complex assumed use case into my simple "run some stuff on a cheapo HTPC and hook it up to the TV" use case somehow.

Once again, thanks to everyone for all the help so far. I'll report back as to how things went with Sage.

Oh, and to update those who are playing along at home: on my low-end hardware, XBMC on Windows was noticeably faster and smoother than "XBMC Live" (which is Ubuntu 9 with XBMC on it). I don't know if that was an Intel GMA driver thing or what, but it was a significant difference in UI responsiveness, frame rates, and video playback.
posted by majick at 2:00 PM on March 11, 2010

Boxee + iPhone remote (in app store) = awesome media center. Includes Hulu support (for non-Americans, use Hotspot Shield).
posted by blue_beetle at 10:02 AM on May 21, 2010

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