People often say to me, “Please leave.” Now, those words are usually uttered just after they’ve made the mistake of inquiring about my Home Theater PC. So as a bit of a change of pace I’m going to talk about two pieces of software that can be used to turn your PC into a home theater. I’m not going to go into detail, but simply provide a taster for your own self-service buffet of technology.

Of course the first question is why?

With DVDs, blu-rays, CDs, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other online video and music channels, our viewing habits are moving away from sitting down to watch TV at a prescribed time. We want to be entertained on our schedule. An HTPC can bring all of these media elements into one central location, and give you immediate access at a touch of a button (or two). This coalescence is already happening on blu-ray and TV players with internet connections. In fact, this year will see Samsung launch a new TV that incorporates their SmartTV tech with an upgradable dual core processor, camera and microphone. Thus, blurring the line between HTPC, PC, and TV.

But for now we can achieve something similar with just a PC and a little know how.   

I’ll be focusing on Windows based programs, yeah I know, I hear you. However, for the moment Windows is the only OS that can get decent blu-ray playback. Not because of the operating systems themselves, but because of the Digital Rights Management that Blu-ray has been shackled with. 

For Windows 7 users there is of course the built in Windows Media Center, now usually called 7MC. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but at times it is unwieldy and doesn’t have the versatility that can be found elsewhere. I prefer XBMC and Mediaportal. Both take a slightly different approach from each other, but best of all both are totally free, and unlike 7MC they are constantly being improved.


XBMC started life as a media player for the original Xbox (in fact my ten year old brick of a console still runs it today). Since its inception XBMC has expanded beyond the limitations of that hardware and is now available on Windows, Linux and Mac. XBMC is a self-contained program with built in codecs (in simple terms codecs are software that translate the video and the audio information). This means that getting it up and running is a simple case of downloading from here and installing. Once the program is running you will have to set the paths to where ever your TV shows, films and music are located. XBMC will then download fanart (for backgrounds), show banners, and movie posters, and information. Visually XBMC’s default skin is impressive and looks fantastic on a HD TV. However, if for some reason you don’t like it then there are numerous skins that can be downloaded. Finally, like a web browser and its extensions you can add various functions to XBMC via its add-ons. These cover a range of uses like Youtube, Gmail, Apple trailers, subtitle downloaders.     

Mediaportal is in some ways more complicated to set up than XBMC, but perseverance can be worth it. The most obvious difference is that Mediaportal’s central configuration screen works outside of the main program, but it allows you to have more flexibility than XBMC. You can choose which codecs you would like to use. Some combinations work better than others for different hardware types, and for those that know what they’re doing they can achieve video playback nirvana. In a sense Mediaportal is more modular than XBMC. The TV show database can be controlled by a TV Series plug in, and films either by ‘Moving Pictures’ or the ‘My Films’ plug-in. This choice allows the user to have more flexibility, but can also be confusing. Visually, I’ve found Mediaportal’s GUI to have less polish than XBMC, but hopefully in the future with new skins like this one it will allow this HTPC software to shine. Like XBMC, Mediaportal has an array of plugins that offer expansion of its base system. Mediaportal can be downloaded from here.

One main difference between the two is that Mediaportal can interact with TV cards that are installed in the PC giving you the ability to view live TV and record shows. XBMC needs external software to achieve this.

What do I use?

To be honest both programs are excellent and the amount of work that has been lovingly lavished into them by their relevant communities is truly amazing. For years I relied on XBMC, but recently I’ve had trouble getting films to play back smoothly at 24fps. Other people don’t appear to have any such complications so it may be a combination of my hardware and my lack of knowledge. However, Mediaportal plays just fine and while I appreciate the sexiness of the menus of XBMC at the end of the day it’s the video that counts. 


    March 2012
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