Entertainment

The Complete Guide To Creating A Seamless, Play-Everything Media Centre

DVD players are so 1999. In this day and age, a custom media centre running XBMC is the only thing you really need hooked up to your TV — whether you’re watching movies you’ve ripped, streaming your favourite TV shows, listening to podcasts, or even playing video games. This guide will tell you everything you need to know to create an awesome, customised, do-anything media centre with XBMC. And, if you’ve already hopped on the XBMC bandwagon, it’s sure to show you a thing or two you didn’t already know.

XBMC, for those of you that don’t know, is a media centre application that organises your movies, TV shows and other media in a beautiful, remote control-friendly library. You can run it on nearly any computer or Apple TV and hook it up in your living room, so all the media you used to watch on your computer are all available from the comfort of your couch. Obviously, XBMC isn’t the only media centre software out there — but it’s our favourite by a pretty good margin.

You can play all your existing DVDs and Blu-ray discs, stream videos to it from your iOS device via AirPlay, set it up as an old-school video game console, and — if you’re really adventurous — even sync it up with other XBMC boxes in the house, so you can pause a movie in one room and continue it in another. On top of all that, you can customise every corner of the interface to make it look super awesome. Not convinced? Check out the video at the top of the post to see what you’ll get when the whole process is over.

Because XBMC is so powerful, you have a ton of options for setting up your media centre to fit your needs. This guide covers the entire process, from choosing your hardware to importing your videos to extending XBMC to its furthest (and coolest) reaches.

Choose Your Hardware

Before you start, you’ll need to think about where you’re going to run XBMC. If you have an old computer, you can just hook that up to your TV and use it as a media centre for a total of $0. Of course, if your old machine is big, loud and draws lots of unnecessary power, you may prefer a dedicated media centre. (It won’t hurt to test on your old machine, though!)

You don’t have to spend a ton of money on XBMC-capable hardware. In fact, the cheapest option is one of our favorites: a jailbroken Apple TV. The newest generation can play 1080p videos and can do all the basic playback of any XBMC machine. And, at $109, it’s a steal. The newest generation hasn’t been jailbroken yet, but hopefully it will be soon. In the meantime, you can grab a second generation Apple TV if you don’t mind 720p, check out what installing XBMC is like on an Apple TV with our Apple TV 2 guide. (You’ll see a post on Lifehacker as soon as the newest Apple TV is jailbroken.)

Of course, if you want to do some of the more advanced things in this guide, like play video games or sync XBMC with multiple XBMC boxes in the house, you’ll need a real computer to do the job. You have a few options here: you could either grab a cheap nettop, like the Asus Eee Box, for a tiny, silent, standalone box, or you can build your own for a bit more money. The standalone box is great and gives you a few more options, but if you really want to go all-out with your box — by adding video games and Blu-ray playback to the mix, for example — you’ll probably want to build your own. It’s a tad more expensive, but it gives you complete control over every aspect of your media centre, which we really like. If you’ve never built a computer before, it’s pretty easy — just check out our start-to-finish guide to building a computer from scratch.

Chances are you already have an idea of what you want to use for your media centre, but don’t forget to think about remote controls when making your hardware decisions, too. Apple TV users will be shocked at how well the Apple TV remote works, but other users will need to buy a remote separately. The easiest route would be to grab a Windows Media Center remote that comes with an infrared sensor. If you have a universal remote you really like, though, you can make nearly any IR remote work with XBMC using the complicated but awesome LIRC, too.

Install XBMC

XBMC comes in a number of different flavours, so the next step is choosing which one you want to install from their download page. You can install it as a regular program atop your Windows, Mac or Linux system, which makes it easy to use other programs on your media centre whenever you want — like playing video games (which we’ll discuss in more detail later) or even just browsing the web from your couch. However, if all you want is XBMC with no other hassle, you could just install XBMCbuntu, which is a minimal Linux installation with XBMC on top of it. You can boot straight into XBMC by turning on the computer, and boot into a Linux desktop on the rare occasion you need to tweak some system-level settings. This is what most of us here at Lifehacker do, since it works great right out of the box — but if you have special needs, you can always install it over the operating system of your choice.

Alternatively, you can install a variation of XBMC like the fast-booting, self-updating OpenELEC. It’s a great choice if you don’t want to fiddle with any operating systems, and you just want a box that starts up quickly and houses your movies. You could also use a program like Plex for Windows and Mac, which is based off XBMC. It isn’t nearly as customisable as XBMC, and most of this guide won’t really apply to it, but we think it’s worth mentioning for its awesome streaming powers. If you aren’t looking for an insanely customisable media centre and want to stream media to your iOS or Android device when you’re away, Plex is a great choice.

Installing XBMC is a piece of cake once you’ve picked your version. If it’s just a regular version of XBMC, download and install it like you would any other program. If you’re installing OpenELEC or XBMCbuntu, just burn the installer to a live CD or USB drive, insert it into your media centre, and boot from that device to start the installation. Once you have it installed, you’re ready to start adding your media.

Import Media Into XBMC

You can stream a lot of media to XBMC, but where it really shines is with your local library of movies and TV shows. Here’s what importing that media entails.

Where to Get Movies and TV Shows for XBMC

If you don’t have movies and TV shows on your computer already, I highly recommend checking out our guides on how to:

Where to Store Them (and How to Organise Them)

Before you go adding these files to your library though, you’ll need to get them in order on your machine. You can either store them on your media centre itself or on another computer on the network. Our preferred method is to store them on a network — whether you’ve stowed them away on your main machine (which you’ll need to keep running 24/7 if you want those videos available) or you’ve got something like a NAS running as a home file server (which is what I do).

XBMC has a cool feature where it can grab all sorts of information about your videos — like the cover art, plot summary, year produced and more — and display it in the menus for you. It does this by scraping information from sources like TheMovieDB.org and TheTVDB.com when you add those files to your library. However, in order to scrape that information, it needs your files organised in a certain way. There are a ton of ways to do this, but we’ll feature a few options here.

The Easy, Automated Way: Create two new folders: one for movies and one for TV shows. Drop all your movies into the movies folder, and your TV shows into the TV folder. XBMC needs these separated to correctly process information. Then, just rename your movie files using a supported naming convention, such as Tron.Legacy.2010.1080p.mkv (the name, the year and the resolution — though I usually add the resolution just so I can see at a glance which movies I’ve ripped in which format). For TV shows, put each show in its own folder with all the episodes inside, and use a supported naming convention like Firefly.s01e02.mkv for each one. You can add more information to your files if you want, but these are simple conventions with enough information for XBMC to scrape information.

When you add these files to XBMC, it’ll grab all the information for you, including the movie’s poster art and a high-resolution fanart image, which is usually a screenshot of the movie or other promotional image (see the image to the right for an example of what your menus will look like with fanart and poster art). It’ll grab all this automatically so you don’t have to do anything, and you can just start watching your media. If you’d rather pick which poster and fanart it uses, you’ll have to use…

The Complicated, Customisable Method: Like the easy method, start by creating two folders: one for movies and one for TV shows. Drop all your movies into the movies folder, and your TV shows into the TV folder. XBMC needs these separated to correctly process information. Then, create a new folder for each movie, using the movie’s title as the folder’s name. Inside that folder, place the movie file with any file name you want, along with the poster art labelled folder.jpg and the fanart you want as fanart.jpg. You fan find images for the poster and fanart at TheMovieDB.org. TV shows are similar: just put a folder.jpg and fanart.jpg into the TV show’s folder, then put each season of the show into its own subfolder. Each subfolder can also have its own folder.jpg for that season (see what this looks like in the image to the right). You can grab these images from TheTVDB.com.

It sounds complicated, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly — XBMC does a good job of understanding most intuitive organisation schemes. For more information on naming files and adding custom art, check out the XBMC wiki and our guide to turbo charging your media center.

Add the Files to Your XBMC Library

Finally, it’s time to actually add the files to XBMC. If you’ve done your job correctly so far, this should be a dead simple process. First, open up XBMC on your media centre. Go to the Videos section, and scroll down to “Add Videos”. This is where you’ll add a video source to your library — like a folder full of movies or TV shows (hey, we just created those!). Click Browse and navigate to the folder where you’ve stored your media (obviously, if they’re on another computer, choose something like “Windows Network” or “Add Network Location” at this step). Once you’ve picked it, enter a name for the source — like “Movies” or “Movies on my office computer” — and click OK.

Next, it’s going to ask you what kind of media is in that folder. Under “This Directory Contains”, choose the type of media you want to add from that folder — for example, Movies. It’ll also ask you to choose a scraper; the default should be fine. Scroll down and enable the “Run Automated Scan” option, and any other options that may apply (like “Movies are in separate folders” if you picked the complicated method above). Click OK and wait for XBMC to import all your files. This could take a while depending on how many you have, so kick back with a cup of tea if your movie collection is on the impressive side. Repeat this process for your other folders and meia types, and you should have an awesome-looking, playable media library ready to go!

Customise Every Inch Your Media Centre

One of the coolest features of XBMC is the ability to add new features to your media centre through add-ons, just like you would with Firefox or Chrome on your computer. Add-ons can do anything from stream TV shows and movies to play video games and overhaul the entire look of your media centre. There are a few different places you can get add-ons, called repositories. You can download repositories as ZIP files and import them into XBMC. Each time you import a repository, it’ll add a bunch of new add-ons to XBMC’s catalogue.

Installing add-ons from XBMC’s official repository is super easy, since it’s already built into XBMC. Just open up XBMC and head into System > Add-Ons > Get Add-Ons. Choose “XBMC.org Add-Ons” and start browsing the catalogue from there. When you see one you like, select it, and click the “Install” button in the menu that comes up. XBMC will install it, and you’ll be good to go. To use the add-on just head to its category (for example, if it’s a “Video Add-On”, go to Videos > Video Add-Ons). You may have to edit the add-on’s settings before you can use it (usually by highlighting it and going to the context menu with the “c” key on your keyboard, or whatever the corresponding button is on your remote).

Installing add-ons from other repositories takes one extra step. To add a new repository, download its ZIP file (which you’ll find on this wiki page, or elsewhere around the net) and save it to your media centre. Then, open up XBMC and go back to Settings > Add-Ons. From there, choose “Install from ZIP File”, and navigate to the ZIP file on your drive. Once you’ve added it, you should be able to select it from the “Get Add-Ons” menu, and browse its catalogue just like you did with XBMC’s official repository.

Overhaul XBMC’s Look with a New Skin

XBMC’s default look is pretty beautiful, but you have a ton of other skins to choose from that give it a different look and feel. To add a new skin, just head to Settings > Appearance > Skin, and click on the skin you’re currently using (the default skin is called “Confluence”). It should bring up a menu where you can choose a new skin. By default, you’ll only have one skin in this menu, but after clicking “Get More” and installing other skins from XBMC’s repository, you can choose other skins from that menu to try out. If you see a skin online that isn’t built into XBMC, you can download its repository, add it as described above, and the skin should show up in the “Get More Skins” menu.

Once you’ve chosen a skin, you can customise it under Settings > Skin. From there, you can change which menus show up on the home screen, choose the background artwork for the different screens, and lots more. I also recommend going into your media library and seeing what different views your skin offers. To do this, head into a section of your library (like “Movies”) and bring up the left menu by pressing the left arrow key (or, if your movies scroll from side to side, by pressing the up arrow key). Press Enter on the “View” selection to see the different views. Some will emphasise the posters and fanart for a cool-looking library, while others may focus on media details like plot, cast and more. Play around with them to see what you like, and remember that each skin has different layouts, so check them out before you write a skin off.

Play Videos via AirPlay

To play videos from your iOS device or other AirPlay-capable program right in XBMC, head to Settings > Network > Services and enable AirPlay. From then on, XMBC should show up as an AirPlay destination any time you want to stream something. Some platforms might need a bit of extra setup to get this working, so check out the XBMC wiki page on the subject to find out more.

Add Blu-Ray Playback

If you’ve borrowed a Blu-ray from a friend, or just want to watch one without waiting for it to rip, you can actually enable Blu-ray playback in XBMC with the Blu-ray add-on and an external program called MakeMKV. It takes a bit of initial setup, and it doesn’t work perfectly, but I’ve used it on many occasions to watch a Blu-ray disc just by popping it in my media centre. Of course, you’ll need a Blu-ray drive for it to work, but this method should work on Windows, Mac and Linux. Check out our full guide on how to get it up and running for more info.

Play Video Games Right From XBMC

One of my favourite XBMC tricks is to turn it into a video game console using the Advanced Launcher plugin. It lets you add emulators and ROMs to the Games section of your XBMC library, so you can play games from nearly any system — no matter how old school. If your media centre is on a powerful enough computer, you can even use the Advanced Launcher plug-in to launch more modern video games. Add a USB gamepad to the mix (like an Xbox 360 controller) and you’ve got yourself a play-anything video game console in addition to all your movies and TV shows. Check out our full guide to playing video games in XBMC for more info.

Sync Your Media Across Your House

Lastly, if you have multiple XBMC boxes in your house, you can use XBMC’s built-in MySQL support to sync them all together — so that you can stop a movie in one room, and resume watching it from that same place in another room. It takes a bit of setup, but it sounds scarier than it is. In fact, the newest version of XBMC makes this easier than ever. Check out this full guide from our friends at the How-To Geek to see how to put it together.

These are by far the best add-ons and customisations for XBMC, but there are a lot of others out there. Browse the repositories to see what else you might like; you’re sure to find a lot of popular podcasts and web series’ in there like This Week in Tech, TED Talks or The Guild, as well as ways to monitor your favourite torrent programs, play music from your favourite streaming service, and more. For a list of other cool add-ons, check out our rundown of the best add-ons for XBMC.

This guide should get you pretty far, but XBMC is so customisable that it would be impossible to list everything you could do in one guide. Do you have a favourite skin, add-on or customisation that we didn’t mention? Be sure to tell us about it in the comments.