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.


Comments

    But it still doesn't play live TV? How about the ability to record live tv, use an EPG and series link. I can do that and watch all my stored media via windows media Center. Watching live TV is the one thing holding me back from XBMC

      i agree

        well ... XBMC now have a PVR/DVR abilities by plugin and the next version (frodo) will support it automatically

          Yeah, but it's still slow and clunky as hell....and it's now mid 2014.

          Last edited 26/04/14 10:29 am

      Does anyone have trouble playing WMV rips of TV shows they have made using Windows Media Player/Center?? Last time i looked into this, there was mixed reports from people. For some it worked fine, for others not at all..

      There are builds of XBMC with Live TV support. I use it myself with the Mediaportal TV Server as my live TV backend. The nice thing about doing it this way is you can use the tuners from any computer on the network ( so I have XBMC with live TV support installed on my laptop and it connects to the Mediaportal TV serer running on the HTPC in the lounge. You get the full experience too; EPG, recording capabilites, etc)

    XBMC is not a PVR/DVR solution, it never was been...given the amount of hardware it would need to support is considerable for an open source solution. Personally, I use an old mini mac as my PVR and using a nice plugin, import the recordings into XBMC. Not to much of an issue from where I'm sitting and doesn't require another tuner or areial...

    If PVR is really important to you, get involved and make it happen!

      How does one "get involved"? What needs to be done?

    So how do you get this working as a PVR then? There's all sorts of program out there that record TV for you, most of which come with your TV card. Why hasn't this feature been added yet? It seems to me like a fairly "standard" feature for a computer you've got plugged into your TV.

    I get screen tearing no matter what video file I play when using XBMC. I have tried everything to sort it out. Anyone have any clues?

    I run WMC and have no issues at all.

    Thank you for this article, I had a HTPC when Windows Media Centre Edition came out, but gave up as it was not the best solution.

    I will retry this now, as it not only looks good, but it looks very functional now.

      try googling it, I know I had a similar problem and I think it was to do with video playback settings, only had it when using wmc as well. The fix is out there, once you find it or post it in a forum someone will let you know, pretty sure someone answered mine on Whirlpool.

    Openelec is awesome if you look to puchasing the right hardware... I use an Acer Revo and the boot time is under 15 sec's. Awesome, only downside is hard to dual boot OS's, but generally I just use xbmc, and you can use PVR builds of xbmc, its not easy to setup, but many people having lots of success using it, me personally, couldn't care less about FTA TV.

    Openelec is a trimmed down version of XBMC for those not in the know already... check it out

    Okay for a different use of XBMC. I use it totally as a portable application running off an External HDD. So when I am on the road working or simply using a friends computer, I can plug the drive straight in and watch movies or TV shows. To get it to work, you MUST use the older Camelot version of XBMC, because this allows you to store your files with in a virtual Q drive, so no matter when or where, the library files all match up. On the newer versions o f XBMC, they removed this feature and you have to map the drive on the host machine to something high like X: as long as it is not already in use. Then just adjust the launch shortcut with -P, such as "XBMC.EXE -P" to engage portable mode.

    Don't forget if you have an Android Device you can download the XBMC Remote for Free off Google Play Store (Apple does have the same for a smal fee).

    This remote is awesome, which allows you to search your library from your device and then play. Will work over wifi out for the box, or over 3G with port forwarding

    Question from someone lacking much knowledge, but can XBMC be used with your PS3? I'm using PS3 Media Server at the moment between my Macbook Pro and the console and I'm finding it not quite so reliable.

    I can't believe how little Plex gets a mention in these kinds of articles. Plex is far better than XBMC for a media centre environment - giving you a complete centralised watchlist (that doesn't reset every time you reinstall like XBMC) - and the ability to stream to phones and tablets as well.
    You can start watching a movie on the htpc in the lounge, press pause and then grab your iPad or Android tablet and retire to the bedroom, hit play and continue where you left off. This kind of seamless connectivity is what a media centre is all about.
    The Android and iPhone/iPad versions of the client are not free, but a few bucks for an awesome app isn't much to ask for! You can even access your media centre remotely over the network or even 3g and providing your upload is good enough at home you can stream on the go.
    So when you're finally ready for the next level after XBMC - give Plex a go - http://www.plexapp.com
    (and no, I have nothing to do with Plex at all, I'm just a fan)

      I second Plex as an alternative. Streaming alone to multiple devices make it worthwhile. Coupled with DLNA in the latest server will also allow me to stream to PS3 (possibly even Bravia TV).

        +1 for plex. I installed the plex app on my Samsung Smart TV (I think LG has it as well) and now don't need to use the ps3 or any other device to play media on it. Has the pictures and synopsis of the Movies and TV shows and orders them nicely. I believe plex is based on XBMC.

      +1 as well. Centralised media server is the way to go. XBMC needs to work on its metadata management a bit I think. I just wish that Plex had TVHeadend/Mediaportal/MythTV capability so I could come up with a more simple solution than the switching between Plex and Windows Media Centre I do now using EventGhost.

      I use plex in my home as i found XBMC when I first tired to use it wouldnt connect smoothly, granted that was maybe 4 years ago.

      I've introduced many friends to plex and helped set up their media centres and everyone is extremely happy. Even my grandfather uses it.

      One aspect i hadn't heard of for XBMC was the video games... that I would be interested in.

    XBMC + PVR Project:
    http://www.scintilla.utwente.nl/~marcelg/xbmc/prebuild.html

    Yep, defo on the Plex call. One of the best things I have configured in years. My Samsung smart tv has a unoffical plex app so I can watch it on there, my Apple tv, ipad android etc etc.

    Tried XMBC, found it a pain in the backside.

    STILL no PVR functionality - I have never strayed from Windows Media Center because of this dealbreaker.

    By default xbmc stores its video and audio database locally, however this very article provides a link to a guide which shows how to setup a centralized mysql database for multiple xbmc setups. Plex is a great streamlined piece of software (based of xbmc code), however xbmc is more flexible and is fully open source. Mediaportal is a great alternative for people who want pvr function

    "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 can adjust advancedsettings.xml on an ATV2 just fine to sync with a mysql database, unfortunately no video games :(

    Is this not a video on how to jailbreak the new Apple TV and install XBMC?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dX1bsSL9bUw

      Nah that's for the Apple TV2, we are waiting for the Apple TV3 jailbreak, as the Apple tv2 downscales anything higher than 720p down to 720p. For some this is a dealbreaker, I will get a apple tv3 when its jailbroken and put XBMC on it.

    +1 for Plex, I tried XBMC for a year before trying Plex and Plex just looks beautiful out of the box and works very well. Stream s to your tablet if you want and more.

    On the remote control front .... best solution I found was an iPhone app. The 100% official XBMC is awesome. Works best if you set you media centre to a static IP, and also have wake on lan enabled. That way you can even use the app to turn your machine offf/on.

    I like Plex for the most part like some of the above posters. I do, however, like XBMC for the media scraping, and the media playing aspects and as well as how much they can be customized. Plex is horrible and finding less popular movies, and the interface is bland.

    Plex and XBMC are both great in different ways.

    I run XBMC at home from a central HTPC/server in the living room. I have TV and Movie torrents set to automatically download and import into XBMC, I have Live TV and PVR functionality through the mediaportal plugin, I have the launcher app to play PC and retro system games, and I have the database set up to sync with my smaller HTPC in the bedroom. XBMC is amazing and customizable, and works like a dream for me, but I treat working on it like a hobby.

    My less technically inclined neighbour asked if I could set something similar up for him. I installed Plex on his Samsung Smart TV and showed him how to stream to his iPhone and he's happy as a clam.

    It all depends on what you're willing to put in,a nd want to get out of it.

      Rob, I want to do what you seemed to have set up. I have a desktop, Windows 7 & 8, 3 jailbroken Apple TV2s, 3 iPhones, laptops. etc. We have 6 tvs in different rooms & I would like to establish a network using the dedicated desktop as a server. Could you please help me get started or direct me to specific steps & how to's to set this all up? My wife cancelled our cable today so I need to put something together quick. I would really appreciate it. Thanks, Kent

    Misleading title. I bet I could find something it wouldn't play properly.

    With XBMC, it doesn't automatically see new files added to your Movie\TV Show folders does it? From what I understand, it requires a plug-in to run a library refresh periodically... Is that right?

      Actually, it does. When you setup your source folders, you can tell XBMC to scan the folders periodically or every time XBMC starts.

    Just to add to this awesome article. I use a dedicated 7" android tablet as my remote. Just a cheapy from eBay with the remote software from the market. People are amazed when they see that my remote is tablet!

    Mediabrowser. cross platform awesomeness.

      The server requires .NET 3.5 and only runs on Windows 7 and up, and the clients collectively have less native support than XBMC does. That's a pretty weak claim to cross-platform support.

        I'm referring to the web interface the server provides. Anything with a html5 browser can hook in and access.
        I can use the cash register at work to stream my home mp3 collection through chrome. I love it.

        Last edited 04/03/14 5:09 pm

          XBMC is working to get streaming built-in in the next version, from memory, but there's an addon that sets up web streaming that's been around for a while too, so you can still do that on XBMC if you want to.

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