We give a lot of attention to XBMC here, and with just cause. It's an open-source, cross-platform, highly-customisable media centre solution that outperforms just about every commercial option out there. Here's how you can make it even better.
If you've played around with any commercial media centres or extenders, you've probably quickly realised how clunky and inelegant the user interface and experience is. Sure once the movie is playing and you're no longer staring down the interface all is well, but prior to getting to the actual showtime the menus are ugly and the navigation is kludgy.
Yesterday Adam detailed how to set up a silent, standalone XBMC media centre on the cheap—and that's a good starting point. The "out of box" experience with XBMC is fantastic, but even better than that, it's extremely customisable. You can alter menus, vary the display method, and completely swap out the skin for a fresh new look. We've reviewed some great XBMC skins and shown you how to install them. For this article we've selected the excellent AEON skin to showcase some of the advanced features of XBMC.
Before we delve too far into tweaking and customisation, you'll need a media centre running XBMC. It all began with XBMC running on the original Xbox, and you can still turn an old Xbox into an XBMC platform. Check out our original guide to installing XBMC on your Xbox and XBMC Installer Deluxe. One thing to keep in mind regarding using the classic Xbox for XBMC: it's just a Pentium III in there with 64MB of RAM. You can, under exceptional circumstances and with a hard to find Microsoft AV pack, squeeze out some better than standard-def images, but it's pushing it; if you want HD playback you simply won't be happy with the classic Xbox.
Thankfully XBMC has been ported from the classic Xbox and can run on Windows, Mac and Linux-based machines as well as off a USB drive. Our most recent guide to building an XBMC is a fantastic one: For around $US200, you'll have a silent and HD-capable media center. If you'd like to use existing hardware, you can always run XBMC off a USB drive or visit the XBMC wiki to read up on other installation techniques.
If all you do is install the stock version and add your media shares, you'll be a happy camper and you'll get frequent compliments on your rocking media centre. If you want to get frequent compliments and have people express complete disbelief that you got such awesome media centre software for the outrageous price of free, then keep reading.
Taking XBMC Beyond the Basics
Installing XBMC is easy, and so is performing the basic setup, but because XBMC is a work in progress and new innovations and features are constantly being added, customisation can get a bit confusing. Take it from a guy who has loved XBMC for years and runs it on the classic Xbox and on a custom-built HTPC—I frequently find myself reading over the user forums and saying "What? It can do that? Oh man!" If you've looked at screenshots of XBMC and wondered how they made it look so cool or got such and such custom icon to appear, this is where you'll want to pay close attention.
XBMC is equipped with a variety of "scrapers"—scripts that scan your media and pull information from the folder structure and file names—to help you get things like thumbnails, fan art, and movie and show information. These scrapers can access a variety of databases like TheTVDB.com for television show art and information and IMDB for movie posters and info. This entire process, once you tell XBMC what kind of content a folder contains, is totally automated. For most entries you can select from multiple movie posters, thumbnails, and so on—check out this entry in TheTVDB for the show Heroes to get a feel for it.
The automated process is awesome and for the most part hassle-free. You can increase the effectiveness of the scrapers by properly formatting your directories and file names. One thing that merits particular emphasis: You must keep your movies and TV shows separate. XBMC can't scrape a folder for both television and film and if you attempt to scrape it twice all sorts of weird things can happen. Store your movies completely separate from your television shows and you'll save yourself quite a bit of frustration.
When you set the content type for the folder you can specify "Use Folder Names for Lookups" and it goes a long way towards accurate file identification. It also saves you from having to cleanup files names and if you're using direct DVD-rips you must use folder name lookup or the scrapers won't function. Here's an example folder structure:
Movies —-Army of Darkness —— AofD.DTS.x264.mkv —- Blades of Glory —— Blades.CON.x264.mkv
When XBMC scrapes the folder names it will easily find a match. In the rare cases where a movie has a title that has been used before or is a remake of a prior movie you can include the year in the folder name, such as Halloween (2007) and Halloween (1978).
As awesome as scraping is, it can save you tons of time, it does have a few down sides. It takes a long, long, time on a moderate to large size library. Have a thousand movies and dozens of TV shows saved? You'll be leaving to run for hours. Anytime you make changes, move things, resinstall XBMC, etc., you'll end up scraping all over again which can get a bit tedious. The other down side is the limitations of scrapers. For most genres they are fine, but sometimes you'll find that they don't have the artwork you want or even any info at all about your media. When this happens it's up to you to fill in the blanks.
Fortunately XBMC follows a specific structure for checking information. It checks the local directory first, then the XBMC library, and then if necessary it will scrape for the data. The following directory structure will show you where support files go
Movies —-MovieTitle —— MovieTitle.mkv —— folder.jpg —— fanart.jpg —— movie-trailer.flv —— title.nfo
TV Shows —- Show —— folder.jpg —— fanart.jpg ——- Season ——— folder.jpg
In the above format the folder.jpg is the source for the small thumbnail assigned to the folder and fanart.jog is the large image placed in the background during showcase mode. See the image below to see what showcase mode looks like. For more examples of folder structure with some excellent and information info-graphics, check out this post on the XBMC forums.
NFO files provide additional information about media. If you don't want to mess around with NFO files, having the thumbnails and fan art saved to disk will speed up the scraping process enormously. You can read about NFO files and how XBMC centre uses them here. You can also greatly automate the process of manually inserting fanart, thumbnails, and managing NFO files by using helper applications like Ember Media Manager.
The area at the bottom of the screenshot above, highlighted with the red box, is where your media flags will show up. The media flags are a really nice touch and indicate things like the studio that produced the film, what quality the video is in, and other media information like what kind of audio it has. All media flag information is pulled, oddly enough, from the file name. If you want the Blu-ray or HD-DVD icon to appear you need to add that information to the file name within the /Movie/Title/ folder. The following file name for example would enable the Blu-ray, 1080, and 264 encoding flags in skins, like Aeon, that support it.
It should be noted that while the general release of XBMC doesn't presently support pulling media information directly from the files that the functionality is available in the beta builds for power users—and it looks stunning! You can read more about that here. If you'd prefer to use the current stable release, then grab the AEON skin and read the readme.txt for additional information about enabling media flags. You can greatly speed up the flagging process by using a helper application like Media Renamer.
At this point in the tutorial, if you've formatted your folders properly, let the scrapers do their thing, and filled with your own pictures and fan art where you wanted to improve on the scraper or fill in some missing information, you've got a library whipped into shape and ready to show off.
Two resources you'll definitely want to check out—because we simply can't cover all the awesomeness that is XBMC in a single article—are the XBMC official wiki and the XBMC forums. You'll especially want to check out any sub-forums for the skin you decide to use, the discussions and resources you'll find in them are invaluable.
Have a favourite helper app for XBMC? A skin you can't rave enough about? A trick that took you a week of digging in the XBMC forums to find out about? Let's hear about it in the comments.