XBMC is an amazing media centre application that offers more power and customisation options than any commercial media centre. As awesome as it is, you can further enhance XBMC by using the right remote software for your laptop, iPod or other gear.
XBMC, thanks to being open source and having a broad community of developers and enthusiasts, has an ample supple of plug-ins, add-ons, tweaks, skins, and the focus of our interest today: remote control software. We're going to start off by highlighting the built-in tools you might not be aware of and then covering third-party tools that offer you additional remote-control abilities.
If you don't have a copy of XBMC you'll definitely want to check out our guides to installing XBMC on your original Xbox, how to run it off a Mac, install it on a flash drive, and how to build your own silent standalone XBMC.
Configuring and Using XBMC's Built-In Remote Control
Most people install XBMC and start enjoying it without a doing much rooting around under the hood. XBMC has a great, if a bit dated looking, web-based remote control software installed by default. The web interface is handy for more than a few reasons, but it's particularly handy if you don't have a keyboard hooked up to your Xbox or XBMC computer but you do have a nearby computer, laptop or netbook.
Configuration is simple. Fire up XBMC and navigate to System -> Network -> Services. Check the radial box that says "Allow Control of XBMC via HTTP". You can configure the port, username and password if you plan on accessing XBMC from outside your home network. Since I only use remote software from inside my home and on my home network I haven't bothered to secure XBMC — but who knows? Maybe you like to screw with your roommates by changing the playlist from your office.
Once you've configured XBMC for remote web access you can point any browser — make sure if you're running XBMC in Windows that you granted XBMC access through the Windows firewall — to http://YourXBMCIPaddress/ and you should see something that looks like image below:
From the basic web-interface you can interact with XBMC to open pictures, songs and videos. You can add and remove items in each category from their respective playlists and you can play, stop, skip, fast forward or rewind media and adjust playback volume. You can also reboot and shut down XBMC through the interface and — the handiest feature by far for people without keyboards hooked up to XBMC directly — you can do some basic configuration.
Adding sources, especially if you have a lot of them, is a big pain with just a remote control and not a mouse and keyboard. The XBMC web-interface gives you basic access to the sources file and lets you easily browse for and add new sources using your computer instead of a little remote. You'll still have to set the source types from within XBMC but it's much easier to add sources from the remote interface and tinker with them with the actual XBMC centre remote control later.
If you'd like to update the look of the web-interface you can use the Media Stream-inspired skin available here. You can check out MediaStream and four other awesome XBMC skins here. The screenshot below shows the XBMC web-interface with the new skin:
Enhancing the Built-In Web Interface with XBMC HTTP-R
The nice thing about the web-based interface is that it requires no special software on the other end, like all web-based applications you can access it from any web browser. If you want to experience that same functionality on your mobile phone you can configure XBMC to work with a polished interface for your mobile device.
You used to be able to find mobile-sized skins online but the archive they were housed in closed shop and left nary a trace of any of the skins — terribly unfortunate given how convenient they were to install. In light of the void one coder over at the XBMC forums put together a solution that's much more functional than the old mobile skins. Check out the pictures and video below:
Unlike the simple web interface included in XBMC, the enhanced interface offers more detailed interaction with the library and a more sophisticated remote interface. You'll need a mobile device that can run Opera or Safari, but just like the regular web interface, that's all you need.
Installing and configuring XBMC HTTP-R requires more effort than using the basic web-interface but it's worth it if you want to shift the burden of the interface to your media centre instead of your mobile device. No software installation required, beyond the initial setup on your XBMC machine. Check out XBMC HTTP-R here.
Computer-Based XBMC Remote Controls
Although the web-based interface for XBMC is more than adequate for basic playlist tweaking and configuration, some people like having smaller and more compact interfaces available — much like the mini iTunes interfaces people tuck into their sidebars and such.
If you use XBMC to drive your stereo system and would prefer not to break away from your work at the computer, turn on the TV and fiddle with the remote every time you want to make some changes, then XBMC control is a great solution. Much like the aforementioned mini-iTunes controllers, XBMC Control takes of minimal screen space when it's open, parks in the system tray, and keeps you updated on your now-playing list with balloon notifications. Check it out in the pictures below:
Although you can control music and video playlists with XBMC Control the primary focus and functionality is on music playback. XBMC Control is available both as a portable app and with an installer.
If you're a fan of the Windows Sidebar, you're not neglected on the XBMC-front. Also named XBMC Control, not to be confused with the prior application, is a Windows Sidebar gadget that lets you control XBMC from afar.
When you're not playing anything, the sidebar gadget just displays the XBMC logo. When you are playing it displays the thumbnail of the item you're playing if it's available — cover art, movie thumbs, etc — if no thumbnail is available it displays a generic icon for the media like the film ribbon show in the screenshot above. You can start and stop media, skip forward and backward in the playlist, and pull the entire playlist up to jump to a new entry in it. The gadget is simple but people don't use sidebar gadgets for complex interfaces they use them for ease of use and the limited functionality a little box tucked on the side of your screen can provide.
Control XBMC with Mobile Applications
Although we touched on the mobile interface above with XBMC HTTP-R and how it could be used to access a polished mobile interface from any phone, if you want to leave your XBMC install as it is and instead transfer the burden of the application to your mobile phone you'll find plenty of options.
The iPhone and iPod Touch are natural pairings for a mobile remote. They're lightweight, the touch interface is great, and they can connect to your XBMC by your wireless LAN. The video above shows off HippoRemote, a popular XBMC remote client for the iPhone/iPod Touch.
HippoRemote is available in three varieties — basic, light and pro — ranging in price from free to $US4.99. While we love free software, five dollars is a trivial amount for the amount for a great remote application, especially one like HippoRemote that supports additional software like Firefox and iTunes. Check out our previous review of HippoRemote for additional information.
While you'll find quite a few iPhone/iPod Touch remotes that can get the job done, we highlighted HippoRemote because it's so versatile for the price, the offerings are much more limited in the Windows Mobile arena. Not only are there fewer applications over all but many of them are buggy or unstable to the point of being unusable — many times not even due to the fault of the programmers but caused by changes in Windows Mobile. Before anything else we'd recommend installing Opera on your Windows Mobile device and using the XBMC HTTP-R method shown above. Barring that, you'll want to check out the application demonstrated in the video below:
XBMC Remote Control is the closest thing to the smooth functionality of the iPhone remotes you're going to get on Windows Mobile — and we're not knocking it! it's a great app if you've got a Windows Mobile phone. Like the iPhone applications its not a remote viewing tool but an actual remote you'd hold in your hand when you're looking at the screen and want to control the interface.
Using the above suggestions you should be able to control your XBMC installation from your laptop, netbook and even your mobile phone. While the old school remote for XBMC is great and we love the interface — especially with all the awesome skins out there — it's great to be able to control it in new ways. Whether we're setting up a playlist for someone in the other room or changing out our tunes from the kitchen while the stereo plays in the living room, remote control of XBMC makes an already awesome product even better.
Have an XBMC-enhancing application to share? Let's hear about it in the comments!