Media centres like XBMC and Boxee are excellent tools for playing local media on your big screen, but many new (and even experienced) users run into one big stumbling block: How do you get them to correctly identify your media? Here's how.
Today we're taking a look at how to prep your media for maximum wow factor and functionality when accessed through popular media centre front ends like XBMC. When you're done, you'll have a completely customised media centre experience that will show off your media collection in all its every-episode-of-Arrested-Development glory. Using a media manager with your media collection is a great way to whip things into shape.
You've spent the time to set up a sweet home media centre running an awesome media centre application like XBMC or Boxee; you've even done a little tweaking with your new installation. Now it's time to roll up your sleeves and really dig into whipping your collection into shape, including all your DVD art, album art, fan art and more.
By default, apps like XBMC and Boxee scan your library and scrape the internet to pull in data about your media from a variety of sources like IMDb and TheTVDB.com (so you end up with cool DVD art, fan art and more — like you see in the image below). We're not knocking how great it is to install XBMC, point it at a folder of media, and have it do the dirty work of scraping for you. Despite the convenience of such an arrangement, it isn't without flaws.
If your media centre database becomes corrupt or you reinstall it without backing up the old database, a new crawl for a large collection can take hours — we've had a crawl take the better part of a day on an XBMC install plugged into a packed media server. Even if you've backed up your media centre's database, it's still terribly inconvenient to go into individual entries and make changes. Want new fan art for your favourite movie? Want to change the text of the summary on a television series? If you don't like the way things shook out in the automated scraping then you're in for a tedious headache when it's time to go in and tweak things bit by bit.
Instead of relying on your media centre software to scrape multiple internet sources and build an enormous database — which, as we mentioned above, you'll have to rebuild all over again if anything goes wrong — media managers inject media information into the individual folders that your media is stored in. Media managers give you way more control over tweaking the images and art used to identify your media, and even if your whole XBMC installation becomes corrupted and the database is shot to hell, you'll be able to rebuild the database in a matter of minutes and it'll be just as perfect as it was without any intensive web-database crawling or hand tweaking. XBMC gives preferences to local information and won't scrape the internet if the information it needs is present with the media.
A casual search turns up dozens of media management applications, but we're going to focus on one application today and walk you through using it. Media Companion is user friendly and it's an application under constant tweaking and revision, so changes to online databases won't knock it out of commission like they would other more slowly updated media managers.
Before proceeding you'll, of course, need a copy of XBMC and a directory of media in some semblance of order. Check out our previous guide to turbo charging your XBMC installation to cover both bases. A mini refresher on folder structure is appropriate here, as the cleaner your folder structure the more effectively both XBMC's build-in scrapers and 3rd party scrapers like Media Companion can work. Your folders should match the layout below — sans NFO files if you've never used an external scraper before.
The better organised your folders the easier it will be for Media Companion to make proper matches and the less time you'll spend fixing things.
One last thing before you download Media Companion and get started. Now would be an excellent time — if you're a current XBMC user and not setting it up for the first time — to export your library. If somehow things go terribly wrong and you want to switch back to the old XBMC-scraped database you had, you can import your old library. We can't foresee you wanting to give up the fine control using a third-party manager gives you, but it's better safe than sorry. Look under Settings -> Video -> Library to find the export function see in the screenshot below Note: If it's too difficult to see what's going on in any of the screenshots in this guide, click on them to enlarge the Media Companion interface to full size.
Get Your Hands on a Copy of Media Companion
The best place to get a copy of Media Companion is to hop right into their forums. The author of the application has done such an intensive overhaul to the application in the last few months he removed the links on the main page and directs everyone to the frequent new releases announced in the announcements forum. The current version as of this writing is Media Companion Gen2 3.251 available here.
Installation is a snap, just extract the Media Companion archive into a location of your choice. Settings are stored in the local folder, Media Companion is a portable application. After extracting Media Companion and running it, you should see the unpopulated interface shown in the screenshot below.
Media Companion Initial Setup
Once you've extracted and fired up Media Companion, you'll need to add folders for all your media sources. Media Companion does recursive search so you'll only need to add the master folder for movies and television shows in their respective categories. The interface of Media Companion tends to lean more towards the "put everything in front of the user" philosophy, versus hiding things away in stream lined menus. It's worth familiarising yourself with the interface for a few minutes before adding in your media since the initial scan is going to tie things up. The folders button, used to add media, is on the end of the second menubar row:
Once you add your media folders and start the scan you'll want to leave Media Companion alone for awhile. Depending on the movie scraping can take anywhere from 5-30 seconds — dependent on whether or not fan art is found, if you're accessing your collection from a local hard drive, USB hard drive, or over a network. If you have hundreds of movies and television shows it might be worth doing your initial run before you go to work or before bed so Media Companion has a nice big block of time to work through them all. Our test collection of took several hours.
If you're used to XBMC taking hours to scrape your media collection, you might look at this lengthy initial scrape and wonder exactly how you're saving yourself any time. Remember that, unlike XBMC and other media centre apps, media managers like Media Companion don't just build a single database and shove everything into it. They actually save the cover art, fan art and media information to the folder where each individual piece of media is stored. Thus the hardest your media centre will have to "scrape" in the future is to look in the folder where the movie or television show is found.
What to Do After Your Initial Scrape
If your folders are neatly organised and your cat didn't reboot your computer during the scan to spite you for not getting her a copy of Seascapes: HD Deep Sea Adventures, the results of your scan should look a lot like the image above. A nice long list of movies, proper movie information and art scraped for each movie — and now stored safely with your media instead of in an easily corrupted database! — and all you'll need to do is fire up XBMC and refresh the library by removing and adding your sources again (you can manually delete the database files, but we really don't recommend that kind of mucking about if you're not an XBMC guru).
If you didn't end up with a picture perfect database — a 100 per cent perfect scan is nearly unheard of — then you'll need to do a little tidying up. Errors in the scan fall into several categories and you can approach repairing them with the following methods.
The easiest error to fix is naming error. If your folders are sloppy or your file names cryptic Media Companion — and any scraper for that matter — will have trouble with automated scanning. If you cleaned up your folders per our structure example at the top of this guide you should be in good shape. If you had a few strays you can easily correct the error in Media Companion.
Select the movie, click on the "Change Movie" button in the menu bar, next to the "Folders" button you used earlier. This will pull up an IMDB search interface. Search for the movie like so:
Find it, initiate a rescan, and now the phantom entry will be populated and ready for insertion into your XBMC database:
When a movie scans properly — the name is correct, the movie information is correct — but it lacks artwork, the fix is simple. In the screenshot below you can see — in XBMC — how the movie Annie was scanned properly save for the artwork.
We just need to hop over into Media Companion and remedy the situation by searching for the movie Annie in our database — use the search box above the movie list to save time — and then right click on the movie to set the fan and poster art.
It turns our that Media Companion didn't fail us on the fan-art front, no fan art for the movie exists in any of the databases. Given the depth and variety of most media databases this is fairly unusual, but we won't let that slow us down. You can do one of two things at this point: fire up the movie and capture a screenshot to serve as your fan art or search online for movie wallpaper or high resolution images to import. We had trouble finding anything really high resolution from the actual movie so we opted to grab a fairly high resolution picture of the motion picture soundtrack for the movie and add some white space to make it 16:9 for proper full screen fan-art awesomeness. Note: If you take the time to make your own fan art or hunt down fan art elsewhere on the web, please take a moment to visit sites like TheMovieDB and TheTVDB to share them. That way the next person won't have to go through the same effort you did to get great artwork for their movies.
Repeat the process for the movie cover if necessary, and then go check out your handy work in XBMC:
Boom! Everything is beautiful, the fanart looks great — although if we were being super picky we'd go back in and delete the "original soundtrack" line from the bottom of the picture, eh? — and the best part is the pictures and data are stored with the movie file itself so they'll never get separated again.
Setting up Media Companion is only a tiny bit more effort than setting up XBMC itself. It gives you radically more control over how your media is displayed, let's you customise to your heart's content with out the hassle of pecking away at the XBMC interface, and best of all it stores your media information safely and with your actual media.
If you have any tips, tricks or experience running third-party scrapers on your media collection, sound off in the comments.