XBMC is a fantastic and free cross-platform media centre application we’re nuts for. If you’ve wanted to start using it or just wanted to customise the XBMC installation you’re already running, this guide will walk you through everything, from installation to total customisation.
We’ve featured quite a few XBMC tips, tricks and guides here at Lifehacker. We’re quite fond of it, and with good reason: It’s attractive, powerful and highly customisable. In fact, nearly everyone at Lifehacker has a copy installed somewhere — and I have XBMC networked and running on every television and computer in my house.
Rather than leave you to dig through the archives of all the tips and guides we’ve shared, today we’re going to walk you through our guides covering everything from installation to tweaking your media and media centre for the ultimate XBMC experience, start to finish. Rather than rehash the detailed instructions we’ve laid out in various guides, we’ll highlight the most compelling reasons for each tweak and direct you back to the original guide for a step-by-step walk through. When you’re done, you’ll have a streamlined media centre with some awesome skins, a tidy media collection, automatic television show downloading and games!
XBMC originated as an ambitious media centre project on the original Xbox but has since grown well beyond the capabilities of its platform of origin. While our step-by-step guide to turning a classic Xbox into a killer media center is still a great way to breathe life into an old Xbox, the old Pentium III in the classic Xbox is showing its age. If you’re using the classic Xbox you can follow along with the suggestions in this guide but keep in mind that the original Xbox can’t handle some of the flashier skins.
Everyone can grab a copy of XBMC for their respective operating system here. For additional guidance you’ll want to check out our guides to installing XBMC on a USB drive, on a Mac, or if you have any troubles with the straight forward Windows install check out the XBMC for Windows wiki.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling ambitious — and have a little extra cash to spend on this project — you’ll definitely want to check out our guide to building a building a silent and standalone XBMC media centre on the cheap. It really is dead silent, tiny, an excellent upgrade path from the classic Xbox architecture. Imagine squishing your classic Xbox down to the size of a paperback book — see the picture above — and upgrading the video output to 1080 and you’ve got the awesome nettop-based XBMC build we put together.
Even if you don’t opt to buy a new nettop for the project, using the XBMC LiveCD to install XBMC on an older machine is a great way to turn an otherwise lacking machine into a great, dedicated HTPC for media playback. I’ve installed XBMC from the LiveCD onto many an older box that wouldn’t have done very well with Windows + XBMC for Windows but does HD playback easily with the lightweight version of Ubuntu that installs with XBMC from the LiveCD.
Setup Your Remote
Some people will have it easier than others when it comes to configuring their remotes. The classic Xbox works with the Microsoft DVD playback kit right out of the box. If you’re running XBMC on Linux (like our silent standalone build, you can use Windows Media Center remotes just fine — but good luck using that Windows Media Center remote on a Windows machine running XBMC without a big hassle (go figure!). Mac users can read about configuring the Apple remote in our guide here or jump directly to the XBMC for Mac wiki.
Be forewarned that in some situations, especially on Windows, configuring IR remotes to work with XBMC can be a chore. On Windows, I’ve used both LIRC for Windows and EventGhost with success. You can read up on LIRC with our guide here or see an example of using EventGhost with XBMC here. Speaking from experience here, once you get your remote configured just the way you want make sure — extra, extra sure! — to back up your remote configuration file from your respective application. It’s a pain to set up remote configuration files but if you back it up you’ll only be doing it once.
Configuring the basic remote is a great start and many people won’t need to venture beyond the basics, but this would hardly be a comprehensive guide if we didn’t cover some of the other neat ways you can interact with your XBMC. After recently upgrading to an Android-based phone, I started experimenting with this Android remote control for XBMC — seen in the screenshot above — which essentially turns my phone into a wireless touchscreen remote that can access any of my XBMCs and browse their music and movie collections. If you have an Android, iPhone or Windows Mobile phone you’ll want to check out the remote applications available for them. I can’t say enough good things about Android remote control for XBMC. It even supports multiple XBMCs so I can swap music in one part of the house while queuing up a movie in another — amazing!
Even if you don’t have a phone, you can still enhance your XBMC experience with computer-based remotes. XBMC has a built-in web server with a remote tool and a variety of small applications like XBMC Control — seen in the screenshot above — make it easy to control your music or video playback from your netbook, laptop or desktop — quite handy for changing the music playing through the living room stereo from your office. Check out our full guide to enhancing your XBMC experience with remote controls for any device for more information.
Make It Pretty
With each new generation of XBMC, the default skin becomes more beautiful. Even with a great default, there are tons of stunning skins that make exploring alternatives to the default quite worthwhile. We highlighted five awesome ones here, and you can browse even more at the official XBMC site — the video above is of Aeon, one of the more ambitious skins around.
Aside from actually enjoying your media, showcasing it with a beautiful, easy-to-navigate skin is probably the best part of XBMC. Without fail every visitor who sees my setup asks me how much I paid for it and has trouble believing that something as polished and awesome as XBMC is available for free. There simply isn’t a commercial media player that comes close to the “The future is now!” vibe of XBMC. I won’t point fingers, but having played around with many of the commercial media devices on the market most of them have interfaces that look like they hail from last century. Read up on skinning your XBMC install here.
If you want to keep on top of the latest skin developments and really see how far designers are pushing XBMC, you’ll want to keep an eye on the skinning forum at XBMC.org. You’ll find sub-forums there for popular skinning projects like Aeon, Confluence and more. I’ve logged quite a bit of time over the years reading posts on the XBMC forums, it’s a great place to get very specific help on nearly everything related to XBMC from install issues to little tweaks for your favourite skins.
Massage Your Media for Maximum Wow Factor
If showing off a glossy new skin catches peoples attention, you won’t believe how impressed they are that you can do things like display all movies with a certain actress in them, browse by director or at a glance look over the media information and see immediately if a movie is in HD, what kind of audio channel it uses and see a summary of the movie or view a trailer.
Earlier this year we put together an extensive guide to getting your media collection in shape for XBMC. While the XBMC media scrapers do an admirable job on there own, there’s no substitute for storing information about your media collection with the actual media collection instead of in the XBMC database.
Things run faster, restoration after a hard drive crash or an XBMC reinstallation takes minutes — instead of hours, hours and more hours of rescraping your collection — and you get fine-tuned control over your media. If you’ve ever had to leave your XBMC running for a 12-hour marathon of movie and music scraping or you’ve been annoyed at frequent mistakes from scrapers, you should take the time to clean up your media and start storing the media info with the media itself and not within the XBMC database. It’s not as intimidating or as time consuming as it sounds, but you’ll definitely want to make a weekend project of it if you’ve got a huge collection. Just be prepared to continually explain to guests that you didn’t pay anything for the awesomeness they are experiencing.
Automate TV Show Downloads
If you use your XBMC to watch downloaded and ripped television shows, you really need a system in place to automate the process before you get buried under unwatched and weirdly named episodes. Check out this guide to fully automating the flow of television shows from the tubes to your XBMC server to learn how to take television shows from torrents to neatly named and filed away without any interaction on your part.
If you’ve never wrestled with cataloguing lots of television shows before, we can’t emphasise enough how much time an automated system like this will save you. XBMC isn’t a TiVo but with an automatic workflow like the one outlined here, it might as well be.
Fun and Games
We all have projects we’ve been intending to get around to doing but find time for. Ever since I switched from using the classic Xbox to using a PC running XBMC, I missed the games. My old Xbox was set up with emulators and I had my old Xbox games on it too. When I moved to a new machine I never go around to setting up the game section of XBMC until Whitson wrote up an awesome tutorial on how to turn XBMC into a video game console.
Check out the tutorial to see how to use XBMC to catalogue your computer games, emulators and how to play them all with an Xbox 360 controller. Thanks to the guide, the only thing I missed from my classic Xbox is back in my media centre menu. You don’t need games on a media centre, of course, but we’re building the ultimate media centre. The real measure of the ultimate media centre is if it will stream the Super Mario Bros movie, showcase the Super Mario Bros Super Show! and let you play Super Mario Bros 3.
Not to engage in some “Back when I was a lad…” nostalgia but I would have killed for a guide like this when I first started with XBMC. Back in the early days of XBMC, if you had a question about how something worked you hit up Google, the XBMC forums, and dug until you found some answers. Every new thing involved crazy tweaks, tinkering, swearing and more digging in the forums for answers. Thankfully XBMC has evolved and now somebody with no prior experience can take a guide like this, work their way from the top of the list to the bottom, and be rewarded with a jaw dropping media centre when they’re done. Speaking of lists if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed at all the stuff that goes into tweaking XBMC into an ultimate media centre, check out the list below and schedule each step onto your calendar:
- Download and install XBMC (also check out our silent nettop build)
- Setup Your Remote.
- Slap on some new skins!
- Clean up your media.
- Automate TV show downloading and sorting.
- Install emulators and link to your installed games.
- Invite your friends over to check out your awesome handiwork!
Have a favourite XBMC tweak or tip? Stuck trying to figure out how to do something with XBMC? Sound off in the comments to share your tweaks or get some help.