Set Up A Killer Media Centre This Weekend

So you've set up an awesome home theatre, but you're still using outdated DVDs and Blu-ray discs. If you're tired of hearing all the talk about PC-based media centres, take some time this weekend and set one up for yourself — you won't be disappointed with the results.

Choose Your Hardware

Whether you build a new computer from scratch, buy a cheap nettop or customise a jailbroken Apple TV, it's easy to see why a DIY HTPC won most popular set-top box in our Hive Five — heck, even two of our writers said they'd rather spend money on an HTPC than a new iPad. We've run down the pros and cons of each set up before, so check out out Ask Lifehacker on the subject for more information.

Once you've got the basic hardware down, you have a few add-ons you can build in to beef it up even more. If you want live TV on your media centre, you can get an internal or external TV tuner that will work with your cable or antenna. You can also get a remote that works out of the box with your media centre software of choice (see below), or get any remote you want and use something like LIRC to link the two together. Your iPhone or Android device makes a handy remote, too.

Choose Your Software

As you're perusing your hardware options, it's a good idea to keep in mind what software you'll use as well. We're pretty partial to XBMC around here: it has a huge community, tons of great add-ons that expand its functionality, and you can customise it to the nines. Plus it's open source, which means there are a lot of neat variations out there, like OpenELEC, that offer other features.

Of course, you could also try something like Plex, which has great streaming features, or Windows Media Center, which is especially easy to use for non-geeks. Most of this software is free, too, so you can try a few things out before you settle down on one.

Gather Up Your Media

Next, it's time to decide how you'll get your media (and where you'll store it). Obviously, you can rip those DVDs and Blu-ray discs yourself, which gives you complete control over the process — but takes a long time. Alternatively, you can set your computer to automatically download new TV shows as soon as they've aired, essentially turning it into an internet DVR. Couple this with a self-built NAS and you've got a nice streaming setup going.

Alternatively, you could stream those videos over UPnP from any computer in the house, or, if you want to get really traditional on is, just stick a really big hard drive in your HTPC and store your videos there instead.

Up The Wow Factor With Awesome Extras

Okay, so now you have a box that looks awesome and plays all your digital movies. But if you really want to go the distance, we've covered a few ways to really power up your HTPC. If you want to enable Blu-ray playback for those discs you haven't ripped, you can do so with a simple XBMC add-on. You can also turn your media centre into a video game console so you have all your media in one place. And, if you have more than one HTPC in the house, you can synchronise them all together so you can pause a movie in one room and resume it from that same spot in another.

Lastly, don't forget to add streaming capabilities to everything so you can get your media anywhere you want, and make everything wireless for a truly clean setup.

We've talked a lot about DIY media centres over the years, and while it can feel like we've exhausted the topic, we know there's so much more out there you can do. If you've built a media centre for yourself and have any tips we didn't mention, be sure to share them in the comments below.


Comments

    How about MediaPortal??

      It's been my experience that MediaPortal is a pain in the ass to set up properly and is overly complicated for the novice. XBMC, by far, is the quickest, simplest way to get your HTPC up and running.

        True it may be a pain in the ass to set up for a novice, but once setup it is far superior IMO than any other media software. Install SteamedMP, Moving Pictures & MPTVSERIES to finish off the setup

          Cant agree more, MediaPortal has been by far the best media centre software I've ever used. It isn't all that hard to configure either, I found it easier then using XBMC, but that might just be me.

    Apple TV2 with plex client. $100. cant go wrong.... if you already have storage elsewhere with heaps of movies and a cable tv PVR it's a no-brainer. Why make things complicated with another computer in the house.

      @cal

      Apple TV 2 with aTV Flash (http://firecore.com/atvflash) works better than Plex or XBMC in my opinion. Connects straight up to your file shares (does AFP and SMB), handles the most widely used video formats and the interface integrates with iOS to looks like it's part of the standard OS. My 2cents anyway :)

    Any thoughts on using a Raspberry Pi as your htpc platform? true'd either have to attach a powered usb hub to it and attach drives that way if you want, but stick a network cable into it or a wifi dongle and you're away laughing...

      There's no way Raspberry Pi would be powerful enough to do HTPC work.

        Rasberry Pi can easilly run xbmc and decode any of those pesky h264/1080p videos.

        Not true at all. In fact, they've already demonstrated XBMC running smoothly on it. When Eden (the next release of XBMC) reaches final release, we should see a RaspPi version as well.

        why not ?
        It can run xbmc and can play back 1080p videos

    Is XBMC capable of real time transcode? e.g. RMVB/MKV that aren't supported natively on the target device?

      No. XBMC doesn't offer transcoding at all.

    Boxee. Does everything in a single device with nearly zero setup. Simple.

      Boxee on a PC may be okay, but I would never suggest a Boxee Box. I had one and it worked great, then they updated the firmware and my SMB shares stopped working so I had to use their transcode software which also doesn't work properly and no longer sorts all my files. Then they released another firmware update and now it turns on and I get the Boxee loading screen and then it changes to say that their is no signal. So after almost of year of firmware updates breaking more and more features I can't even turn the thing on anymore.

      And it isn't just me, check out their forums with loads of people with the same problems and they do absolutely nothing about it. I complained to D-Link who told me that even though they put their name on the product they have nothing to do with it.

        I have had a Boxee box since day one, it hasn't skipped a beat. If you would prefer an out-of-the-box solution instead of creating your own HTPC (which of course has it's own benefits) it's a great option

        I understand it isn't working for everyone but for me I haven't had any issues (once my media shares were added, I was rubbish at that part) and the added value brought on by consistent software updates makes it a very well supported device.

        I'm running a PC with windows 7, Boxee box connects via a slow wi-fi connection, apparently wiring it up is better (faster) if you have the option.

    So most of the media centre packages out there will play back videos download in most format you can throw at them. How about TV? How does each of the packages mentioned handle TV? For example, I'd like my HTPC to be able to record TV (I've got a couple of tuner cards), it would also be good for the HTPC to make those recorded files available for streaming to other devices on the network (PC, XBo 360 and PS3). What packages can do that?

      XBMC is still early in PVR development. The next release after Eden should see PVR added into the main branch from what I've heard.

      Boxee when combined with the Live TV dongle will do that for you but since 1.5, it's all tied to the Boxee Box. They've dropped PC support completely.

      WMC is probably the king when it comes to easiest to use, out of box, PVR experience.

        mediaPortal handels TV and scheduled recording as you said you are after.

    I've been using Mezzmo for the last year or so and it has been fantastic. Have yet to come across a file it can't play... Anything the tv doesn't support it will transcode on the fly without you even knowing it. Best $30 I've spent.

    WDTV Live.
    Ive been using it for a few years now. A couple of months ago I bought the new model and its spectacular!
    Plays pretty much any file format, 1080p, a shit load of apps (youtube, shoutcast, facebook, pandora, etc etc) and only $130.
    Shits all over Apple TV!

    HTPC is long dead. Just get a Popcorn Hour.

    If you want tv recording, many will say media portal- because it does media and pvr. Personally I think media center does tv better and xbmc does media better.
    Suggestion: put media center on startup, and add xbmc to the media center menu using Media center studio. Very neat, very "wife-friendly"

    Windows 7 Media Centre with :
    Media Browser / Addition for Media Centre for your browsing your movie / TV collections / music & games collections. Simply adds an extra menu to Windows Media Centre.
    Media Centre Master / Picks up meta data, backgrounds and covers for TV shows and movies in your collection.
    Media Centre Studio / Allows you to modify the themes & menus in Media Centre.
    Macro Tube / Adds a menu in Windows Media Centre for Youtube, Daily Motion and a bunch of others. Search and view Youtube with your remote from your loungeroom couch.
    Stark Covers / Adds overlays to all your movie / tv covers in your collection.
    MCE Buddy / Automatically remove commercials and encode your recorded tv to another format to reduce the file size... No manual input needed.

    By a Windows media centre remote from ebay and you no longer need a seperate TV.

      o0o what naming format do you use in mcebuddy?

    I use XBMC to handle all my media from my NAS. I get my TV shows from sickbeard + SabNZB (Newsnet service). This Setup is perfect. As both Sickbeard and SabNZB where designed to work together and with XBMC. Sickbeard Searches for the TV's which have aired. Tell SabNZB where to find them. SabNZB, gets the files for me, then sents them back to Sickbeard to be reaname in my naming convention and place in thier correct location on my NAS (i.e. from Completed to TV Shows \Show Name\Session\Epp NameSSEE). Sickbeard will then tell XMBC to update it shows.
    This system can now be managed from any computer in the home network, and with Port Forwarding when be manage from anywhere around the world, and now from my Android phone using MediaDog, Hence making my Android TAb a very powerful addition to my HOme Media set up

    I use Plex coupled with sickbeard + SabNZB. I have it running on one mac and have three Tvs around our house connected and sharing it ( One TV is an LG and the other is a Samsung and both can download and run a version of PLEX. Its just about the best system as I can pause a movie and go to bed and start it at the exact postion I was up to.

    PS3 media server on PC + Ps3 connected to TV

    Easy as.

    That case in the photo looks good. link?

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