So you've created an awesome, play-anything media centre with XBMC, but it's a too hard for your less tech-savvy friends and family members to use. Here are a few ways to make your home theatre PC so easy that your four year old could use it.
Photo remixed from Tanberin.
Get a New Skin
The default Confluence skin is pretty good-looking, and there are some even prettier ones out there if you look around. However, not all of them are exactly easy to navigate, especially for those unfamiliar with XBMC. For example, Confluence's horizontal menu is hard to see, and its Movie and TV show menus are in a cluttered submenu. Experiment with some other skins and see which ones are easier to navigate.
I personally really like "Transparency" for its easy-to-read vertical menu. You can see every menu item on the menu page (that is, you don't have to scroll to see any of them), and nothing is buried in a submenu. From the main menu, you can see the Movies, TV Shows, Play Disc, and other options. It's much easier for an XBMC newbie to navigate than something like Confluence, Aeon or Alaska, and it's still pretty darn attractive. Of course, there may be others out there, so search around and see what else you can find.
Program Your Remote for Easy Navigation
Certain remotes work out of the box with XBMC, but sometimes getting a simpler remote and programming it yourself can be more user-friendly than a PC remote with a ton of buttons. Even then, take care to program buttons in a way that makes sense -- I spent years with an unintuitive button layout because I just matched XBMC's functions to the buttons they sounded like, which wasn't ideal. Play around with your remote and see what layout makes the most sense. Watch out for the "back" and "menu" buttons, which I found the trickiest to assign to something intuitive. If you really want to see if you've done it correctly, hand it off to someone else that hasn't used XBMC and see if they can find their way around without help. If they can, you've found the ideal layout, and you should stick with it.
You might also try going with a remote designed specifically for XBMC, like one that works on iOS or Android. Not only will they have buttons assigned to specific XBMC features, but you can even browse your library right from your mobile device and get it to play on the TV. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
Lastly, if you really want an easy-to-use remote, the Apple TV remote is about as simple as it gets. It takes no setup, anyone can use it, and it comes with the cheapest XBMC box you can create. This won't matter if you've already put together a non-Apple TV box, but if you have an Apple TV, consider using it as your XBMC box for some serious ease of use.
Clean Up Your Main Menu
Head on over to Settings > Skin Settings and search for the menu-editing section. Take some time to remove all the things you don't use, like "Pictures", "Music" and "Weather". Make sure to clean up the submenus too, if your skin has them -- things like "Recently Added", "Random" and "Browse by Genre" aren't exactly confusing, but they can create a lot of clutter, which makes the menu a lot harder to navigate. Some skins will even let you remove the submenus altogether. Remove the "Videos" option and replace it with separate "Movies" and "TV Shows" menu items. And, if "Play Disc" isn't enabled, make sure you turn it on for those occasional DVDs you rent or borrow from friends.
Put Add-Ons like Blu-ray on the Main Menu
Next, put some of your most used add-ons on the main page, so you don't have to go digging through other menus to find them. This takes a few steps, but is really quite easy:
- Navigate to one of the add-ons you want on the main menu (say, XBMC Flicks -- the Netflix add-on for XBMC). Bring up the context menu and choose "Add to Favorites". This step isn't necessary for all skins, but it is necessary for many -- including Transparency.
- Head to Settings > Skin and find the option for customising the main menu (in Transparency, it's called "Menu"). You should see some "Custom" or "Favorites" slots, where you can add custom menu items. Enable these and choose the add-on you want from the favourites menu.
- Repeat this process for all the add-ons you want on the front page, Blu-ray. They should all show up on your main menu for quick, easy, pain-free access.
If you've cleaned up your main menu as we described in the previous section, you should now have a menu that's incredibly easy to navigate and has movies, TV, streaming video, Blu-ray and everything else you could ever want.
Enable Kiosk Mode
One of the most confusing parts about XBMC can be when you accidentally enter the "View" menu while scrolling through your movies or TV shows (the one that's hidden behind the right edge of the screen). Once you've got everything set up the way you want, you can turn on "kiosk mode" to lock your chosen views and get rid of this hidden menu. That way, when someone's browsing through your videos, they don't accidentally stumble on this menu or change your view mode by accident. In Transparency, you'll find kiosk mode under Settings > Skin Settings > General > Enable Kiosk mode. Check your skin's documentation for more info on whether it has kiosk mode and where to find it.
XBMC has come a long way, but it's still not the most user-friendly program on the planet. Hopefully, with these simple tweaks, you can get just about anyone using your XBMC box in no time. Got any of your own suggestions for making XBMC easier to use? Be sure to share them in the comments below.