The best thing about owning a media centre is that you're in control and can watch whatever you want at a time that suits you. Unfortunately, you also end up with the hassle of troubleshooting your system when plug-ins break, files won't play, and nothing seems to work properly. Here's how to take an home theatre PC (HTPC) that's driving you crazy and whip it back into shape so you can enjoy the show.
I love my HTPC, but it has quirks. For a long time, XBMC wouldn't download art, plot data or cast information. The interface can be challenging for people used to simpler electronic program guides (EPGs). Using a keyboard and mouse on the couch sucks sometimes. But you don't have to settle for a second-rate experience. In this post we'll show you how to make your HTPC work just the way you want it to.
My HTPC Won't Play Some Of My Files
Nothing's worse than sitting down to watch a new episode of your favourite show only to find out that the file is in a format your chosen media centre can't play. You have two basic options to fix this:
- Use a media centre application that transcodes video on the fly. A few apps, most notably Plex, Subsonic and PS3 Media Server, can do this seamlessly. Transcoding ensures you can watch any type of media on any device you happen to be using, including smartphones and tablets. You can transcode either on the source machine if the files are stored on a home server or other computer, or on your HTPC itself. Pick whichever computer has a faster processor to do the decoding.
- Convert all of your media to a single file format that's compatible with everything. This method requires a bit more work up front, but has the potential for less problems once you're actually trying to watch your videos. Basically, you need to go through your entire library and convert all of your media to a common format. You can then set up a system that converts it as soon as you download or rip it, so you don't have to do the extra legwork yourself. If you use uTorrent, we've shown you how to easily add video conversion into your download process. Alternatively, you can use previously mentioned DropFolders with Handbrake, which will watch a download folder and convert whatever comes through it automatically, without you lifting a finger.
Whichever route you choose, the end result should be the same — all of your media should play seamlessly in your preferred viewing software. The transcoding method tends to lock you into a specific app, but if you're OK with that, and you know that app is available for all of your devices and set-top boxes, it requires less immediate effort and keeps your files in their original format. Converting your music and movies takes a lot more work up front, but ensures you have a consistent library and gives you a wider choice of players.
My HTPC Isn't Organising My Media Properly
This is the issue that actually inspired this post. For months, my movies and TV shows were playable in XBMC, but it wouldn't download posters, DVD cover art or background information for any of my files. The fix turned out to be simple: my filenames and directory structure made sense to me, but they made no sense at all to XBMC. We've talked about how to organise your media for XBMC before, and while normally the process is automatic, it didn't work for me. In my case, adding a whole drive with a bunch of unsorted folders and mixed media just caused XBMC to give up. Solving the problem required spending some time reorganising those files.
The main change I had to make was to use a supported naming convention for my TV shows and movies so XBMC (or Plex, or anything else) could recognise what they were. Sorting movies and TV shows into separate folders helped a lot as well. If you have a lot of files to rename (like I did,) grab an app such as Bulk Rename Utility, The Renamer (Windows) or NameChanger (OS X) to speed up the process.
HTPCs Are Too Expensive
Building an HTPC doesn't have to be an expensive proposition. We've shown you how to build a well-featured system for less than $700 and a more basic build using a netbook, but you can spend even less than that if you wish.
Your cheapest option is arguably to grab a $109 Apple TV. It's a great set-top box to begin with, but you can take it up a notch by jailbreaking it and installing XBMC or Plex. XBMC will let you play any video type, stream from other computers, and other functions that the Apple TV won't perform on its own.
I'm Not Sure Where To Store My Movies
You've heard us talk about streaming from a home server or network attached storage (NAS), from another computer, and even from smartphones, but where should you actually store your media? The best choice depends on how you plan to watch them. Here are a few scenarios:
- Store and watch movies on your HTPC. This is obviously the easiest method: if you have a big enough hard drive in your HTPC, you can just keep the movies there. However, if you require more than one hard drive, need to transcode videos, or want your HTPC to download in the background, you'll need a fairly powerful HTPC to ensure your viewing experience isn't interrupted. It's potentially a cheaper option, but it's also a single point of failure, and it needs to be on all the time. (If you use a jailbroken Apple TV or other streaming-only device, this isn't an option because it doesn't have internal storage.)
- Store and transcode movies on your main PC, watch them on your HTPC. If you need a place to store, transcode and download media, you can always do this from your main computer. Andy decent desktop or laptop can handle converting files and automatically downloading movies and TV shows as soon as they air, then you can stream them to your HTPC for watching. It's a power-hungry setup, and your desktop PC will have to be turned on pretty much all the time, but it's an option that doesn't require another computer.
- Store movies on a NAS, watch them on your HTPC. This is our favoured strategy, chiefly because your NAS, whether you buy one or roll your own, is designed for low power consumption — an important consideration for an always-on device. A NAS also gives you multiple hard drives for massive storage, RAID for redundancy, and enough power to do all that renaming, transcoding and even downloading for you. Photo by Craig Morey.
The Interface Feels Unnatural
We've tackled this topic before. The standard interface may seem confusing, but it's not difficult to configure your HTPC so anyone can flop down on your couch and use it. The first step is to set up a remote for your HTPC to put people at ease — you may be comfortable with just a keyboard and mouse, but many people aren't, so keep it stashed away unless you need it. You can also grab your tablet or an old smartphone and use these iOS or Android apps to control your HTPC from anywhere in the house.
Changing the interface to your HTPC is the other step. You can tweak some settings in XBMC to make it more friendly to non-geeks right out of the box, and a new skin can also be helpful. If XBMC is too much trouble, give the more friendly Plex a shot, or try XBMC plugins such as PseudoTV, which make the interface more like a traditional channel guide — full of virtual "channels" loaded with TV shows and movies that you've downloaded.