The Five Biggest Media Centre Annoyances (And How To Fix Them)

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.


Comments

    Biggest issue I've found is with subtitles - the general consensus appears to be that you can't stream both the subtitle file, and the video file. Hence no subtitles.

    I would love to hear a solution other than downloading the files to local storage on the media player and playing from there...

      I've been using xbmc for years and years, never had an issue with this. Separate subtitle file, from blu-ray direct, interleaved, always works fine.

      separate subtitle files work fine in ps3ms too. only used it once, but it worked. just make sure the video and subtitle share the same file name, apart from the extension of course.

      Looks like the issue might be my media player too - I've got a WD Live TV, and browsing the forums it seems it's their firmware...

    Can you Jailbreak the AppleTV3?
    I thought it was still yet to be done?

      Correct and Plex client development has stalled is unlikely to progress again unless that changes.
      ATV2 is still your only bet there and there is a finite supply of those.

    No mention of the Raspberry Pi in the "too expensive" section? Definitely cheaper than an Apple TV.

      We have a laptop that is really only used when we go on holidays. So at home, we have it set up as our HTPC with XBMC - Dual purpose!

      I built a HTPC for $55 including the case. Also, it can output at 1080p, which I don't think the AppleTV2 can (AppleTV3 hasn't been cracked yet).

      I have one.

      And I love it to bits.

      Not sure if I'd call it cheaper.

      If you have enough pieces spare lying around it is.

      For the equivalent Apple TV you need to buy a power supply (I had one on hand) SD card, hdmi cable, a decent mini USB (I bought a cheap one and found not all are created equal) a wifi dongle (not all are compatible) and if you want an IR receiver as well you'll need a powered USB. And if you want to run it off a USB drive you'll need to buy one of those as well. And a case (or make one out of Lego like I did)

      It's amazing. But it's a hobby machine.

      (Plus the appletv3 can't be jailbroken yet and the atv2 goes for $$$ because of it.

    PS3 media centre is really out of date now isn't it? Serviio however is fantastic. I've found it to be the best low resource replacement for PS3 media server, I'm yet to find a single video it wont play and it pulls down metadata for all my media meaning I have cover-art, programs are automatically shown in the correct heading and series, and I can even browse my movie collection by genre, actor, director or producer.

    I've gone for Raspbmc (ie XBMC) running on a Raspberry Pi and it's just about perfect. I power the Raspberry Pi off the usb port on the television so it switches on and off with the TV - very neat.

    For control I recently bought a FLIRC - IR receiver that lets you use any remote and interpret key presses as keyboard input - I use the tv remote navigation and play/pause/stop buttons (which don't work when viewing though HDMI).

    For a total outlay of about $60 I've got something that plays everything, is easy to use and hides behind the TV - maximum spousal approval.

    I have to HTPCs, one for the lounge which is my main system that runs 24/7 and a smaller one for my bedroom which just connects to the main system and streams everything from there. I have mucked around with XBMC but just find it easier to use Windows 7 with a Logitech k400 (touchpad and keyboard in one). Works great and once you set up a few tweaks with windows 7 because easy to read everything from the couch/bed and can also game with an xbox controller on the lounge PC with better than console graphics yet the kicking back on the big screen appeal of a console.

    just a thought, and I might get slammed for this, but a mac mini would make a pretty sweet HTPC for $700. Nice and quite and don't take up much space.

      Mac mini is used for that by some of my friends - isn't such an "out there" idea.

      Last edited 25/10/12 1:01 pm

        not so much that's it's "out there" but generally recommending any apple product here receives outrage.

        Last edited 25/10/12 2:07 pm

      You're fifty percent right.

      You don't need a new mini. Buy last generations. It'll do it fine.

    I use the 'reference system' of VLC player + codec. Everything plays.

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