Play media files, look at the weather, watch online videos and more, in a stunning visual interface…

Today, we’re going to talk about something that has almost nothing to do with Industrial Computers. This is for all the Home Theater Nerds out there, with a library of DVDs. So, from one electronic techie to another, I’m going to tell you about a free media player manager tool I discovered, that will make your “Geek-O-Meter” really light up!

We all have DVDs, and we’ve all experienced being forced to play previews, FBI warnings, and other garbage before being allowed to view the movie we’ve purchased. To me, few things are more irritating when watching a movie at home, than to have all the buttons on the remote are disabled so they can force feed me a preview for “The Ya Ya Notebook of the Traveling Pants”. I finally became so frustrated that I “ripped” a lot of my personal media library into electronic files, but found that I then needed a way to watch them on my TV rather than only on my computer.

There are dozens of ways to view digital media on your home TV, but the most interesting and impressive tool I’ve found is called XBMC. It stands for “Xbox Media Player”, (a name left over from it’s origins as an installable media player for the Microsoft Xbox). In fact, the software package no longer even runs on Xbox, but there are versions available for a wide variety of operating systems including: Windows, Apple OSX, Linux, and Apple TV. There is even a “Linux Live” version that will automatically wipe your host machine, installing Linux and XBMC, effectively turning the computer into a dedicated media center *appliance* all in one simple step. (This way you don’t have to pay for a Windows license, nor do you even have to know Linux.)

So what does XBMC do? It’s a complete multi-media xbmc logovisual interface with a full plug-in and skinning system that offers a huge array of media capabilities. It can be a powerful movie player to play your stored library of DVDs (WiFi or Ethernet streaming over your local network, or files stored directly XBMC PC), it can show current weather conditions, store and show your photo library, and act as a music player. It does all this in a graphically stunning, beautiful interface that you can’t help but be “wowed” by. Additionally, by using the plug-in system that is built into the interface, with a few button clicks you can automatically browse and instantly install plug-ins to add additional capabilities such as new skins, NetFlix, Youtube, and more. It even has a built in “scraper” tool, that will scan your media library, and automatically add cover art, descriptions, and poster art to your movie files.

Most of us even have left over older computers, which can be repurposed as a media player PC for almost no cost. Depending on your system configuration, you may need to add an inexpensive video card with an HDMI output (I purchased one over the holidays that was free after $30 rebate). An ultra-low cost fanless video card in the $20-$40 range will generally be more than sufficient as a media PC. Generally, if your left over PC is a Pentium 4 or better, it will have the horsepower needed to do the job. The only additional thing(s) you may want to purchase, might be a USB IR remote control ($8-$20 from Amazon), and possibly a wireless keyboard with a built in mouse trackpad if you want to be able to type in movie search terms more quickly than using an on-screen keyboard. The keyboard/mouse is NOT required in day to day use, as XBMC is specifically designed to be fully operated from a standard windows media center IR remote control.

So that’s the good, what’s the bad? Well, if you don’t have a remote, be prepared for a small learning curve figuring out how to navigate the menus using the keyboard vs. a remote control (I suggest downloading the keyboard map to tell you what the keyboard keys do). New skins, can completely change the user interface, not just the colors and pictures, so you may need to learn a new navigation methodology for whatever skin you’re evaluating. You can play regular DVDs in the interface from your computer DVD drive, but the real magic is playing stored digital video media. (XBMC will handle almost any standard video file or format) The catch is, for the movie info scraper to work best, all those movie files should be named with the movie name, (using under_scores for spaces) followed by the year of release (in parenthesis). Example: The_Fifth_Element_(1997) If you don’t do this, you will find some really goofy names and descriptions being associated with your video files. And while you canscreenshot 1
be up and running, watching a movie in under 10 minutes, be prepared to spend at least a day (or 5… or more) playing around with it, “pushing the buttons” testing the options, finding all the menus, and reviewing the different available skins and plug-ins. I also suggest checking the option that disables XBMC from actually deleting movies, so removing a movie from the library does not delete the actual file. (I discovered this after accidently deleting several of my movies)

The versatility of how XBMC can be configured is really impressive, especially so with some skins such as “Aeon MQ 2”. For example, on my system I screenshot 2don’t bother sharing my music library or photo library, so I’ve disabled those options in the menus (why show them if I don’t have them working?). There are numerous ways to display your media library, particularly in different skins. My favorite display method is set up so the cover art from my movies scroll by and the background artwork changes to match the movie that is in front. When you look at one movie’s cover art for a few seconds, the description and info automatically animate down on screen allowing you to read about it, optionally view the movie’s theatrical trailer from Youtube, etc. (see right)

Once you’re done configuring the display and menus to your liking, you can then hide the extra menu options so the rest of the family can’t accidently mess it up, or become confused by the huge array of available configuration options. And again, all this can easily done from a standard remote control, no coding, scripting, or mouse / keyboards needed. (in fact, a few skins don’t even support mouse control at all)

For the truly geeky among us, you can even configure some skins with a “Theater Experience” plugin to play movie previews (of your choice) before the movie, along with additional files such as sound system intro/sound animations (THX, DTS, etc.) just like in a real theater. Have an iphone, android phone, or ipad? You can control the XBMC player from those devices, browse the menus and launch new movies, without first interrupting what’s currently playing. XBMC even has a http web interface to interact with it from external web based devices. And again, it’s all 100% opensource and free.

I highly recommend looking at the feature rich “Aeon MQ 2”, “Aeon” “MediaStream Redux” and “BackRow” templates. Best of all, the project is alive and well, with regular active development and version releases.

It’s always amazes me to see what a collaborative software development group can come up with out of a labor of love. In fact a major new release version will be out soon that promises to be even better yet. If you want to try it out on your windows or mac machine, you can find the downloads, forums, and additional info at: www.xbmc.org. Just launch the program any time, on any machine you like, and test it out, even if you don’t plan on ending up making a dedicated media player.

All in all, once it’s setup, it’s really simple to operate, and a cool tool to “wow the neighbors” and “Impress the brother-in-law”. At the very least, it’s easily worth a few days of good quality Tech-O-Tainment and hey, isn’t that half the fun?

Enjoy!