Choosing Your HTPC Software

Posted on May 12, 2011


There are so many different kinds of software that are available to use for an HTPC that it is easy to become confused and discouraged. Knowing about the advantages and disadvantages of each helps lessen the headache. Let’s discuss a few that are widely used in the HTPC world.

XBMC (Free)
Platforms – Windows, Linux, Mac OS, XBOX

XBMC (or XBOX Media Center) was first developed as a media center for the original XBOX. It has since evolved into a full-fledged media console that will organize movies, TV shows, music and more. It is available on Windows, Linux, and Apple products (including the iPad and Apple TV).

This is my program of choice for my HTPC. What I love about XBMC is how simple it is to organize your media. Media scrapers, as they are called, “scrape” your media and download corresponding posters and fanart so that your media layout is aesthetically pleasing. Not only that, but it will download information regarding runtime, rating, and actors. In addition, there are several different skins you can use that will completely alter the look of your media center but will retain all the movie information.

XBMC is not just about looks, though. With support for almost any type of video file, XBMC will be able to serve most of your video watching needs. There are also video add-ons, or plugins, that allow you to stream almost anything from news to full episodes from MTV shows. There is even a plugin that will allow you to stream Netflix!

There is much more to discuss when it comes to XBMC, but we will leave that for further discussions.

Windows Media Center (Free with Windows 7)
Platform – Windows

Windows 7 is great because it comes with Windows Media Center already installed. WMC is another great program for using as your main HTPC software. The main drawback for me is that WMC does not have native support for MKV video files, which is what I use most. With a little work, you can get WMC to play MKV files with WMC, but XBMC will play MKVs right off the bat. It is also a little more difficult to customize, but it is definitely possible to set up a media center with beautiful movie posters and fanart as well. There are some great sites that can walk you through the setup.

The main advantage of WMC over XBMC is TV tuner card support. This feature allows you to turn your HTPC into a DVR as well. You will need a tuner card to take advantage of this, but for some this is what keeps them from using XBMC. Just hook up your coax cable with the TV signal to the tuner card, and WMC will detect it and display the TV schedule! I have yet to cough up the cash for a tuner card, so I have no interest in using WMC at the moment.

MediaPortal (Free)
Platform – Windows

Think of MediaPortal as a combination of XBMC and WMC. It “scrapes” your media library and downloads movie posters, and it also supports TV tuner cards. The drawback for me is that the setup is more involved. Since I wanted something simple to setup and had no tuner card, this wasn’t the route for me. However, if this seems to be the right fit for you, you can download it here for free.

Boxee (Free)
Platform – Windows, Mac, Linux, Apple TV, Boxee Box

Boxee is a great program for those who want to integrate their HTPCs with social networks. It is very simple to do this with Boxee. After you have just watched a movie, you can tell your Facebook friends how much you liked (or hated) it, or you can tweet about a funny TV episode you just watched. I love social networks, but not enough to use Boxee as my main HTPC front end software.

Other Software

There are many other programs that are similar to the ones mentioned above. These include MythTV, Plex, MeediOS. Whichever software you choose, be patient in the learning process, as you will most likely make some mistakes at first.

Posted in: HTPC, Software, XBMC