Running an HTPC has never been easier with the sheer amount of remote control devices that have recently appeared on the market, from the afore-reviewed Candyboard MiniWing, to Android devices remotes like gMote and others, and now it’s never looked as good with XBMC.
Actually no, that was slightly misleading because the HBMC interface has existed since 2003. It’s obviously evolved eversince and now offers amazing integration and apart from just a few plug-ins missing or unpractical, it’s quite perfect in every way except ease of customization.
Sure, you could have an HTPC with only Windows 7, Chrome and VLC Media player installed and get away with it but why would you not expand or enhance VLC with something better, something easier to navigate, something your spouse can sit down in front of and use like if it were a rotary dial microwave oven or a blender?
What is it?
It’s an interface to access your locally (or LAN based) media.
What does it require to work?
Versions are available for Linux, OSX and Windows, I’ve tested it on Windows 7.
How is the video quality?
That will largely depend on your graphics adapter but even an older video card like an nVidia 470GTX works fine and provides Bluray quality video. The interface itself is gorgeous though it can sometimes be slightly confusing.
And the sound?
That will largely depend on your audio adapter, I don’t usually recommend anyone actually use the audio chipset embedded in normal motherboards as I prefer dedicated add-in cards like a Creative Labs or Xonar. I’ve tested it with a Xonar DX using the optical SPDIF interface to a Technics home theater amplifier and it’s as good as any Bluray player.
Is it hard to setup?
Well, it’s not exactly easy. For one thing getting some of the plug-ins to work properly is not very intuitive, on the other hand once it’s setup properly it can be very rewarding.
Can it be used to stream online media? (Netflix, Crackle, Hulu, YouTube)
At this point in time there’s no actual Netflix player in XBMC, consider that Netflix use quite possibly the worst available standard to stream their video. Having said that, why would you want to use Netflix or Crackle or anything online with XBMC when you have the magic of Google Chrome within a few clicks?
How does it know what poster and information to display for each movie?
It uses several plug-ins like an IMDB plug-in to aquire this information, this is hit and miss but most files come out properly unless they’re very badly named.
So let’s see, initial setup can be quite tricky. Let me make it blatantly obvious: You must have all your media already classified in the proper directories beforehand, that way all you have to do is point XBMC to the correct directory and using one of several movie/TV show database plug-ins, have it parse all your files and download the plot synopsis, rating, poster or fan art, even watch a preview of whatever you have stored on your hard drive. Once setup properly this is amazing. The trouble happens when you don’t name your file properly.
For example, I purchased a BluRay of the latest Resident Evil movie, using several programs on another, much larger computer that my mom likes to call NASA’s mission control computer but that is clearly overpowered to simply control a rocketship probe in space, I’ve ripped it to an MKV file. Sadly though the filename is VIDEO001.MKV and naturally the program doesn’t recongnise it as Resident Evil.
So, you have to go through all your collection of MKV files because face it, nobody likes to bother taking a BluRay out of its package every time, then placing it back, it’s all too fussy, especially when you can rip it to a huge MKV file and store it among terabytes of your other movies and TV series.
That’s the main reason for which Blockbuster went out of business, and that services like Netflix are thriving. We don’t want your bloody awful boxes and frankly I could’nt give a flying hockey puck about the limited edition metallic box with a serial number in the millions (so much for limited edition) and how this box is slightly less pink than the previous non-pink one.
So now you’ve renamed your entire collection of videos, and it’s now time to go through all your MP3s or FLACs because that’s where your hundreds of CDs have wound up on: an external hard drive. And you rename them properly, classify them according to genre. No Depeche Mode is in no way Electronic Jazz and Skinny Puppy is definitely not Techno, regardless of what HMV says.
That’s the main issue with XBMC, the sheer amount of dedication you must have for it to work properly. Sure once all the plug-ins are setup properly they’ll happily scan your entire collection and you’ll wind up with something that looks like the screenshots within this review.
Sadly though, if you don’t really care for proper file names and directory trees well, you might as well continue using VLC but believe me, putting that extra effort in will be well worth it because the first time your mother comes over, she’ll be able to watch a movie on your HTPC by using a palm sized wireless remote control from the couch, in front of your 80″ LED television and without calling some Indian chap named Dr.Suresh.
Oh, and what’s interesting is the XBMC remote control app for Android and iOS, if you’re willing to give it a shot it can be incredibly intuitive and cool, showing you some of the info about the movie you’re about to watch, on your smartphone.
Scores 8/10 losing points for being perhaps TOO customisable and thereby less than obvious to configure.