XBMC: a slick interface makes your computer a media hub

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XBMC, renamed to its abbreviation from its XBox Media Center roots, has a niche use case but if it’s what you’re looking for, it performs impressively. XBMC provides an interface that is more intuitive and more polished that ties the media collection on your PC together in order to be everything you need in a home theater package.

XBMC is available for Mac OS X/OS X PPC, Linux, Windows, Apple TV, and as a Live CD or bootable jump drive. The installer for Windows is a mere 38 MB download.

After telling XBMC where your music, picture, and video collections are stored, you can browse your library through the interface. It works great for a PC with a remote control as it provides on-screen keyboards for a lot of the field entries. It also allows you shut down or put the PC to sleep upon exit, which could go very well on a home theater computer (HTPC). The interface is just smooth and impressive. While checking out XBMC, I also gave Boxee a try on my PC but found its interface to be clunky and frustrating, which might explain why I hold the XBMC interface in such high regards. For completeness, the weather and a clock is provided on the navigation screens.

The organization of the media files in your library will mirror the folder structure (or lack thereof) that you use in Windows Explorer. This could be the motivation necessary to organize your files. The media files can reside locally or across the network stored elsewhere. You can also get additional information about your TV shows and movies by using scrapers with IMDB and theTVDB.

XBMC can be run full screen or windowed, though it’s most impressive full screen where it looks like a media-centric operating system. You can also enable a web server through XBMC to allow for a password-protected (optional) web interface for remote control.

Though a number of controls that I like in VLC are missing in XBMC, its video player is sufficient and keeps the theme consistent. Speaking of the theme, you can use different skins for XBMC to your preference.

In addition to customizing XBMC with skins, you can also add plugins for tons of new features. Being able to stream YouTube, Academic Earth, GameTrailers, Apple movie trailers, hook into your MythTV setup, list your MAME ROMs, or launch applications is just a small sample of what the plugins can do for you. One plugin that’s getting a bit of publicity latetly is called PseudoTV. It takes your video collection and queues them into different channels of your configuring so you can just flip channels like a TV if you’re not looking for anything particular.

It also comes with a program guide so you can see what shows are coming up or are on other channels.

I’m very impressed with XBMC. It’s been around for a while and it’s growing a lot. It’s not really a necessity because I could just navigate to my media and play them with their different players but XBMC unifies it all into one package. Throw in the increased functionality with plugins and video programs and XBMC is an excellent one-stop shop for all my media with a nice interface, just as a media center should be. Plus, if I ever get around to building an HTPC, certainly XBMC will be on it.

Version Tested: 10.1

Compatibility: Windows, Mac OS X/OS X PPC, Linux, Apple TV, and as a Live CD or bootable jump drive.

Go to the program download page to download the latest version (approx 38 megs for the Windows version).