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The Definitive Build Your Own Guide: Software

Posted on 27 November 2012 by sam

Now that you’ve got all the hardware, it’s time to actually use that PVR or HTPC you built. Some people get by using the same software they are used to on their normal computer. But you’ll soon notice that this isn’t very optimized for usage from the couch on a big screen TV. So it’s very much recommended to install custom media center and PVR software.

Looking around the Internet, you’ll soon notice that the options for HTPC and recording software are limitless and every one has their own idea what “best” means. In practice, there is no best and you’ll need to figure out what you like by trying out a few things.

Make sure you’re prepared for hard disc wipes and clean installs. Don’t put anything of lasting value on the disc that holds your applications. Use a second disc or external USB drive to store your media files for now. That will make it easy to wipe the system and try something different.

You’ll soon figure out what you want from HTPC software and after a few weeks of testing, you will be ready to do the final install of the software you choose.

Your first choice is going to be the operating system.

Operating systems

The operating system contains the core software components that will manage your machine and interface to all of your hardware (like TV capture cards). Choosing an operating system will influence the options you have as far as HTPC and PVR software is concerned. So consider both before deciding.

There really are only 3 options for builders: Windows, Mac OS X and Linux

Microsoft Windows

If you are used to Windows, it’s probably best to stick with Windows for a first choice. Windows has the best support for the most types of hardware. Every piece of hardware will have at least Windows drivers.

The system is also fairly user-friendly to set up and configure, so it’s a great starter. Combined with Windows Media Center most of the things will just work out-of-the-box (see below).

Mac OS X

Although there are ways around this, the only easy way to obtain the OS X operating system is to buy a Mac computer. OS X is based on Unix (as is Linux below) and tends to be a little more reliable than Windows. Which is a good thing to have in a media system.

However, the reason people choose for OS X is because they like Apple’s design, both in hardware and software, and their ecosystem. For instance, great integration with the iTunes store and the media sharing AirPlay protocol that is available on all their products.

Although Apple products might seem more expensive, this often is not the case once you start taking into account all the costs.

Linux

Ubuntu 12.10

Ubuntu, the most popular Linux operating system

Linux, also based on Unix, is the tinkerers choice. Most importantly, it’s entirely free of charge. It’s for people who don’t mind spending a few hours configuring everything and tuning their system every day.

In spite of what some fans might say, it’s not a system for beginners. It will require some persistence to get everything running and it’s not always easy to find support if you are using less popular hardware.

The gratification can be huge though. And the community has build so many tools, you’ll be trying out new stuff and adding new features for a long long time (which is why I like it)

HTPC and PVR software

With the operation system choice out of the way, lets run over a few of the popular software options for each.

Windows

Mediaportal’s movie browser

  • Windows Media Center comes bundled with some versions of Windows. It’s fully integrated and is ready to use as soon as Windows itself is installed. Due to this ease of use, it’s a very popular choice. It’s also the only system that has fully licensed the CableCard technology. So if you plan on getting a CableCard, it’s pretty much your only choice.
  • MediaPortal is a free and open source home theater software package. It has everything you may need, including build-in support for PVR functionality. Skins can be used to customize the look and plugins add functionality.
  • NextPVR is another solid choice. As the name suggests, it’s more focused on PVR functionality and a little less on media center. It’s freely available, but not open source. If you want to extend it, there are a limited number of plugins available.
  • XBMC also runs on Windows, but will be discussed in the Linux section.

Linux

The spectacular Aeon Nox skin for XBMC

  • XBMC is a juggernaut. It’s available on any platform you can think of and the number of themes and extensions available is staggering. In fact, the amount of options is so vast, it can be a true time-sink. XBMC does not support PVR functionality. If you want this, you’ll need to set up another system (the backend) and use XBMC as your view into that system (XBMC is the client). It’s a lot of work, compared to the options mentioned in the Windows section.
  • MythTV is the granddaddy of them all. It’s been around for ages and is very fully featured (including PVR). Technically it’s also available for OS X and Windows, but is generally only used by Linux enthusiasts. The sheer amount of configuration required to get a system fully functional will hold back many people from trying an otherwise excellent piece of software.

Mac OS X

  • Plex is your best bet on the Mac. It started of as a streamlined version of XBMC, but it now also includes a backend server that manages your media files. Plex is also available for many other operating systems, but it seems to be most popular on Mac. There is no support for PVR functions.

What’s your favorite media software and how have you set it up? Join the discussion in the forum.