Open source software has made strides as of recently from full blown operating system, games, and even media management and playback software. The obvious advantages of open source software to the end user is both innovation and cost. The disadvantage with a great deal of open source software has been the user interface and ease of use. Xbox Media Center started as an open source media organizer and player for a modified original Xbox console. Recently the Xbox Media Center project has expanded to support Windows based computer as well as a host of other platforms.
A major benefit to running a full screen media management and playback application is the ability to use it comfortably in the living room with a consumer electronic feel, rather than a computer feel to the interface. In this article I will focus on the Windows version of Xbox Media Center with it’s well thought out interface and how it can be useful in the living room setting for music playback and organization.
So why use a media center application on your computer anyway if your computer can already play all the files you need from the normal windows interface ? Making your media centric computer look more like the interface to a menu driven DVD player or set top box makes it easier to browse for music or video. Select the item you want and press a button to play. The other option is to open a file browser, find the file, open the file, have another application open to play the file, and so on.
Xbox Media Center hosts a great deal of features and codec support compared to other solutions on the market such as Windows Media Center. Not to mention that all you really need is Windows computer with a OpenGL 2.0 compliant graphics adapter, a monitor or television that can connect to that computer, and sound card with the output going to a set of amplified speakers or your audio delivery medium of choice.
For my setup I used the following:
- Acer Aspire X1200 with a dual core AMD 5000+, 4GB of ram, and HDMI out
- Windows Vista home premium 64bit version
- USB sound blaster X-Fi 5.1
- Toshiba 37 inch 1080p LCD television connected to PC with HDMI
- Sherwood OEM 2 channel receiver
- Polk audio monitor 60 speakers with sub
- RCA cable to connect the X-Fi to the stereo receiver
- wireless Logitech keyboard and mouse
have been using a home media center PC for a few months with Windows Vista Home Premium, which includes Media Center. I do like the concept of the included Windows Vista Media Center but for my music and video collection just does not cut what I am looking for in regards to user interface and codec support. To my surprise I found out that Xbox Media Center is now supported on the Windows platform, it is skinable and supports all the formats I am looking for. Best yet it is open source and free of end user cost. Before you go and download the software and use it as detailed below, please note the software is in beta and is not 100% stable, it may crash or even worse you may find your computer upside down and on fire. At any rate no warranty can be issued by either Xbox Media Center project or anythingbutipod.
You can find the download for Xbox Media Center at http://xbmc.org/download/. Click the Windows download link and from the next page choose the XBMC_for_Windows-Atlantis-Beta_2.exe link. Save the file on your computer and once it is done downloading open it and follow the prompts of the installer to do a full install. When the software has been installed you can opt to run it now or look for it in you programs directory.
Once you run the application (use the non windowed mode) you will be greeted by a slick user interface with categories of what you would like to play. Since I am focusing on the music aspect, I went ahead and chose the music option from the menu using the direction keys on my keyboard and the enter key (which most option are controlled using, to go back use the escape key).
On opening the music section of the Xbox Media Center you are greeted with option to open a source you have previously added or add a new source.
If this is your first time you will need to add a source, you can add entire directories, drives, network shares, or even shoutcast Internet radio streams to your list.
Once you add the source you would like to use it will show up as either the folder, drive, share, etc in a folder view fashion. Again you can use the direction and enter buttons to navigate, the windows menu key is used to open a context menu on the file or folder you have selected (allowing you to remove the file amongst other activities). In my case I chose my music directory which I had ripped some music to, once added your view will contain the folders of the source you added. You can then open the folder to get a music view of the folder, by pressing enter on the file you would like the folder stars to play, you may also use the windows menu button on your keyboard to add a individual file to a play list.
The music view gives you the option to view album art or details of the file depending on personal preference.
Intuitive and slick sum up the music playback info screen, it is very easy to use in the living room environment from sitting on your couch without the need to squint or use heavy mouse controls to start music playback.
By pressing tab, the music browser disappears into an elegant full screen visualizer with album details.
Audio Quality is decent and dependent on your audio device, it is distortion free but offers no equalization options or advanced audio options past playback gain settings and a volume control. This maybe a setback for some people that require even a rudimentary equalizer to get the best out of their music setup solution. In my environment I ended up using Xbox media center music playback more for parties rather than critical listing, so not having advanced sound tweaking tools wasn’t a huge issue. I feel that the interface and elegant integration outweigh the negative for sound enhancement for my use for causal music playback.
Codec support is great compared to other commercial solutions like windows media center. Out of the box I have been able to use all my FLAC files without issue along with MP3 files. The installation of xbox media center will already contain support for most file formats that exist. Very little tweaking is required to get your media library to play! The list below outlines the formats that are currently supported and commonly used:
- AAC (in any of the standard container formats)
Stability and performance are a bit sketchy at times, given the ample hardware this solution is running on I still see about 30% cpu use idle just to run the interface. The system has crashed on me 3 times during testing but otherwise works well, you have to remember this is still a beta. Given the activity of the project thus far, the bugs will be ironed out soon to give a better experience.
So far I have only scratched the surface of what Xbox Media Center can do. The feature list is expansive and even includes network control to the ability to make or download custom skins. Xbox Media Center for the windows platform is a very attractive solution for music playback
and organization if simplicity and elegance is your primary concern. In the end, Xbox media center is a free application that can add a nice interface to your living room media solution at no software cost. It is worth a few hours on a weekend to give it a try and see if it works for you.
- Free and Open source
- Great interface
- Lots of add ons and skins available
- good music playback quality
- Folder navigation
- Lots of Codec support
- Ease of installation (all in one package install, codecs and all)
- No equalizer
- CPU hog
- Prone to crashing