The Best HTPC Solution for Internet and Live HDTV in America
Cut the cable and build your own HTPC with XBMC, MediaPortal and SchedulesDirect.
Copyright (c) August 2013 by Clay D. Montgomery
There is a quiet revolution underway as people are dropping their cable and satellite TV services in favor of low-cost internet streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon, Fox News and free terrestrial broadcast HDTV. Taking back control from the Titans of TV not only saves money but also time which ultimately makes watching TV a better experience. But don’t settle for a half-baked solution! Most of the new services out there, such as Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Google’s Chromecast, offer internet streaming only, with no ability to receive broadcast HDTV. Why forgo the largest source of free HDTV programming available, especially when it’s more reliable and provides better picture quality than streaming, cable or satellite TV?
This is the 21st Century and the ability to time-shift record and skip commercials is essential to most users, as it should be. The problem is that the DVRs provided by cable and satellite companies only function when their subscriptions are active. Even those DVRs that can record free broadcast HDTV typically disable that feature if your subscription is not paid. Even worse, those DVRs are closed systems, hindered by DRM copy-protection and advertising schemes and some even limit what streaming services you can receive. Well, open-source HTPC software has made tremendous strides in recent years and now we don’t have to take it anymore!
HTPC software has advanced to the point that anyone who knows how to install and use Windows can build their own HTPC that is better than anything the Titans offer. After extensive research, I found this beautiful, integrated solution that combines the best of internet streaming (from any service) and broadcast HDTV with full DVR features on a Windows PC optimized as a Home Theater PC. The combination of XBMC and MediaPortal software with the SchedulesDirect EPG service is outstanding! When installed together with the Firefox or Chrome browser, you have a truly complete solution for internet and broadcast HDTV – all integrated into a single, elegant menu system which is driven by a wireless remote control and mouse. Plus, this system is open, highly serviceable, expandable and upgradeable. It’s ready to adapt to whatever happens next in the ongoing TV revolution. Meanwhile, you will have a better TV viewing experience while saving money.
- The most complete and actively-developed HTPC software – XBMC and MediaPortal.
- The most complete and reliable EPG service – SchedulesDirect.
- Optimized for broadcast HDTV with DVR for use in North America.
- Windows 7 or 8 with Silverlight for the best streaming support for Netflix, Hulu, etc.
- Plugins for the most internet streaming channels, like YouTube Fox News, etc.
- Very low power and quiet operation – 50 watts typical power dissipation.
- Open system. No DRM. Highly serviceable, expandable and upgradeable.
- Can support multiple TVs and older TVs without HDMI inputs.
- Good PC gaming and web browsing capabilities.
- Easier to build and maintain than Linux solutions.
- Lowest cost of operation (See chart below).
The Hard Part
It turns out that the most difficult part of building a HTPC is getting the DVR functionality with a reliable Electronic Program Guide (EPG) for the local HDTV broadcasts in your particular area, and a DVR is really useless without a good program guide. This has been the major advantage of the Tivo service for many years. However, there is another online EPG service for HTPC users in America named SchedulesDirect which offers excellent reliability and lower cost. SchedulesDirect is actually the only online EPG service in America which is reliable, easy to install, low cost, legal and does not require you to buy and use a proprietary set-top-box. The funny thing is that SchedulesDirect only supports open-source software projects like XBMC and MediaPortal. They do not support, for example, Microsoft’s Windows Media Center because that’s not open-source software. WMC has been a good solution for several years as it’s included with Windows 7, but Microsoft’s support for WMC has been fading recently. Many WMC users are responding by switching to XBMC or MediaPortal, because these are open solutions with superior user interfaces and are supported by SchedulesDirect. Most other HTPC solutions out there lack an EPG source for users in America and their websites largely ignore this problem. They typically document EPG solutions that are only available in other countries, such as DVB EPG, or solutions that are difficult to install because they scrape EPG data from websites, such as XMLTV and WebEPG. SchedulesDirect is by far the best solution for HTPC users in America because it does not have those problems.
My HTPC solution is to use the combination of XBMC and MediaPortal with the SchedulesDirect EPG service on Windows 7 or 8. The MediaPortal TV-Server software manages the HDTV tuners and EPG and XBMC provides a beautiful user-interface that integrates everything into a single menu system; Live TV, DVR, Internet TV, Radio, BluRay/DVD, Music, Pictures and Weather.
XBMC and MediaPortal are the most widely used HTPC solutions with SchedulesDirect support and fortunately, these projects are compatible. They actually share a common ancestry and compliment each other really well. They are also experiencing rapid growth in users and continued active development, so they are most likely to be well supported into the future.
Finally, XBMC and MediaPortal have plugin architectures which allow their feature sets to be extended. This is where much of the important capabilities of this software actually lies. The complete List of Add-ons for XBMC is impressive, although not all of them have been maintained well as XBMC has evolved. But, the availability of such a large number of plugins and their active development is what really sets XBMC apart. This guide details the installation of many of the best plugins that have been of the most use to me. You will certainly find more, so please leave a comment below to share what you find!
If you have time to research other HTPC solutions, by all means do so, but keep in mind that most of the solutions you will read about are actually configured for use internationally, don’t necessarily support the ATSC standard for broadcast HDTV reception in America and probably rely upon questionable sources for the EPG data needed for a quality DVR.
Some Recommended Links for Further Reading
- XBMC Home
- MediaPortal Home
- Which Media Center Is Right for You: Boxee, XBMC, and Windows Media Center Compared
- 5 Alternatives to Windows Media Center on Windows 8
- MediaPortal – Why I switched from Windows Media Center
- Top 10 Best HTPC Software for HDTV
- How to Customize XBMC 12 Frodo with All the Bells and Whistles
- The Final Insult? Microsoft Explains, Dumps on, Media Center in Windows 8
- Beginner’s Guide to HTPC Software
- Cut that cord – How to ditch cable
- How To Set Up Your XBMC Media Center
A good first step for your HTPC project is to download and install XBMC onto any Windows PC just to give the user interface a test drive. You can use much of XBMC even without a TV tuner installed, such as internet streaming channels and the music player.
Why Not Linux?
There are versions of XBMC for Linux, but they require different TV server software (because MediaPortal is for Windows only) and a different streaming solution because NetFlix requires Microsoft’s Silverlight which does not run directly on Linux. Windows is easier because it already includes most of the drivers and codecs required for HTPC and Windows is generally easier to maintain than Linux. There are also a lot more games available for Windows.
By limiting this guide to a specific configuration on Windows, it’s much more concise and accessible. A problem with the documentation for most HTPC solutions, including XBMC and MediaPortal, is that they support so many different hardware and software platforms that it’s really difficult to navigate if you have not built a HTPC before. My aim with this guide is to focus on this very specific configuration designed for new users in America that combines the best of internet and broadcast HDTV technology and is easy to build. This is simply the best solution for most new users in America.
Cost to Operate
This HTPC costs a lot less to operate than typical cable or satellite TV subscriptions and with the combination of NetFlix streaming and broadcast HDTV, we never miss seeing anything we want, even when the TV Titans go to battle. For illustration, here is a summary of my monthly TV subscription costs, which includes my internet service.
My Monthly TV Subscription Cost
Time Warner Cable (15 Mbps Internet only) $40.00 SchedulesDirect EPG ($25 Annually) $2.08 NetFlix Streaming $7.99 ------------------------------------------------------------------- Total $50.07
A SchedulesDirect account costs $25 annually for the EPG service. This is the only subscription fee that is required for this HTPC solution, besides an internet service provider and I recommend NetFlix, Hulu Plus or Amazon for paid streaming services.
MediaPortal has a client part and a server part, often called the front-end and back-end, respectively. You can run both on the same HTPC, or you can have other HTPCs that just run the client part and receive content from a shared MediaPortal TV server. XBMC and MediaPortal are compatible projects and a popular configuration is to use only the TV-Server part of MediaPortal (to control the HDTV tuners and the EPG) and run XBMC for the client, instead of using the MediaPortal client. This means XBMC provides the user-interface and the MediaPortal TV-Server does most of the work behind the scenes. I use a single HTPC to run both the MediaPortal TV-Server and the XBMC client on Windows.
This software can be installed on any PC, but since the DVR function requires the unit to be powered continuously it’s best to build a dedicated HTPC designed specifically for low-power operation. This design is compact, low power and very quiet. It’s styled like component audio equipment to sit near your HDTV. The Silverstone case features a black-anodized aluminum front with USB 3.0 sockets on the front. The motherboard has PCI Express 2.0 and 3.0 x16 slots, which can accommodate a graphics card if you want better gaming capabilities than the HD4000 graphics, which is integrated into the Intel Core I3 processor. However, that will probably also require increasing the capacity of the power supply and running more of the chassis fans which are built into the Silverstone case. The integrated graphics works fine for all but the latest games and without a graphics card, the chassis fans are not even needed, so only the processor and power supply fans are required. These are variable speed fans which only run as needed based on temperature sensors, which makes this system run extremely quiet.
I recommend using a combination of a solid state disk (SSD) and a Seagate Pipeline hard disk (HDD). Windows and all of the rest of the software is installed on the SSD and the HDD is only used for storing recorded audio and video. This provides fast operation while also keeping the power and noise down. The Seagate Pipeline series drives are designed for HTPC applications with a lower rotation speed (5900 RPM) that reduces power consumption and noise. A cheaper solution would be to eliminate the SSD and install all the software on the HDD, in which case you should use a conventional 7200 RPM HDD.
If you would rather buy a built HTPC with this software professionally installed, I recommend Assassin HTPC.
Hardware Components with Links to Suppliers
Lite-on DVD Burner IHAS124-04 (Or substitute a BluRay Drive Instead) $17.99
Crucial SSD 128G CT128M4SSD2 (Optional) $149.99
USB-IR Receiver Kit with Remote (Search for “HP OEM WMC Remote”) $39.95
The integrated Intel HD4000 graphics controller features HDMI, DVI and VGA outputs which can be configured for virtually any display format up to and including 1080p. The HDMI connection should be used if it’s available on your HDTV. The HD4000 also has the ability to shift the video image horizontally and/or vertically up to 10%, which is often needed when driving older HDTVs that don’t have an HDMI input. In that case, an HDMI to Component converter is also required which can be difficult to find. Here are two possible sources:
Of course, all prices shown are just representative of what I have seen recently at Amazon and NewEgg, which are my favorite hardware suppliers. For more information regarding the selection of hardware components, see the Assassin HTPC Hardware Guide.
To receive live HDTV, you will need a UHF antenna. This can be a small indoor antenna, if you are near the transmission towers. If not, get a large yagi type antenna to mount in your attic or on the roof. Attic mounted antennas work well provided your roof does not contain any metallic foil or radiant barrier. Yagi antennas are designed to pull in signals from a specific direction, so it’s essential to point it in the right direction. The AntennaWeb guide will help with that.
Either 32 or 64 bit versions of Windows 7 or 8 can be used for XBMC and MediaPortal. 64 bit versions can address more than 4GB of RAM, but this software will never actually use more than 4GB anyway, so the only reason to install more RAM would be if you want better performance for high-end games, for example. Do not use WindowsXP because it lacks many of the required drivers and codecs for audio, video and remote controls.
Software Components with Download Links
Microsoft Silverlight Silverlight.exe Free
Microsoft DirectX DirectX9c_dxwebsetup.exe Free
Microsoft .Net Frameworks dotNetFx40_Full_x86_x64.exe Free
HD Homerun Installer hdhomerun_windows_20130117.exe Provided
MediaPortal MediaPortal_Setup_1.4.0_Final.zip Free
XBMC for Windows xbmc-12.2.exe (Frodo) Free
SchedulesDirect Plugin for MediaPortal SchedulesDirectPlugin-22.214.171.124.mpe1 Free
MediaPortal TVServerXBMC Installer TVServerXBMC-126.96.36.199.mpe1 Free
NetFlix Plugin for XBMC XBMC-Flicks-master.zip Free
1. Start by installing Windows onto the SSD along with all the drivers from the CD supplied with the motherboard and the Microsoft .Net Frameworks, Silverlight and DirectX updates listed above. There are some optimizations that can be made when Installing Windows7 on a Solid State Disk Drive.
2. Create yourself a SchedulesDirect account. This service is free for the first week, then they will ask for $25 payment for the first year via a credit card or PayPal. The guide data will be provided based upon the zip code you provide when the account is created.
3. Install the SiliconDust HDHomeRun tuners with an antenna and its software from the supplied CD.
Run the HDHomeRun Setup program which should automatically find the HDHomeRun on your local area network.
On the Location tab, enter your Country and Zip Code.
On the Application tab, select MediaPortal as your Main Application and HDHomeRun QuickTV for your Preview Application.
On the Tuners tab, select Digital Antenna for both tuners.
On the Digital Antenna tab, perform the channel scan for both tuners. If the scan fails to find any channels, the problem is likely with your UHF antenna connection.
Click the OK button to save and exit.
Run the HDHomeRun QuickTV program. This will receive and display live HDTV without the XBMC or MediaPortal software being installed yet. This is an important test to be sure your HDHomeRun is working before proceeding.
4. Download and install MediaPortal. Be sure to choose the One Click Installation option rather than the Advanced installation option. Even though we will use XBMC for the front-end client, a full installation of MediaPortal is still necessary because it also installs several additional required packages such as MySQL 5.1, the MSVC++ redistributable and DirectX libraries and configures the Windows firewall.
5. Download and install the plugins required for the MediaPortal TV-Server to work with XBMC and SchedulesDirect. In MediaPortal, plugins are called Extensions. The names of the required extensions are:
Run the MediaPortal Extension Installer:
Start > All Programs > Team MediaPortal > MediaPortal > MediaPortal Extension Installer
Click on the Known Extension tab and search for these extensions and install them, if they are found. If they are not found, they must be downloaded manually. Then come back and click on the Options tab in the MediaPortal Extension Installer and click Install Local Extension and browse to the downloaded extension files. These files have names that end with either .mpe1 or .mpe2.
You can manually download the TVServerXBMC extension from the MediaPortal TVServerXBMC Installer page. There are several versions available, but only download the MediaPortal Extension Installer and the latest version that is compatible with the version of MediaPortal installed. The other download options for the RAR zip files with release DLL and debug executables are not needed.
Sore more information, refer to the MediaPortal TV Server Quick Start Guide page on the XBMC wiki:
You can manually download the SchedulesDirect extension from the SchedulesDirect Plugin for MediaPortal page. There are several versions available, but only download the latest version that is compatible with the version of MediaPortal installed.
6. Configure the MediaPortal TV-Server.
Run the MediaPortal TV-Server Configuration program:
Start > All Programs > Team MediaPortal > MediaPortal TV Server > TV-Server Configuration
Click the box on the left of the TV Servers branch of the Project tree to expand it, then click on the name of your HTPC server on the branch (Typically HTPC). There should be 2 SiliconDust HDHomeRun tuners in the list that is presented. Be sure they are enabled and are assigned the highest priorities.
Select each tuner and click the Edit button to bring up the Edit Card Properties dialog. Select these options in the Advanced Tuning Options section of that dialog for both tuners:
Allow this card to be preloaded Pause card (faster for some cards)
For more information, refer to the MediaPortal TV-Server Configuration page.
Click on the Recording branch of the Project tree. On the Folders tab, enter the path to store all DVR recording to (typically D:Recording) and click the Same recording folder for all cards button.
Click on the Timeshifting branch of the Project tree. On the Folders tab, enter the path to store all DVR recording to (typically D:Timeshift) and click the Same timeshift folder for all cards button.
Click the box on the left of the Plugins branch of the Project tree to expand these branches. Check the boxes for these Available plugins to enable them:
Click on SchedulesDirect EPG Client on the Plugins branch of the Project tree. On the Configuration tab, enter your login Username and Password for the new SchedulesDirect account you created above. This allows the MediaPortal TV-Server to automatically login periodically to download your EPG data.
For more information, refer to the SchedulesDirect Setup for MediaPortal page.
Click on TVServerXBMC on the Plugins branch of the Project tree. On the Shares tab, verify that the Recording and Timeshift paths are correct for each HDHomeRun tuner, as previously entered.
Close the dialog and click OK to save your changes and exit the configuration program.
Note that there is also a MediaPortal (Client) Configuration Program that looks very similar to the MediaPortal TV-Server Configuration program, but we don’t need it because we only use the client for testing and debug purposes.
Now run the MediaPortal (client) program to test the display of live HDTV. If this does not work, you may need to revisit the installation of the HDHomeRun software above or the MediaPortal Setup Guide.
7. Download and install XBMC for Windows. Plugins are called add-ons in XBMC and the add-on for MediaPortal is included by default along with several other PVR add-ons with the default installation. However, after installation, you must enable the MediaPortal PVR Client add-on at this menu within XBMC:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Disabled Add-ons > PVR Clients > MediaPortal PVR Client > Enable
For more information, refer to The XBMC Live TV and PVR/DVR Setup Guide in the XBMC wiki. Those instructions describe several back-end sources that can be used with XBMC, but MediaPortal is the only back-end that needs to be installed.
8. Share some folders for easier maintenance of this software from other computers on your local area network. Also share the folders for your recorded content and music. For example:
C:Users<Name>AppDataRoamingXBMC D:Recording D:Music
Use the Windows control panel to unhide the XBMC folder. In particular, you will need easy access to the XBMC log that is in that folder named xbmc.log, to diagnose any errors that are reported.
9. Configure Windows to automatically launch XBMC every time Windows boots by simply placing a shortcut to XBMC.exe into your Windows Startup folder.
Windows 7 normally has Windows Media Center installed by default and it can interfere with configuring your remote control to drive XBMC. So, to disable WMC to prevent it from launching select:
Start > Default Programs > Program Features > Turn Windows features on or off > Media Features > Windows Media Center > Uncheck
Install a Remote Control
A good remote control is an essential part of an HTPC system and there are several good options available. XBMC can support a wide range of remote control types including those with integrated keyboard and trackball features. But, XBMC is designed to work with remotes intended for Windows Media Center and those remotes operate on a different IR frequency than most remotes can generate – even most universal, programmable or learning remotes do not work directly with XBMC or MediaPortal. There are some great tools available to resolve these compatibility problems, but configuring every button on a large remote can be tedious and error prone. Therefore, here are some recommended options so you can choose what makes the most sense for you.
Recommended Remote Control Options
- Start with a Windows Media Center remote kit such as the HP OEM WMC Remote.
- Purchase the Flirc IR Receiver to enable an IR remote you already own.
- Buy a high-end Logitech Harmony remote which can learn WMC key codes.
- Use your Android or Apple phone or tablet as your remote for XBMC.
In any event, use just a PC keyboard and mouse to get all of the essential software installed and working before proceeding with the installation of a remote. The goal, of course, is to eliminate the need to use a keyboard and mouse to drive XBMC, but they will still be needed for occasional software updates, maintenance, gaming and web browsing. Logitech has wireless USB keyboards and mice combos that share a common USB receiver dongle, which is a good idea.
Option 1 – The HP OEM WMC Remote Kit
The quick and easiest way to get started is with an HP OEM WMC Remote kit. This kit includes an RC6 compatible IR receiver that connects to a USB port on your HTPC and a Windows Media Center IR remote control. Even if you plan to use a different remote control, you still need an IR receiver and the WMC remote is useful for testing. Beware that most universal remotes are not able to learn from WMC remotes because they use different IR frequencies. The Logitech Harmony remotes are the exception. The HP OEM WMC Remote kits are designed for use with Windows Media Center and the Microsoft eHome device driver which is provided with Windows 7. This driver will install automatically when you connect the IR receiver to a USB port.
Most of the buttons on this remote will function correctly with XBMC right out of the box, but there are some buttons that do not work. To fix this, install the MCERemote add-on, which you will also need for button customization. From the main menu, select:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Get Add-ons > XBMC.org Add-ons > Program Add-ons > MCERemote > Install
Now run the MCERemote Add-on to configure the remote for XBMC:
Programs > MCERemote > Apply current settings to remote.
This configures all of the buttons on the WMC remote for use with XBMC and stores the configuration in the Windows registry. You must have run XBMC as Administrator to do this and you must also exit XBMC and reboot Windows for these changes to take effect. This Add-on only works with Microsoft eHome compatible remotes and it will complain if your remote is not compatible. For more information, refer to Using a Microsoft Remote Control in Windows in the XBMC wiki and from the XBMC main menu, select:
Programs > MCERemote > Read the instructions.
The default button assignments for XBMC make a good starting point. But, after using XBMC for awhile you may want to change some buttons. For example, there is no button defined for deleting recordings, by default. So, here is an example of how to customize a button to do that using the MCERemote Add-on. Select:
Programs > MCERemote > Configure MCERemote settings.
This displays a list of all the buttons on the remote with the keyboard commands they transmit. Scroll through this list and click on the one you want to redefine. I chose the ENTER key (bottom right corner on the remote) because it’s redundant to the big round OK key in the center. Other good choices are the RADIO, MUSIC, PICTURES , VIDEOS or LIVE TV buttons, which are colored on some WMC remotes. When you choose a button, a virtual keyboard will pop up. Use that keyboard to enter the name of the keyboard command you want that button to transmit. I entered delete. Then, click the Done button on the virtual keyboard, then OK and Yes to apply the settings to the remote. Exit XBMC and reboot Windows for the changes to take effect.
To help identify how buttons on your remote correspond to the entries in the MCERemote Add-on list, download and install the ShowKey Windows Utility. This utility shows the commands that are transmitted for each button pressed on the remote.
Option 2 – The Flirc IR Receiver
If you already own a remote control that you want to use with XBMC and you are willing to spend some time configuring the software to translate each key code, then purchase the Flirc IR Receiver, instead of Option 1.
This compact IR receiver has a built-in microcontroller with flash memory that will learn whatever IR key codes your remote transmits and translate them into the keyboard codes that XBMC expects. In fact, Windows thinks the Flirc is an ordinary USB keyboard, which means it can also be used to launch other apps on the Windows desktop.
The difficult part of programming the Flirc is that the remote you choose must have a sufficient number of buttons to properly control XBMC and they must all generate unique key codes. Most remotes do not have enough buttons and sometimes the buttons generate redundant key codes. Your remote does not have to be programmable, but if it is, then you must first program it to emulate some other remote which must also have sufficient unique buttons. If you don’t have a picture of the emulated remote, some trial and error will be required to find an emulation code that works well. Programmable remotes typically come with a chart of 3 or 4 digit codes for all the devices they can emulate ordered by manufacturer and equipment type. Also, buttons which have learned key codes from other remotes can cause problems too, so it’s best to program a universal remote with an emulation code that resets all of the needed buttons with unique key codes.
Download and install the latest release of the Flirc Installer for Windows. Then, plug the Flirc device into any available USB port. There is no cable supplied with the Flirc, so you can use an ordinary USB extension cable, or if you have an IR repeater, just tape an IR flasher onto the Flirc.
Run the Flirc configuration utility and start by selecting the XBMC keyboard guide option to program these essential keys:
Controllers > XBMC
Up Down Left Right Select Back Play Pause Stop Fast Reverse Fast Forward Skip Reverse Skip Forward Information Up Folder
The Flirc XBMC keyboard guide is somewhat out of date. It shows some additional keys that are not really useful and you don’t want to waste your limited buttons with useless or redundant functions. So, program just these important keys before adding others. The following keys are also important for DVR operation, but you must select the Full Keyboard Guide to program these:
Controllers > Full Keyboard
Ctrl + G (EPG) Ctrl + O (Recorded) Delete
For reference, here is a complete table of the Common Default Keyboard Controls for XBMC, but some of the keys shown here are actually redundant or not useful.
If you attempt to program any button more than once, the error “Button already exists” will be reported. You can then Erase that button and try again. If this error is reported for a button you have not already programmed, it is likely because the button is generating the same key code as another button that you have already programmed. Universal remotes will typically assign redundant key codes to buttons that are not mapped and that is usually because those buttons don’t exist on the device the remote is configured to emulate. So, try configuring your remote to emulate a different device which has more buttons. I have had the best luck programming my universal remote with emulation codes for Sony DVD recorders.
The ShowKey Windows Utility is also helpful to test your Flirc programming to confirm it’s actually generating the key codes you want.
Option 3 – Logitech Harmony Remotes
The Logitech Harmony Remotes are a more expensive option which I have not tried yet, but they have received good reviews on the XBMC and MediaPortal forums. These remotes have premium features like back-lit buttons, an LCD display and the unusual ability to learn key codes from a WMC remote, so you can use them with the IR receiver from an HP OEM WMC Remote kit or with the Flirc receiver. For more information, read How to use a Logitech Harmony Remote with XBMC in the XBMC forum.
There is a beta version of the Flirc software available which has a profile specifically to make configuration for Harmony remotes easier. For more information, refer to this thread in the Flirc forum.
Option 4 – Android or Apple Phone or Tablet Apps (Added 11/17/2013)
An Android or Apple phone or tablet can also be used as your remote control for XBMC by installing the appropriate app from either Google Play or the Apple App Store, respectively. This requires your mobile device to have an 802.11 wireless connection to your local network because these devices do not have IR interfaces and therefore no IR receiver is required.
Install the Channel Logos
By default, XBMC labels TV channels with only the names assigned to them by the HDHomeRun tuners, which will be the call signs for HDTV stations in your area, like “KDFW-DT”, for example. It looks really cryptic, so fix this by installing proper logo images. This greatly enhances the user interface. I created this collection of logo images specifically for use with XBMC. It contains all the major broadcast TV networks in the US and Canada. Once installed, XBMC will display them on the channel listing and EPG Timeline. Follow these steps to install:
1. Download and unzip this file into this new folder in the XBMC addons folder:
2. Rename each file to match the TV station call sign names for the corresponding channel in your area. Use the channel listing in the MediaPortal TV Server configuration program as a guide to the exact spellings. For example, in the North Texas area they should be renamed like this:
NBC.png to KXAS-HD.png FOX.png to KDFW-DT.png PBS.png to KERA.png
3. Configure XBMC to open the new logo files from the main menu:
System > Settings > LiveTV > Menu/OSD > Default folder for PVR thumbnails > Browse to the new logos folder.
XBMC should then begin displaying the new logos on the channel listing and EPG Timeline. If not, it’s probably because the file names do not match the station names exactly.
Install Your Music Collection
Once you have XBMC up and running with Internet and Live TV, be sure to explore XBMC’s music player capabilities as well. XBMC originated as a music player with advanced visualization features that are a lot of fun to use on a large HDTV with your own music collection. The first step is to copy your digital music files onto the HTPC’s hard disk in a new folder, then add that new folder as a music Source:
Music > Files > Add Source > Browse to your new music folder.
The XBMC Music Player can operate in three modes; File Mode, Library Mode or Party Mode. Using File mode only requires that you add the Source with the path to your music files, then you can access them directly by their file names. If your music files contain valid tags, you can also scan them into the XBMC music library and then access them in Library Mode which allows you to make selections based on an array of criteria such as artist, album, year, genre, etc. Library Mode is only useful if your music files have been tagged with this information. To scan a new Source into the library:
Music > Files > Right Click on Source Name > Scan item to library.
XBMC will then build your music library from the Source folder you added previously. You should repeat this step anytime you add music files to that folder, or update the entire library with:
Music > Library > Right Click on Genres> Update Library
For more information, refer to the XBMC Music Library page.
Ripping Music CDs
XBMC has the ability to create music files by directly ripping them from audio CDs. In fact, there are a lot of apps available to do that, including the Windows Media Player. But, the really tedious part is getting all the tag data just right, including song titles, genres, dates and album cover art and the XBMC Library Mode is much more useful if your music files have good tag data. Therefore, I recommend using a dedicated best-of-class tool on another PC to do this, then copy your music files with the new tags to the HTPC and update the XBMC library. For a good comparison of several shareware tools that automate the ripping and tagging process well, check out Six Best MP3 Tagging Tools.
Install Pandora Internet Radio
One of the best Add-ons for XBMC gives you seamless access to Pandora internet radio, which will continuously stream music selections to your HTPC based on a list of artists which you select. This Add-on works with any Pandora account, paid or free, and it’s easy to install. The paid service is called Pandora One which costs $36 annually and offers higher fidelity audio (192 kbps) and no ads. But this Add-on actually skips the ads from the free service also, which is just another reason why XBMC rocks!
Start by creating yourself a free or paid account at the Pandora website, if you do not already have one. An email address is required. While you are there, enter one or more artists names, genres or composers to create virtual radio stations that will feature that music.
Then, download this Add-on zip file into a temporary folder. It’s not necessary to unzip it:
Install this Add-on from the zip file within XBMC:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Install from zip file > Browse to the zip file > OK
Then, configure the Add-on:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Enabled Add-ons > Music Add-ons > Pandora Json > Configure
Enter your Pandora username (email address) and password, which you registered at the Pandora website. Check the Pandora One button only if you have a paid Pandora One account, otherwise it will default to the free service. Click OK to save and exit. That completes the installation. To launch Pandora select:
Music > Pandora Json
For more information, refer to this thread in the XBMC forum.
There is also an XBMC Add-On for GrooveShark, which is a similar service but requires a paid account, which is called GrooveShark Anywhere and costs $90 annually. If anyone knows how this service compares to Pandora One, please leave a comment below.
XBMC does not have a completely seamless and integrated solution for NetFlix. This is because NetFlix requires DRM (Digital Rights Management) and the NetFlix API has not had the stability that open source projects depend on. There are two XBMC Add-ons that work around these problems to provide access to NetFlix, but they take radically different approaches. You can choose one or install both to evaluate them for yourself. Of course, you must first create yourself a NetFlix streaming account, if you do not already have one. These Add-ons require your NetFlix login name (email address) and password.
Option 1 – Install the XBMC Flicks Add-on
The first option is called XBMC Flicks and uses the NetFlix web interface with a browser of your choice. This is easier to install, but the web interface requires a mouse (and occasionally a keyboard) to operate and switching between the XBMC and web browser interfaces is not very seamless. Back in 2010, this Add-on had a more elegant design, but it has suffered somewhat from a lack of support.
First, download the Add-on zip file into a temporary folder. It’s not necessary to unzip it:
Then, install this Add-on from the zip file within XBMC:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Install from zip file > Browse to the downloaded zip file > OK
Then, configure the Add-on:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Enabled Add-ons > Video Add-ons > XBMC Flicks > Configure
NetFlix can now be accessed from the XBMC Video Add-ons menu:
Video > Add-ons > XBMC Flicks
For more information, refer to Add-on:XBMC Flicks – Netflix for XBMC in the XBMC wiki.
Option 2 – Create a WMC NetFlix Launcher
This approach uses XBMC’s Advanced Launcher Add-on to start Windows Media Center and its plugin for NetFlix. This takes more time to install but provides a more seamless user experience because WMC responds to the same set of basic remote key codes as XBMC, so only a remote control is needed to drive it. The user interface in WMC looks more like NetFlix running on a Roku or game console. There are no scroll bars to contend with and a virtual pop-up keyboard is provided when needed.
Windows Media Center comes bundled with Windows 7 and should already be installed by default. If it has been uninstalled, then reinstall it with:
Start > Default Programs > Program Features > Turn Windows features on or off > Media Features > Windows Media Center > Check
For some inexplicable reason, Microsoft removed WMC from Windows 8, so in that case you must purchase it separately then install it.
NetFlix support is already built into Windows Media Center, but you must run WMC to configure it for Internet TV and test that NetFlix is working. It’s not required for WMC to be able to access the HDHomeRun ATSC tuners.
The next step is to install the NetFlix script for WMC which is called snetflix by downloading this file and unzipping it into a permanent folder (such as c:scripts):
Also download the Angelscry Add-on zip file into a temporary folder from the Angelscry Repository. It’s not necessary to unzip it. Install the Add-on from this zip file within XBMC:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Install from zip file > Browse to the downloaded zip file > OK
Now, install the Advanced Launcher Add-on for XBMC from the Angelscry Repository:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Get Add-ons > Angelscry Repository > Program Add-ons > Advanced Launcher > Install
Use the Advanced Launcher to create a new standalone launcher for the NetFlix script:
Programs > Advanced Launcher > Default > Standalone launcher (normal executable) > Browse to select the executable NetFlix script (c:Scriptsnetflix.exe)
Accept the defaults for the Application Arguments and select a title. No platform selection, thumbnails or fanart paths are required. To set a thumbnail image for the new launcher:
Programs > Advanced Launcher > Default > Right Click on snetflix > Edit Launcher > Change Thumbnail Image > Select Local Image > Browse to select the NetFlix logo file (c:ScriptsNetFlix_Logo.png).
NetFlix can now be accessed from the XBMC Programs Add-ons menu:
Programs > Advanced Launcher > Default > snetflix
You can create a shortcut to make it easier to access NetFlix from the XBMC Favorites menu:
Programs > Advanced Launcher > Default > snetflix > Right Click on snetflix > Add to Favorites
By default, the Escape key will exit the WMC NetFlix player and return to XBMC cleanly. If you wish to change this key, refer to the instructions in the snetflix.txt file. For more information on the snetflix script, refer to this thread in the XBMC Hub forum. For more information on the XBMC Add-on, refer to the Advanced Launcher User Guide.
Option 3 – The PlayOn Service (Added 11/17/2013)
Another way to access NetFlix (and other internet sources) from XBMC, is to subscribe to the PlayOn service. I have not used this, but it’s a popular solution for people who use XBMC on Linux or Android because it eliminates the need for Microsoft Silverlight, which is not available on those platforms. PlayOn works by transcoding video streams from Silverlight to an open format, which degrades the quality of the video some, but a wide range of streaming sources is available, including Amazon Instant and HBO Go, which are not otherwise available in XBMC. The PlayOn+PlayLater service requires either a monthly subscription or you can purchase a lifetime subscription for a one-time fee of $60.
The XBMC Hulu Add-on provides access to one of the largest sources of free TV on the internet and a more seamless user experience than NetFlix. This Add-on works with or without a Hulu account, paid or free, and much of the newer content is provided in HD. The advantage of creating an account is that Hulu will keep track of your queue of shows and make suggestions. The paid service is called Hulu Plus which costs $7.99 monthly and offers access to more recently released content and less ads. Although, this XBMC Add-on does allow the ads to be skipped, manually.
Start by downloading the XBMC Plus Add-on zip file into a temporary folder from the XBMC Plus Repository. It’s not necessary to unzip it. Install the Add-on from this zip file within XBMC:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Install from zip file > Browse to the downloaded zip file > OK
Now, install the Hulu Add-on for XBMC from the XBMC Plus Repository:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Get Add-ons > XBMCPlus Add-on Repository > Video Add-ons > Hulu > Install
This repository also contains other Add-ons which are definitely worth installing as well, such as Free Cable, World News Live and VEVO. If you created yourself a free or paid account at the Hulu website, be sure to configure the Add-on:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Enabled Add-ons > Video Add-ons > Hulu > Configure > Hulu Login
Enter your Hulu username (email address) and password, which you registered at the Hulu website. Check the Hulu Plus button only if you have a paid Hulu Plus account, otherwise it will default to the free service. Click OK to save and exit. That completes the installation. To launch Hulu select:
Videos > Add-ons > Hulu
For more information, refer to this thread in the XBMC forum.
Install The Wall Street Journal
This XBMC add-on provides access to a great source of current news videos with titles organized by subject. No user account is needed and XBMC automatically skips the ads. To install this from the main menu, select:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Get Add-ons > XBMC.org Add-ons > Video Add-ons > The Wall Street Journal Live > Install
For more information, refer to Add-on:The Wall Street Journal Live in the XBMC wiki.
Install Fox News
This XBMC add-on provides access to another great source of current news videos with titles organized by subject. These are highlights from the live Fox News channel posted on their website. No user account is needed and XBMC automatically skips the ads. To install this from the main menu, select:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Get Add-ons > XBMC.org Add-ons > Video Add-ons > Fox News > Install
For more information, refer to Add-on:Fox News in the XBMC wiki.
Install NPR Radio
This XBMC add-on provides access to all available National Public Radio streams and most podcasts. No user account is needed. To install this from the main menu, select:
System > Settings > Add-ons > Get Add-ons > XBMC.org Add-ons > Music Add-ons > NPR (National Public Radio) > Install
For more information, refer to Add-on:NPR (National Public Radio) in the XBMC wiki.
Install Apple AirPlay
XBMC can also play music and video from 5th generation Apple iPhone, iPad and other iOS 7 devices with the AirPlay feature, provided an 802.11 wireless connection to your local network is established. XBMC will act as an AirPlay receiver, as if it where an Apple TV. This requires first installing a Windows service on your HTPC named Bonjour, which provides Apple’s zero-configuration networking protocol. Bonjour enables the automatic discovery and streaming to AirPlay receivers on your local wireless network. The best way to install Bonjour is to install Apple’s iTunes for Windows, because Bonjour comes bundled with it:
First, go to Apple’s website to Download iTunes for Windows. Support for AirPlay is otherwise built into XBMC. To enable it, select:
System > Settings > Services > AirPlay > Allow XBMC to receive AirPlay content
On the Apple device, you can now send music, videos or photos from a variety of locations, including from within the Photos, Videos, Safari and Music apps. Swipe up from the bottom of your screen to access the iOS Control Center.
Then, select the AirPlay icon in the lower right corner. XBMC should appear in the list as an AirPlay receiver. For more information, refer to Apple’s Using AirPlay guide.