As I said I tried multiple different ways to accomplish the look/feel of a Hulu or Netflix type interface. There was a lot of trial and error here to get exactly what I wanted. Couple things I should mention up front here. First my existing media center install consisted of Windows Vista Ultimate (Using the Vista Media Center) with some hacks and tweaks. I use this box as my home server as well, so it hosts a variety of different apps. It functions as File Server, VM Server, VPN Server, RDP Gateway, Bit Torrent Server, FTP Server, Media Center, and about a dozen other functions I don't recall at the moment. Second I had a very specific vision in mind here. All of the Media Centers I tried were nice in their own right, I ruled each out due to either a technical or aesthetic deficiency for my particular goal.
My first try was with XBMC (Xbox Media Center). http://xbmc.org/ XBMC is an extremely polished, feature rich media center solution. It was my first choice because of the look (and possible looks via skinning). It also had the bonus of being the same project that I have installed on my old school xboxs. And honestly it was an almost perfect solution for my needs. It was able to collect the meta data on it's own, it had the right look and feel, and seamlessly integrated into all my xboxs, and even functioned pretty well with the xbox 360s. Where it fell short was how it worked with PlayOn (you may recall this from the last article). Essentially the UPnP client built into XBMC would crash within about 30 seconds of launching the connection. Now it's important I note here, I only had this issue on my Vista box, and XBMC worked just fine on the xboxs and my windows XP and Windows 7 boxes. I have no doubt that this issue was specific to my individual windows install. However due to my recent change over to streaming based TV it kept me from using this as my media center solution.
My second try was with Boxee. Boxee offers a ton of features in a very clean nice package. I won't go to in depth you can check out their page for more info. There were a few things I did not like about this one. Boxee has a mandatory sign up, and you are required to sign in each time you launch the media center. It also has a static theme and look to it. Also Hulu was a no go without some serious tweaking. All in all the cons far outweighed the pros, so I moved on.
Third I looked into just tweaking out Vista media center. and honestly it is far more "tweakable" then I imagined. There are a lot of really nice mod projects out there for it. And a few of them I discovered wound up going into my final result. There were really no cons with his set up (excluding cost), however during my research I found out some interesting info that led me to my final product.......
Windows 7 Ultimate Media Center. Ok out of the box it is just as boring as it's predecessors, however with a little tweaking it is gorgeous. It also has the added bonus of providing on the fly transcoding for Xbox 360s running as extenders. Basically anything you W7MC can play so can your 360 extenders. With the right tweaks it is theme-able, customizable, and just as rich a media center as any of it's competitors.
In the next article I will go over the tweaks and finished product of my total home media solution.
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