John Galea's Blog

My blog on Gadgets and the like

XBMC the center of my digital universe

If you’ve been living on another planet for the last little while perhaps you’ve never heard of XBMC (now called Kodi). XBMC stood for X Box Media Center. XBMC some time back replaced Windows Media center in my home and I’ve never looked back.

What is XBMC? It is a remote friendly, cross platform, content rich interface into movies, music, pictures and more. This combined digital content can come from local sources (local storage, NAS, file shares etc), streaming sources over the net (through add ons) as well as support for IP TV (which can come from free or paid services). IP TV in case you have not looked into it uses your internet connection to bring live streaming TV channels to your home potentially by passing the usual suspects (Bell/Rogers/Cogeco). As of now I have not been able to get IP TV working on Ubuntu but it does work on Windows and Android for sure. Although on version 14 they have renamed it from “Live TV” to just TV.

What makes XBMC a rich environment is that based on the name of the files it goes out to the web (automatcally) and grabs information about the movie or TV show. So instead of trying to remember what a movie is about you get a nice remote friendly interface. You can sort and search by name, actor, genre etc. Organize your local folders by type Movies, TV Shows/Episodes, Music, Pictures and then tell XBMC what the content is and it will go out and get this info through what it calls scrapers.

Where can it run? As of right now it is cross platform: Android, Windows, Linux, IOS, OSX and Raspberry PI. To get a smooth playback experience of HD videos you need either a fast processor (Core i3 or better) or hardware accelerated video playback. Until recently (version 13.1) XBMC on Android did not support hardware acceleration but it does now. But you need to be careful to check if your GPU on your Android device is supported or even the latest and greatest Arm processor does not stand a chance of doing smooth playback. I have no experience on Ios or OSX so won’t cover them off.

A remote control is key to having a rich experience IMHO. For windows I have used a Windows Media center remote for a long time. It looks and feels like a VCR remote. So you can ignore the fact your using a PC to do playback. On Windows I have not been able to get the right mouse equivalent functionality working with the media center remote. This leaves you unable to see things like episode information, movie details etc as well as unable to delete content once watched (once you enable that feature). The media center remote works even better under Ubuntu and includes the right mouse functionality. On Android, sadly the media center remote is ignored.

On Android, to date, the best remote I have used is the one that comes with the Kindle Fire TV. This remote is bluetooth so there is no need to keep line of sight to your device. You can pair this remote with other Android devices (The Fire TV is Android by the way in case you didn’t know). Remove the batteries on the remote, push and hold the home button, and the remote goes into pairing mode. These remotes (in Canada anyway) are not the easiest thing to find.

There is an Android app that can run on your phone/tablet and act as a remote to your XBMC (once enabled). I use it on Windows to get around the missing right mouse button functionality, but find it a little clumsy. Pick up your phone, wake it up, unlock it, start the app (if it isn’t already running) connect to XBMC then push the button.

I have been using a dedicated PC next to my TV for XBMC for a while now. It’s just the best way to do it so it’s always there. I was using a Core i5 based system. Originally on Windows 7, and then Windows 8. I then discovered there is a distribution of Ubuntu that has XBMC bundled in. Unbuntu itself is invisible and in the background only to support XBMC. As soon as it boots up voila XBMC. You do not in anyway need to be a Linux Guru to install it. Updating it does take a bit of technical knowledge. I am quite impressed with Ubuntu/XBMC and it is now my main media center. Power management works almost perfectly. The PC and display go to sleep very nicely as setup within XBMC. The only issue I have is that it will not wake up from sleep with the remote. I’ve searched for settings in the BIOS to fix this to no avail. So to wake it up you need to go up and push the button or … I use wake on LAN. Wake on LAN in case you don’t know was designed into PCs to allow administrators to wake your PC for patching etc. I use a PC based app to wake up the media center (too lazy to get off my fat ass and press the button 🙂 called mc-wol.exe and you tell it the mac address of the network card. I also found a great app on Android Wake on LAN that works perfectly to wake it up. I have found a limitation that IP TV does not seem to be supported under Unbuntu XBMC. Not sure if that will change. To periodically update the version of XBMC under Ubuntu you will need to SSH into it an issue the following two commands. Unfortunately they have not built that into the GUI (yet):
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get –only-upgrade install xbmc xbmc.bin

Recently I got my paws on an Asus Asrock ION. This little PC has a dual core Atom and an Nvidia ION graphics chip. The device is small, quiet and low power. I installed Ubuntu XBMC on it and sure enough it plays back like a charm. I am shocked how well such a small device works and has now become my main media center PC! It fits nicely in my wall unit and blends in with my audio receiver. You wouldn’t even know it’s a PC if you weren’t told!

I also recently bought an Amazon Kindle Fire TV. This device is not available in Canada so I bought it in the states. I reviewed it a while back so I won’t repeat it here. XBMC 13.1 was pretty solid on the fire with issues on resume/skip and showing where in the show it was. 13.2 added in some nasty instabilities. The current beta of 14 seems to have fixed a number of the instabilities as well as resolved the resume/skip issues. I’ve loaded xbmc-14.0-Helix_alpha3-armeabi-v7a.apk.

The majority of my content is stored on local file shares. I have two media centers for playback in the house. Originally each had their own index of the content, what had been watched etc which was a pain. I recently moved to a common database. I found an article on how to set this up and it works amazingly well. It means the index of anything new only has to be added to one device and it shows up on the other. And content that has been watched is tracked on both devices. Sweet! To make this even more seemless I created a virtual machine with XBMC on it to keep the index always up to date.

So now you have a media center you need content. There are lots of providers out there offering unlimited internet to the home. Get on one 🙂 Ditch Rogers/Bell. I use a program called Sickbeard. It runs constantly and you point it at your TV collection. You can use it to go get new series you want to follow or get new episodes automatically when they become available. It automates the process. You can have it search for torrents or newsgroups. It works better with newsgroups but then you will need a newsgroup account. Sickbeard pulls down the torrent that in turn is then downloaded by a program like utorrent to get the file. From a newsgroup point of view SabNZB can be used to get content from the newsgroup as prodded by Sickbeard. In both cases Sickbeard drops it into a directory that utorrent/sabnzb then look at and go get the download. It’s a bit tricky to setup but once setup it works well. There are lots of guides out there for Sickbeard/SabNZB. I looked into Headphones which is suppose to do a similar function for music but it didn’t work well for me. Ignored lots of my music (likely not tagged well). So I gave up on that. I also looked at Couch Potato which is suppose to do the same for movies but I didn’t like that one either.

So that’s about it. XBMC really is a fabulous game changing product that has been around a while. If you have no explored it. Be sure and do so. Leave some time to set it up. And be sure and explore.


September 24, 2014 - Posted by | Android

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