The days of Windows and OS X coming fully furnished with a built-in media center are long gone – now you have to pay extra for the privilege in Windows 8, while Front Row is a distant memory for Mac users. But while the giants at Microsoft and Apple have turned their back on providing a decent one-stop shop for watching, organising and sharing media, third parties continue to develop some cracking alternatives.
One of the best has to be XBMC. This open-source marvel has come a long way since its early days, and has plenty to recommend it. As a humble media player it supports all the common formats natively, so you can be sure that it’ll play back whatever you throw at it.
It’s got a built-in DLNA media server, so you can use it to stream your media to other mobiles and devices on your network, and supports a vast array of plug-ins that add extra capabilities, such as accessing streaming catch-up TV services over the internet.
When you first launch the app, you’ll immediately see that it’s designed to work on lower-resolution screens such as older TVs, a nod to the fact media center software is often built with the thought of having your computer hooked up to your front room television for convenient access to all your media. The default skin is a little basic, but you can download alternative skins that provide a more modern look.
You’ll also find XBMC media management tools are impressive too – not only is it capable of playing most media formats, if you name up your media files correctly, it’ll automatically download and display useful information such as the episode title and synopsis of a TV show, or the correct artist name and track for music, making your collection easier to browse.
There is a slight learning curve involved with using XBMC, but it won’t take you long to master the basics and get it configured to your liking.
New features in version 13, codenamed "Gotham" include: Android hardware decoding and speed improvements, limited support for stereoscopic 3D movies, improved touchscreen support, enhanced UPnP capabilities, substantial improvements to the audio engine, major tweaks to the settings making them easier for beginners, improved subtitle search and more. Sadly, Windows XP is no longer supported as of version 13.
XBMC is also available for Raspberry PI.