For several years now I have been tinkering around with media center PC’s. Without exception I have used old PCs that no longer have the power to handle my heavy usage. After beginning my experimentation with Ubuntu as a lighter weight alternative to Windows, I set out on a quest to build a media center PC on Ubuntu. I have experimented with Hulu, Boxee, GBPVR, Myth and a few others that are not worth mentioning. My first goals was to be able to watch and record TV. But having Dish Networks has made this sort of pointless. What I have decided to do is to build a machine that will easily handle the other great media in my life: internet media content, mp3 files, movies and family videos/photos. Boxee does work fine for this but now that I have installed XBMC on Ubuntu 10.10, it’s bye bye Boxee for me.
If you are new to Linux, I don’t recommend that you start a project like this until you have learned how to navigate Ubuntu’s Software Center and have some experience with using the terminal. I won’t go into details but will provide the links you need in order to build your system. The great thing about Linux and XBMC, for that matter is that if you get stuck there are tons of people on the internet that will help you! Like I tell most people who come to me with technical questions… ‘Google it, and if you still can’t figure it out, call me.’
In a nutshell, XBMC is an open source media center application that enables you to use a home PC as a device to view internet content and your own private library of movies, music and photos. To learn more about XBMC, go to their website and check out the ‘about’ page.
To build my media center PC, I used an old Dell Latitude D610 Laptop rescued from destruction from my place of work. Rather than use Windows XP (I would have to purchase a license and deal with all the craziness that is Microsoft) I downloaded and installed Ubuntu (free Linux distro that is much less needy in terms of system resources). If you haven’t tried the newer flavors of Linux, I highly recommend that you do! My personal laptop is running Ubuntu along with 3 other computers at home and 1 at work. Quite simply: they rock. All of them are on older machines that most people would have tossed out due to how slow they are running Windows. Once Ubuntu was installed, I installed Samba (which enables the Ubuntu machine to easily connect with other computers on our home network). This will make it easy to transfer movies, music, pictures or whatever. Samba instructions here.
Next, I installed XBMC. Intructions are here. I ran a video cable and and audio cable from the TV to my component cabinet (I just used a regular computer monitor cable – if your computer has an HDMI port, I would use it). With the TV set up as a second monitor I was able to remove the laptop monitor. Not difficult to do if you are comfortable with taking things apart. Obviously one should be careful. I took the monitor off the laptop because I wanted the system to be as cool as possible and with it inside a cabinet, I didn’t want to have to close the laptop. A closed laptop that is running will tend to suffer in terms of cooling.
The final piece to the puzzle was setting up some sort of remote control. I used a Logitech diNovo Mini. It installed on the Ubuntu machine without any configuration at all. I just plugged in the USB dongle and it worked within 30 seconds. Again… Ubuntu rocks and so does this remote. It has a full QWERTY keyboard and a small mouse device integrated. It’s only about 5-6 inches wide and man does it work great.
That’s it! The expense for this project was only the price of the remote control. The laptop was one that was deemed too slow for use at my office and was to be discarded. All the software was free. The other great thing about XBMC is that it is highly customizable with tons of free skins and settings that you can tinker with. Now I can stream music through my surround sound system, watch movies from my collection that I have ripped and turned into .avi files (Highly recommend Handbrake for this – yes… it’s open source too). I can also play slideshows of family events and even watch my YouTube favorites. ALL from the comfort of my couch!