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Forget Windows Media Center: Use a Free Linux-Based Media Center System

linux-media-center

Windows 8 no longer comes with Windows Media Center. To get it, you’ll need to purchase both the Pro Pack and Media Center Pack upgrades from Microsoft for a total of $110. Consider using a free, Linux-based media center system instead.

Once you have paid all this money, you’ll just have the old version of Windows Media Center without any improvements. Microsoft will probably discontinue Windows Media Center eventually, anyway, as they’re no longer focused on it.

XBMC vs. MythTV

There are many different Linux-based media center distributions you can download, but we’ll focus on what are likely the most popular and well-supported two: XBMCbuntu and Mythbuntu.

The real choice you have is between XBMC and MythTV. Both have different strengths, and which one you prefer will depend on how you use your media center — either as a DVR for recording TV from a traditional television connection, or a box for playing back Internet streams and local media files.

  • XBMC: XBMC started as “Xbox Media Center.” It’s designed to play back video from local files, network shares, or online streaming services. If you use your media center PC for playing back downloaded files or streaming Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and other online sources, you’ll want XBMC.
  • MythTV: MythTV is a DVR/PVR. If you have a source of television (antenna, cable, or satellite) and a TV tuner card, MythTV will allow you to watch TV, schedule recordings, and play back your recorded television shows later. If this is how you use your media center PC, you’ll want MythTV.

Of course, you can turn XBMC into a PVR or utilize some streaming services with MythTV, but neither will work quite as well. Each package has its own strengths and is designed for different types of use.

You can also use Windows-based media center software instead of relying on a dedicated Linux system — Windows Media Center isn’t the only option on Windows.

XBMCbuntu

XMBCbuntu, formerly known as XBMC Live, is a package that contains the XBMC software along with a minimal Ubuntu system. The operating system is designed to be used as a media center, so you don’t have to deal with installing a Linux distribution and configuring XBMC to work on top of it.

XBMCbuntu is the most officially supported XBMC-based Linux distribution. It’s available for download from XBMC’s main download page. Download the ISO file, burn it to a disc (or put it on a USB drive), and boot from it. Select the Try Ubuntu option to try XBMCbuntu before installing it.

You’ll need to log in as the xbmc user to continue. (You can find more instructions on the official XBMCbuntu FAQ page, if you need them.)

xbmcbuntu-login

Once logged in, you can launch the XBMC software and use it just as you would on Windows, Android, Mac, or any of the other platforms XBMC works on.

Mythbuntu

Mythbuntu is an official Ubuntu derivative focused on providing a dedicated MythTV system. Like XBMCbuntu, it provides a standard XFCE desktop without all the typical Ubuntu desktop software — just a MythTV system. Mythbuntu includes a custom graphical control center for MythTV. It has everything you need, whether you want to set up a standlone MythTV system or integrate a new system into an existing MythTV network.

As with XBMCbuntu, you’ll first need to download Mythbuntu and burn it to a disc (or copy it to a USB drive) before booting your computer from it. Boot the disc (or USB drive) and select the Try Ubuntu option. You’ll be dropped at the Mythbuntu desktop, where you can easily launch the Mythbuntu frontend or install the system to your hard drive.

mythbuntu-desktop

Mythbuntu requires a bit more setup — you’ll need to install it and use the setup utility to set it up on your home theater PC before you can use the frontend.


Of course, software solutions aren’t the only option. You could buy a dedicated piece of hardware like a Roku or Apple TV for less than the cost of the Pro Pack and Windows Media Center on a standard Windows 8 system.

Image Credit: Alessio Milan on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 05/19/13

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