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How to Enable Automatic Subtitle Downloading in XBMC

If you’re rocking XBMC, the robust, free, and open-source media center solution (that we love and rave about) and are sick of suffering without subtitles, or struggling to manually match and download them, struggle no more: you can enable automatic downloading in XBMC. Read on as we show you how to enable the service and grab subtitles with ease.

Why Do I Want To Do This?

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Subtitles make it easier to enjoy your movies and TV shows. No more turning the volume up when two spies are whispering (only to have your ear drums blown out when the bomb they’re whispering about goes off), characters with heavy accents (or speaking in another language all together) are easier to understand (heavy cockney accent impeding your enjoyment of British dramas? Not anymore!), and if you’re trying to keep the volume down so as to not upset your neighbor-through-the-thin-wall (or, worse, the baby you just put to sleep), subtitles are a life saver.

Even better, the system we’re about to turn on automates the process. Gone are the days of searching for subtitles in advance and scrounging around the various subtitle repositories on the Internet looking for a perfect match. XBMC has an add-on that automatically searches for and enables subtitles on-demand for all your movies and television shows. There’s no need to think ahead and plan your subtitle downloads or suffer without them.

To follow along with this tutorial all you need is a copy of XBMC 10.0 or above (although if you’re running a version that outdated, we strongly suggest updating to XBMC 12.x). Our instructions assume you are using the default Confluence skin (and all screenshots will reflect that).

Note: If you’re running an early beta release of XBMC 13.0, please refer to this official XBMC wiki document outlining how to enable the subtitle services in XBMC 13.0+ as the impending Gotham release changes the subtitle service slightly and integrates it directly into XBMC.

Enabling the Subtitle Add-on

The first step is to enable the subtitle add-on. Fire up XBMC and, from the home screen, navigate to System -> Appearance -> Skin.

Here we can access the settings for our current skin and enable the on-screen subtitle button. Continue navigating within the Settings menu to Add-on Shortcuts -> Video OSD.

Select Subtitle Add-on. If you have never messed around with Subtitles on XBMC, you’ll likely be presented with this screen, indicating you have no add-ons to enable:

Select the Get More… button at the bottom of the Subtitles dialog box. This will kick you over to the Add-ons repository list and place you in the Subtitles sub-directory where you’ll see the official XBMC Subtitles add-on:

Select XBMC Subtitles. In the Add-on Information screen, select Install:

After you select Install you’ll be returned to the main Add-ons – Subtitles page where you’ll see the download progress. Then the add-on will be automatically enabled and a small pop-up notification in the lower right corner will indicate the process is complete.

At this point, the add-on is successfully installed and we simply need to enable access to it via the OSD (On-Screen Display) so we can use it while enjoying our media. Return to OSD subtitle screen (System -> Appearance -> Skin -> Settings -> Add-on Shortcuts -> Video OSD -> Subtitle Add-on, from the Home screen). Now when you select Subtitle Add-on, you’ll have an option to select:

Select XBMC Subtitles. Confirm that XBMC Subtitles is the enabled option on the Add-on screen:

At this point the Subtitle Add-on is installed and we’ve successfully added a shortcut to it on the On-Screen Display so we can access it while watching movies and television shows. Let’s take a look at how it works in action.

Calling on the Subtitle Add-on While Watching Media

Installing the add-on is all well and good, but what really matters is how well it works when we use it while watching our favorite media. First, we’ll look at how to manually grab the subtitles, then we’ll look at how to enable automatic best-fit downloads triggered by a single click.

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For our sample media, we’re going to use an episode of The Walking Dead. If you’re a fan of the show, you’re more than familiar with how the show can go from hushed-don’t-let-the-zombies-find-us whispers to full out gun-fights-and-screaming in a matter of seconds. It’s a perfect show to demonstrate how useful subtitles are as you can adjust the volume to gun-fight-comfort-level and then still hear the characters when they’re whispering.

To follow along at home, fire up any movie or television show you want to add subtitles to then press Enter or M on your keyboard to bring up the OSD menu while the media is playing (or press the equivalent key on your remote control). Now, on the OSD menu, you’ll see a new option that wasn’t there before:

That little screen-with-a-line-at-the-bottom icon is the on-screen link to the Subtitle Add-on. Select it now.

By default, the Subtitle Add-on will connect to OpenSubtitles.org and look for English-language matches (we’ll highlight how to change this in a moment):

Here you can see there are 13 English-language matches in the OpenSubtitles database for this episode of The Walking Dead. Further, of the available subtitles, three of them are flagged CC (which indicates they adhere to the conventions of the Closed Captioning system) and one of them is flagged SYNC which indicates that the particular subtitle set (seen at the top of the list) is in sync with the audio track of the episode it is linked to. That means our best bet is to grab the very first subtitle on the list as it’s both CC-enabled and synced to our current media. Let’s select it and see how it looks:

Success! The subtitles downloaded almost instantly and were nicely synced up to the audio: no additional tweaking necessary.

Let’s pretend for a moment, however, that things didn’t sync up properly for you. There are two approaches you can take. You could repeat the process and download a totally new set of subtitles (hoping that one would sync up better), but that’s a bit of a gamble. If you see that the current set you have is displaying the correct words but is out of sync, it’s usually better to simply adjust the timing. You can do so by pulling up your OSD menu again and selecting the Audio menu:

At the bottom of the Audio – Settings menu, you’ll find the Subtitle offset section:

Here you can adjust the offset forwards or backwards to properly sync the subtitle text up with the spoken dialog.

Advanced Subtitle Tweaks and Options

Now that we have subtitle downloading enabled and we’ve learned how to adjust the offset (if need be), let’s look at how we can further automate the process and make additional adjustments (like selecting a different language).

In the previous section we had to click the subtitle button and then select the subtitle we wanted to use. We can make this process a one click-affair rather easily. Pull up the Subtitles menu again.

On the far right side you’ll see a light blue arrow. Select it and the Available Services/Settings menu, seen above, will pop out. Click on Addon Settings.

Here you can select which language(s) you want to download:

And which subtitle services you want to use:

There are dozens upon dozens of them. Although OpenSubtitles is the default service, you can select from specialty services if you’re looking for alternate languages like Russian, Italian, Swedish, etc.

Finally, and the most important to automating the subtitle retrieval process, is the Advanced Options menu:

At the very bottom of the options list, you’ll find “Auto download first ‘sync’ subtitle”. Remember in the previous section when we opted to download the first suggestion, the subtitle set with the SYNC flag? If you enable this setting, when you click the subtitle button on the On-Screen Display menu, it will automatically grab the best match subtitle for you from your default subtitle provider; you won’t need to load the subtitle list and select it yourself. Once you find a subtitle service that works consistently for you, toggling this setting on makes subtitle retrieval a one-click/zero-effort affair.


That’s all there is to it! A few toggles, a few tweaks, and you can enjoy instant on-demand subtitles with ease. Have a question about media centers, subtitles, or XBMC? Shoot us an email at ask@howtogeek.com and we’ll do our best to answer it.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 04/10/14

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