XBMC is an awesome open-source media center application that can be customized, thanks to an easy-to-skin interface, to give you the best looking media center on the block (and possibly in the county). Read on to see how.
XBMC has grown exponentially from its simple roots as a Xbox game console hack back in the early 2000s. It’s now a powerhouse of an open-source media center that you can install on everything from your Windows PC to a nettop to an AppleTV and quite a bit in between. Among the many selling points of XBMC is the ease in which you can customize the interface and easily swap out skins (or build your own) to get just the look you’re searching for.
Why Swap Skins and What You’ll Need
Why swap the skin? Superficially, you’ll get a whole new look for your media center. Most XBMC skins are so polished that the majority of your friends will simply refuse to believe you didn’t pay a lot of money for your media center and the software. Skins go well beyond freshening up the visuals, however. Many skins include GUI tweaks that increase usability such as how the now-playing list is layered over the current media, where you left off watching a TV series, and other tweaks. Picking a new skin is as much about the look as it is about the functionality and the way the menu layout and other GUI features meet your needs.
For this guide you won’t need much. To get started you’ll need:
- XBMC (version 10.0+)
- Skins for XBMC (don’t worry, we’ll show you where to get them)
- USB Drive (only necessary for offline transfer of skins from your computer to XBMC)
If you have XBMC installed already this guide will be a breeze. If you haven’t already installed XBMC now’s the time to do so; it’s a fantastic media center application and you won’t regret installing it. Check out the official XBMC guides for Windows, Mac, and Linux if you need help.
If you’re curious why we specified version 10.0+ it’s because version 10.0 marked a major overhaul in the way XBMC did many things including skinning. Prior to 10.0 skinning XBMC was a bit of a hassle and required lots of hands on tinkering in order to enjoy more advanced skins—needing to FTP into your XBMC to sort files into folders deep in the media center was a big deterrent for most folks. Now you only have to get your hands dirty if you really want to do deep customization beyond what simply downloading a new skin would provide.
One last tip before we dig in: every skin comes loaded with background images for the main menus like Videos, Music, etc.—such as the HDTV on the wall seen in the screenshot above. Even though those images take up a lot of screen real estate and make a strong first impression don’t base your opinion of the skin on that alone. Look at the menus, play around with them, get a feel for the layout. You can easily swap out the background images by navigating to System –> Settings –> Skin –> Background Customizer and change them to any high resolution image.
Getting Started Loading New Skins
Confluence is the default skin that ships with XBMC. It’s a beautiful skin and if you never switched from it we doubt anyone would ever complain about your media center’s good looks. What’s the fun in leaving things stock though? There are too many other beautiful skins for us to be content with the stock skin no matter how pretty.
Downloading and loading officially hosted skins: The easiest way to get new skins is to navigate on your networked and internet-accessible XBMC to the skin repository. Start by navigating to the System menu (found on the bottom of the initial left-hand navigation pane). The skin repository is buried several layers deep; navigate to System -> Add-ons -> Get Add-ons -> All Add-ons –> Skin (every menu navigation sequence we share in this tutorial assumes you’re using the default Confluence skin and thus the stock menu sequence).There you’ll find a list of all the skins currently in the official XBMC repository. You should see something that looks like this:
We’re going to take a look at Aeon Nox. The Aeon skin has been floating around for years. It has been revised and reborn with each major release of XBMC; we’re curious to see if it looks as sleek and awesome as it did when it first came out. Clicking on a skin in the official repository pulls up information about it:
If you like what you see, go ahead and click Install. You’ll jump back to the skin list and see the progress of the download from there. When the download is complete XBMC will ask you if you wish to switch to the new skin you downloaded.
Note: if you choose not to enable the skin now you’ll need to navigate to Settings –> Appearance –> Skin to turn the skin on. XBMC uses the words enabled/disabled to indicate if an add-on is available for the system to use not if the add-on is actively in use. All the skin swapping actually occurs either when you install a new skin and receive the prompt or when you swap the skin in the Appearance menu.
Now that we’ve installed Aeon Nox, let’s take a peek at what it looks like:
It looks stunning and just as good as the original skin we recall from the early days of XBMC skinning. Picking out new skins is fun!
Manually installing from a ZIP file: What if you want to install a skin from outside the officially hosted repository? You can work outside the repository easily. There are plenty of reasons to venture outside the bounds of the semi-official skins you find tucked away in the XBMC repository.
The XBMC web site has bustling forums dedicated to all aspects of the media center including skinning. Besides the official XBMC repository the XBMC.org Skin forums are the best place to find new skins. You can find everything there from test versions of your favorite skins to new skins seeking beta testers. You’ll frequently find skins that have been tweaked to look better on specific hardware configurations or to focus on some aspect that the modder thought was important (like better RSS feed integration, weather reporting, or movie information presentation).
For example, we can find variations of the Aeon skin we just installed including Aeon MQ2 and Aeon Showmix—both variations that share the basic core of the Aeon design but mix it up with new features and focus. If you checked out either of those links you saw one of the best reasons to check out the skin forums on XBMC: the dozens of screenshots you can check out before downloading the skin. Since we’ve already tested Aeon Nox, the official Aeon skin from the repository, let’s try out one of the variations.
First we’ll visit the official thread for the Aeon MQ2. There we can read up on it, check out the screenshots, and most importantly download the repository entry for the skin. In this case the author of the skin is hosting the file on his site (which also has loads of great screenshots and additional themes for Aeon MQ2).
Once you have the ZIP file downloaded you simply need to place it wherever you can access it from the XBMC installation you want to add the skin to—USB drive, network drive, burn it to a CD if you have to. We’re going to save it to a local drive that XBMC has access to. Once the file is in place navigate to System –> Settings –> Install from zip file. Browse to the file location—as seen in the screenshot above—and click on the ZIP file and click OK.
A small notification will pop up in the lower right corner to indicate a new repository was added. This is where it varies from just enabling a skin you didn’t turn on during the installation process. When you install an add-on (any add-on, not just new skins) from a ZIP file, XBMC creates a new entry under System –> Settings –> Get Add-ons, in this case Repo Aeon MQ. Click on the repository name for the new skin you added via ZIP. In that repository you’ll find an entry for the skin itself. Select it and you’ll get an installation box just like you would if you had grabbed the skin from the official repository:
Be prepared to wait a little as most 3rd party repositories aren’t as speedy as the official XBMC.org one. After selecting Install here, you can again opt to activate the skin during the installation process or browse to Settings –> Appearance –> Skin at a later time to do so.
We’ll activate it now. Let’s see if it has all that Aeon goodness we’ve come to expect:
Not only does it look great but it’s an excellent skin to show off the versatility of XBMC skins. When you install Aeon MQ2 you don’t just get a pretty new skin, you get a set of 5 skins that have been optimized for different situations (such as an older HTPC that might choke a little on more advanced graphics or the Pro mode for people who want to customize everything). We’re going to look at the normal mode for a quick comparison to the previous Aeon skin we just loaded.
It looks great and it’s packed with a bunch of great little tweaks including, as seen in the screenshot above, a media reminder that shows you the last movie, TV show, or album you were enjoying.
You can repeat the process for any downloaded skin; don’t forget that each new skin creates a new repository and you’ll need to use that repository to install the skin (it’s an easy step to forget and will lead to much frustrated menu digging).
Now that you know how to download and install your own skins the best thing to do is to go crazy trying them out. Read the XBMC skin forums, grab copies, and mess around until you find the perfect match for your media center needs. Have a skin you’ve already fallen in love with? Sound off in the comments and help your fellow readers find an excellent skin or two.
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 Google+ if you'd like.
- Published 07/5/11