The quest for the perfect media center

Note to my regular readers: I write in english this time, as I suspect that this topic may have a wider audience than usual for my blog 🙂

For the last couple of years, I have been on the outlook for the ”perfect” media center. I still have not found it. If there is someone out there who has not yet heard the term ”media center” yet, let me explain:

A media center is a device/computer that you typically connect to your TV (and sound system) and that lets you enjoy a multitude of media such as movies, photos, music, TV (broadcast and on demand) and so on. Media could be locally stored on the media center, accessed from a PC or NAS in your own network, or accessed off the Internet.

So, how would I define ”a perfect media center”? My perfect media center would have the following characteristics/features:

  • It should be able to play/show all media types and access it from anywhere (local, LAN – in particular from a NAS,  and from the Internet)
  • WiFi must be supported
  • Good quality video (1080p) and audio (5+1 with various codecs)
  • Silent (typically means no fans or very silent ones)
  • Extendable by new apps (preferably an ”open” platform)
  • Automatic fetching and presentation of meta-data such as covers, actors, director and fan-art
  • Easy to use
  • Small
  • Cheap

So let me tell you what I have used so far and to what extent each device fulfill the above list. But first let me tell you what I did not try and why:

  • I did not try a PC with Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition. One of these would be very expensive, typically is not silent and requires quite a bit of fiddling to get all codecs etc in place.
  • I did not try XBOX 360 as it is quite expensive, is not silent and has various limitations as a media center. Neither is it small.

So let’s go through all of the options that I have tried in the past and recently: Media center built on NMT

The first one I had was called HDX-1000 and was a variant of the then very popular ”Popcorn Hour” media center. Popcorn Hour used a platform called NMT (not as in ”Nordisk MobilTelefoni”) but as in ”Network Media Tank”. Although very popular for about 2-3 years, it was never developed further to become a truly expandable platform. It had good video and to some extent audio, but there was no automatic media indexing. You had to select media by pointing at the file. Not very user-friendly. Based on an Intel chipset

Then I tried the Apple TV (generation 1). It had its advantages, but it was (and remains) a closed platform, you are only able to watch what Apple has decided that you should be able to (unless you jailbreak it). At the time, Apple did not have the Apple store set up for rental of movies in Sweden either, making it even less attractive.

The only way you could watch your own movies was to put them in iTunes and have your computer turned on. You could not put your movies on the NAS as I would like to. So off it went!

Based on an ARM chipset

Then came Apple TV (generation 2 and 3). Small, cheap and beautiful. And easy to use. But still closed for third-party developers and still only possible to access your own content if it is put in iTunes and iPhoto on your Mac or PC. This means that you have to have your computer turned on all the time, which is not what I want. Then I discovered ”aTV flash (black)”, which you could put on the aTV after jailbreaking it. With that installed, you could actually access your movies from a NAS and covers, fan-art etc would be automatically loaded for you. So where does this box fail? Well, the AppleTV generation 2 does not support 1080p. Neither does it support a lot of audio codecs. But the AppleTV generation 3 does support 1080p right? Yes, but it has not yet been jailbroken, so you cannot install ”aTV flash”. And it cannot do a lot of other tricks such as showing content from SVTPlay, TV4Play etc. So off it goes!

Android mini PC

Then we have this little beauty: It is called ”Android 4.0 mini PC” or just ”MK802” and is a tiny computer running – you guessed it – Android 4.0, a linux derivative. This thing, combined with a wireless keyboard/mouse combination does actually allow you to run Android apps designed for a tablet and some of those apps can be used to play media. But there is no really good media app that automatically indexes your media collection. And it works so-so. Sometimes it streamed video very well, sometimes it just stopped and buffered all the time. So off it goes!

Based on a Broadcom chipset

Speaking of small, what about running XBMC (previously known as ”XBOX Media Center”, nowadays it does not stand for anything in particular…) on a Raspberry Pi? Raspberry Pi is a computer not larger than a credit card (which actually makes it larger than the MK802) and has support for 1080p. It was never designed as a media center computer however, so it does not include support for WiFi. And despite numerous attempts I never got Raspbmc – the version of Linux that includes and is optimized for XBMC – to work with my WiFi dongle. So off it goes!

Last, but not least, we have ”Boxee box by D-link” which is a clever little computer based on an Intel Atom CPU and Linux, running Boxee which is a derivative of XBMC which is much more polished and easier to use. It has a lot of ”apps” and plays all media formats you throw at it. So where is the catch with this one? There are unfortunately two: First, it has fans. And you can hear them! Very annoying. There are articles on the Internet however, describing that you can actually disconnect the fans and the unit seems to run as well without them. The second catch is harder to do anything about. The company behind Boxee has abandoned it! Yes, as incredible this may sound, this is exactly what they have done, so they will only produce one more bug-fixing update, then there will be no more updates. And since it is a closed platform, no-one else can take over. What does this mean in practice? ONE consequence is that the Netflix-app will never be introduced outside North America. And Netflix is one of my most popular film sites right now. Apart from this, Boxee box is what I still run, until I find that perfect media center.

Slim model

How do I watch Netflix? Through my PlayStation 3. This is an incredible piece of hardware and Sony could easily have made it the number one media center if they just had any brains. But unfortunately Sony does not. So it remains a games console only. With the exception of a few apps such as Netflix.

So the quest continues! I wonder what the next box will look like? What do you think? Feel free to comment!

Edit 2013-12-14:

mac-mini-06-2010

Actually, I decided to give up on one of the requirements: ”cheap”. So with this sacrifice, I could go for the option that seems to be the best bet currently – a used Mac mini. (Buying it second-hand makes it not so expensive). The Mac mini (2011 model) has a dual-core Intel CPU, 4GB of RAM (after upgrade) and a hard drive. It connects to the TV via HDMI. It can run anything that you throw at it, including XBMC and Plex. Currently I am running both XBMC, Plex and some other things through the web-browser. Also, it is absolutely quiet and, as with  most products that Apple design, ”just works”.

 
Edit 2015-05-26:

Two months or so ago, I felt it was time to invest in new gear again. First off, I found a blue-ray player from Samsung that did not only play Blue-ray disks, but also contained ”Smart-TV functionality”. With this little beauty, it was possible to run Plex – my favourite media application, Netflix, Magine and a host of other apps that could be downloaded off of Samsungs site. I connected it to the existing Samsung TV (from 2009) and now the TV felt like a dinasaur in comparison, so I suddenly felt an urge to upgrade the TV also. So I bought a Samsung UE55H7005 smart-tv. Now I had two devices that could run the same apps.. hmm not actually needed but what the heck… Then all of a sudden the Sony 5.1 sound system seemed out-of-place. So I ditched it and bought a soundbar from Harman Kardon – that cannot run apps 🙂

So, does the blueray player and Smart-TV replace my mac mini? Yes for 99% of all use-cases. The only use-case that I have found so far that they cannot replace the mini for is when I want to watch something that is geo-blocked, like content on British iPlayer. So I’ll keep the mini, but it is most of the time powered off.