The Ultimate Home Media Player Setup

After a long hiatus, I have decided to share the details of one of my favorite projects. I have always loved music, movies and technology so what better way to enjoy all of these by creating a home media player.

Finding The Right Tools:

I’ve been connecting computers to TVs since before the days of Windows Media Center in order to be able to watch internet only streams, play music, and watch movies. During this time I’ve experimented with a number of programs, both commercial and open source. Until around four years ago they were all lacking in some way. They either had a beautiful user interface, but lacked capability and compatibility or they were highly capable power houses with an awful user interface. Then a friend and co-worker introduced me to Xbox Media Center (XBMC.)

In it’s early days XBMC ran on the original Xbox if you had a mod-chip. I’ve never been a big gamer, so this was completely foreign to me as I never had an Xbox. Before getting a PS2 for Christmas around 2004 or 2005 my last gaming system was a Super Nintento. My friend Rob and I both shared a passion for home entertainment and tech, and he spoke extremely highly about XBMC to the point that I had to check it out. Rob was nice enough to give me an old Xbox that was nearly dead that he had laying in his basement and I got online and ordered a mod chip and set forth to do some good old hardware hacking. Eventually I got everything installed and loaded up XBMC and was delighted to find that everything Rob said was true.

It fit all of my criteria:

  • Beautiful User Interface
  • Easy to use and navigate
  • Can stream media from the internet
  • Can mount file shares from local servers
  • Will play a very wide variety of formats
  • Has a good development community
  • Has plugin capabilities
  • is free

So, I was delighted (and still am) to have a home media center that met and exceeded all of my wants and needs. In summer of 2010 however I had another need added to the list. The ability to playback HD content.

The old Xbox did a fine job of playing back standard definition media, and when I got my HDTV I was pleased to find it would even up convert it to either 720p or 1080i. However the old Intel Celeron processor that drove the original Xbox just didn’t have the horsepower to handle the playback of true 1080p HD content.

Enter the Acer Aspire Revo and XBMC Live.

Building the Box & System:

Rob and I continued to share notes on our experiences with XBMC over the years, and we found an excellent writeup in Lifehacker on how to build a very inexpensive and powerful XMBC box. Check it out here.

This was right up my alley. It would allow me to continue using XBMC (which had blossomed into versions for Windows, Mac and Linux by this time) while giving me the ability to have true 1080p playback, up conversion and viewing. All for less than $250 in hardware.

The Lifehacker article does an excellent job explaining how to actually build up the machine, so I’m not going to duplicate that, but what I will share is a few tips from my experience.

First a little background about my home media setup. I have a Panasonic P50 G20 Plasma screen. One of the things I noticed early on about this TV was that even though it has three HDMI input ports and digital optical (SPDIF) out, it will not pass the surround sound signal across the HDMI / SPDIF. This was a bummer since I have a very old Sony audio receiver from around 1997 or 1998. The only video source it knows about is composite, and it has one digital optical and one digital coax input. This meant I had to figure out how to both do video and audio switching (since I couldn’t use my TV for it, which was the original plan) and figure out how to demux the audio signal coming across the HDMI out from my fancy new Acer XBMC box.

My friend Rob pointed me toward earlier version of this, which was perfect. One of the things I always want to do is make it easy to operate my home theatre, so rather than having to switch between multiple sources on multiple devices I wanted to use this new switch to handle everything. So I found these devices to convert all of my component sources to HDMI.

With these components and some inexpensive (and excellent quality) HDMI cables also scored from Monoprice, now I had all of the components necessary to get everything connected. I brought the component output + SPDIF of my PS2, and my AT&T Uverse box into the HDMI converters. Then HDMI out from those, plus HDMI from the Acer into the Switcher. Then from the switcher I feed a single HDMI cable up to my TV, and a single SPDIF optical cable down to my receiver.

Now after, some remote control programming, you simply select the input number of the device you want to watch from the switcher’s small credit card remote, sit back and enjoy. Perhaps someday I’ll invest in one of the Harmony remotes and reduce down from five remotes to one, but for the time being I’m happy to be able to control the entire system from my couch.

Looking Ahead:

Now that Apple has released the Apple TV2 for the price point of $99 and XBMC has a version that works on iOS and the ATV2, I am anxious to get my hands on one of these devices and see how it works. Unfortunately I don’t see this as a replacement for my Acer setup, because at the present time the Apple TV can only output a max of 720p. If I ever get a second HDTV for my bedroom or elsewhere in the house, you can bet you’ll be reading an article about my experience with XBMC on ATV2.

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