There’s an excellent selection of Linux media centre’s and home theatre PCs available on Linux. Software that can power the most complete home media set-ups come in different guises and we’ve rated the best ones to figure out which should be taking your remote control inputs.
The most obvious choice for your home theatre needs, XBMC has an interesting history. Starting off as a hack for the original Xbox, the then-called Xbox Media Center is now much more synonymous with being used by hobbyists on normal PCs and Raspberry Pis alike to power a media centre.
XBMC is probably the most readily available solution, offered via many distro repos and via several specialised XBMC distros as well. The only method missing is an official XBMC distro, although OpenELEC can be considered this. Most hardware is supported by XBMC as well.
Ease of use
XBMC requires very little setup, normally just booting straight into a usable interface. Like this it will easily play any connected media, however you’ll need to add network shares yourself or connect manually to the Wi-Fi if you don’t have a wired network. Both of these tasks are easy to do thanks to a straightforward interface throughout XBMC.
XBMC’s app library is huge, covering many different apps for streaming video, music, podcasts and news feeds. Not just from Netflix and the like either, it also plugs into APIs for other sites with video and smartly scrapes other sites for their video information. They’re all free, and install with one click.
Overall – 9
XBMC is truly excellent. It offers such a complete package in a completely easy-to-use way that is also incredibly simple to find for your device or in your distro of choice. Even if you don’t use it, you should always keep it in mind.
Originally a fork of XBMC, Plex comprises of two components. A standalone front-end called Plex Home Theater and an optional back-end called Plex Media Server. The Media Server allows you to stream your media over the internet to another location, but its primary purpose is to serve the frontend.
Plex has become much harder to obtain as some of the newer versions and parts of it are closed source. You’ll need to build it all from scratch, or find the relevant repos for it to add to your system; all the major distros have repos though. This does limit how and where you can get Plex though.
Ease of use
A modern and simple interface, Plex is similar to XBMC by having such a straightforward menu system. Installation is generally pretty easy as well, with minimal setup involved. However, you do need to create a Plex account to properly and easily access your media, although that has the benefit of doing metadata processing on the cloud.
Plex by default is actually a little more limited than XBMC. Media is easily playable and all major codecs are supported, however its strength lies more in the way it catalogues your media via the Plex account than the ways to consume it. LiveTV is not provided by default either.
Known as Channels, there are many ways in which to extend Plex. This also includes the missing LiveTV recorder from before, along with a number of web streaming apps from major providers that have accessible APIs. Like XBMC though, there isn’t much in the way of home automation or other handy extra-curricular add-ons.
Overall – 6
While we very much like Plex, it takes a little bit too much setup to get it working. There’s no way to quickly get it to work with local media, but once you’re all ready to go it can be a nice and useful application.
MythTV is the original media centre and HTPC solution, and has been around for many years. Created primarily to record and playback live TV, Myth has received the ability to playback media in more recent times and it’s also well supported by plug-ins for many other functions.
MythTV comes in a few repos, notably the more popular distros such as Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSUSE. Along with Myth-based distros and full source code access, MythTV is generally easy to get. As you’ll be planning a MythTV setup in advance, it makes sense not to be in all package repos.
Ease of use
Myth tries hard to make the overall setup simple. There are options for pure frontends, or hybrid backend with a frontend; the latter being more like a typical media centre. The menu system is easy enough to navigate, but changing media folders and playback are limited without a remote.
Myth’s strengths are in the variety of built-in functions, from watching and recording TV, to listening to music and watching video files. All of this it handles perfectly, with plenty of customisation on each facet. It includes standard TV guide functions as well to aid TV viewing – although, like some of the other functions, it’s a little buried in the menus.
There is a selection of plug-ins for MythTV that not only add video streaming and other web services, but also extend the overall functionality of MythTV. For example, there are game services, CCTV control via ZoneMinder and other functions you can add to Myth. As you may be using a dedicated server for the backend, it makes sense to keep everything in one package.
Overall – 7
Myth’s maturity is extremely apparent as you set it up and use it, but sadly it is let down by its interface, which could benefit from a few improvements to truly make it the best offering of the bunch.
The all-in-one home-powering software doesn’t just let you play media fi les or watch/record live TV, it also lets you control your house automation, CCTV system and even includes VOIP phone service as part of the package. If you’re not using it for everything though, is it good enough just as a media centre?
LinuxMCE is a bit of a tricky one, as it comes as a distro. The preconfigured ISO is the only way to get it, which also makes it locked to standard PCs and no small or embedded devices. Like MythTV, it’s designed to be used in a serious home theatre setup, and this way there’ll be no variations due to missing packages or dependencies on your distro.
Ease of use
In a lot of ways, LinuxMCE holds your hand as you install and use the distro. A series of videos guides you through the process, allowing you to set up a server or frontend nice and quickly. On the other hand, the interface is clunky and major changes made to the distro, such as adding extra software, results in a rather lengthy reboot.
LinuxMCE has many functions that don’t relate to media playback – and the media playback itself is a little spotty. It’s much more designed around being used as a PVR, and to playback extra media you must install extra software from the wizard. The interface seems a little dated as well.
There isn’t a large selection of extra plug-ins for LinuxMCE, with a lot of its functions available from the start and very few unofficial plug-ins for the software. Some extras include weather and datalogging, but nothing major for a media centre such as Netflix or other online streaming services.
Overall – 5
Unfortunately, LinuxMCE isn’t really the tool for our task. It’s definitely very good as a all-in-one home control distro and it’s serviceable as a way to consume media, however it needs to focus more on the media centre side.
And the winner is…
We actually went in to this not expecting XBMC to fare as well as it did. While it’s definitely improved over the years, so have its rivals in this group test. A running theme seems to be the issue with the other media players though, with set-up procedures that are either complex or unnecessary. In the long run, something like MythTV is going to really aid you in getting TV playing on screens around a house or building, however that involves a lot more care and planning than most people will be willing to do.
This and Plex can be worth the time investment though. Having the extra control and curation of your media centralised in one system makes it easier to expand the network over time. However, with something so complicated, it can go wrong a lot faster.
XBMC’s strength is that it can be installed quickly and work straight away with minimal-to-no configuring. It also has the most mature interface, which is helpful in getting more novice tech users to use it. There are many excellent ways to obtain XBMC thanks to a wide variety of Linux distros containing XBMC in the repos, or a selection of distros that are based around XBMC. OpenELEC is one of the better distros for this, as it supports traditional PCs and the Raspberry Pi as well as many other small boxes and integrated systems.
As for hardware, mini-PCs and Raspberry Pis are some of the best pieces of kit you can use to get the media centres on your TV. Even if you’re using a MythTV-style setup, these can also be great frontends to display media recorded and stored on the server.