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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Which Media Center Is Right for You: Boxee, XBMC, and Windows Media Center Compared

By: Jason Fitzpatrick & Kevin Purdy —

Want all your downloads, streaming video, and other techie media stuff on your TV? Wondering which media center works best for you? Here's a look at the biggies in chart and Venn diagram form, followed by some lengthy breakdowns of each.

New to the idea of TV-connected computers? Head down below the charts for some explainers and deeper comparisons of each system. If you're already familiar with the HTPC scene, we'll give you the good stuff first.

We focused on three widely available, and generally popular, media centers for our comparison and review. We're certainly aware there are many alternatives out there, as free software or stand-alone hardware boxes, but these are the three of the most popular media centers, they receive ongoing development, and they can easily be installed on a wide number of TV-connected computers.

The graphical explanations

Here's how we see the three major media centers, in chart list and Venn diagram forms. Note: The chart is based on out-of-the-box features that don't require the user to install any plug-ins.

What's a media center, exactly?

What does a media center do? It varies, but it generally takes all the stuff you'd normally enjoy on a computer or portable device—MP3s, video files, Netflix, Hulu, digital photos, and web/social apps—and plays it on a television, through your speakers, and back onto your wireless network, if you'd like. Media centers can be run off of pretty much any capable computer, but are generally intended for small and specialized computers, called Home Theater PCs, or HTPCs. HTPCs have the video and audio ports necessary to hook up to a modern high-definition television, and generally have enough processing power and memory to handle the heavy burden of converting, playing, and sometimes recording high-resolution files. If you've got a home network set up with shared files and network-attached storage (NAS), media centers can generally pull their content off other systems and devices, as well as receive files for storage and download them directly off the net.

Put simply, a media center allows you to sit on a couch and do the most fun things you'd do on a computer with a remote. You can fire up a movie from Netflix's streaming service or from a file you've already downloaded, catch the show you missed last night on Hulu, put on background music while you're doing something else, share your Flickr or Picasa photos with visiting relatives—whatever you'd like, really.
Not every media center can do everything, however, and some are much better at certain entertainment jobs than others. The editors at Lifehacker conferred on what each box does best, tried to pin down what each system can and can't do, and put it together in ways that we hope can help you decide.

Windows Media Center, XBMC, and Boxee

Here's a more in-depth look at the media centers—installing and setting them up, and their pros and cons.
Windows Media Center is "free" with Home Premium or Ultimate copies of Windows Vista, all versions of Windows 7 except Starter or Home Basic, and available as a stand-alone, XP-based operating system dubbed "Media Center Edition." XBMC is a free and open-source media center software that was born as a game-changing XBOX modification, but now runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, and XBOX systems, as well as booting and running off a USB stick. Boxee is based on the same core internal code as XBMC, but focuses on bringing web content—video sites, blog streams, and social apps—into your living room, while XBMC remains oriented toward a download-and-play setup.
Plex, a popular and very eye-pleasing media center for Mac OS X, is certainly a contender in this category. For all intents and purposes, though, it's a variant of XBMC. Most anything we write or display in this post about XBMC applies to Plex, too, except for matters of looks and interface.
Those would be our definitions in the Lifehacker Dictionary, anyways. Let's get a bit more encyclopedic on the strengths and weaknesses of each system:

Windows Media Center

Installation and Setup: Fairly easy. It comes pre-loaded in the higher-end editions of Windows Vista and 7, and assuming your computer or HTPC has the right outputs and plugs, Windows can fairly easily adjust its display to your television. If you're running other Windows systems on your wireless network, you won't have to do much configuration to start "sharing" files back and forth from the TV-connected system to your other platforms. If you're running Mac or Linux computers, you'll have a good deal more work to do. If your media computer came with a TV tuner card already installed, Windows will recognize it and work with it to record TV shows.

Here's how Adam turned a Windows PC into a Media Center powerhouse, with a good detail on the installation and setup process.
  • Nice and easy DVR: And you don't have to pay a monthly fee.
  • Calm, easy interface: Divided into obvious sections and fairly intuitive directional layouts.
  • Large range of compatible remotes: Look online or in an electronics store for a "Windows Media Center remote," and you'll find something with lots of buttons that instantly hooks up to your Media Center, usually through a USB-connected receiver.
  • Generally easy networking: Across Windows systems, that is, and if you're down with the shared folders setup.
  • File handling: Generally, Media Center can handle the same files that Windows Media Player can handle, and, with the right codec installations, that can be quite extensive. But out of the box, don't expect support for the diverse range of video and audio you'll find around the web.
  • Windows-only: But you knew that.
  • Complex remotes: Media Center works with a lot of remotes, but they often look like parodies of button-stuffed clickers. If a simple, Apple-like navigator exists for Media Center, do tell us in the comments.
  • Locked-down DVR files: Work-arounds and decoders exist, of course, but if you want to play your recorded TV shows on anything other than your personal set of authorized Windows machines, Zunes, and XBOX devices, good luck.
Note: Windows Media Center doesn't support Hulu by default, but with the right plug-in it can do the trick.


Installation and Setup: It depends, of course, on the platform and hardware you're installing on. Getting it running and connected on a modern Windows or Mac system is fairly painless, at least from a software standpoint. Running it as a "live" system from a USB stick isn't too hard, either, and you can install it from there onto an HTPC hard drive. Plugging it into a Madriva Linux box and hooking it up to your very specialized 1080p plasma setup with optical audio out will likely require hair plugs and years of therapy.
Read up on Adam's guide to building a silent, standalone XBMC media center on the cheap for a look at the live-USB-to-installation path on a $200 HTPC system.
  • Open source, open nature: Need XBMC to do something it doesn't do already? Chances are, there's a clever hacker working on it. XBMC doesn't have the same kind of "platform" that its offspring Boxee does, but coders can get into it and make it better, and make it do more.
  • Meta-data and file recognition: From personal trials and commenter anecdotes, XBMC is really good at knowing when you've put new files somewhere in your system, figuring out what types of files they are (movie, TV, music, or picture), and reaching out to the internet to pull down relevant pictures, data, reviews, and even trailer links for the videos and music you plug into it.
  • Light and agile: Relatively speaking, XBMC may have some really nice graphics and menus, but because it comes from a project to put a full media center on a game system, XBMC is focused on playing back media files as smoothly as possible.
  • Slick, customizable looks: Even putting Plex aside, XBMC wins, hands-down, for looking like you're living in the future when displayed on a really big, nice TV. Don't like the way it looks by default? Put a new skin on it, and it's a whole different beast.
  • Format support: Personally, I've never found a file on the web, or converted from a friend's computer, that XBMC couldn't play, unless something was wrong with it.
  • Lack of Netflix, Hulu: There have been work-arounds, hacks, and other tweaks to make XBMC work with the two big names in streaming video. If you were depending on either one, though, XBMC would not be a safe bet.
  • Over-stuffed, sometimes complicated menus: XBMC's menus and layout are the geekiest around—how you react to that depends on your temperament. You can do all kinds of things from any screen in XBMC, and its interface often has a smile-inducing futuristic feel to it. But for someone new to media centers and looking to just sit down and play something, it can be quite imposing.


Installation and Setup: On Windows and Mac systems, the latest Boxee beta is relatively simple to install, as it uses the built-in video and audio systems to push out content. On Linux, it's a good deal more complex, but, then again, what on Linux isn't? Apple TVs require a bit of hacking. In general, Boxee is compatible with the same kind of hardware as XBMC—OpenGL or DirectX-compatible video cards are highly recommended.
Here's how Kevin set up a cheap but powerful Boxee media center using a brawny $350 HTPC and free copies of Linux and Boxee.
  • Built-in Hulu and Netflix: Boxee and Hulu have had their differences, but they seem to have reached a draw in the stand-off—most Hulu shows and movies work, most of the time. Netflix works fine on Windows and Mac, assuming you don't mind installing Microsoft's Silverlight system.
  • Growing directory of web content apps: Love FailBlog? Dig Vimeo's really hi-res stuff? Fan of TwiT's videocasts? Watch them all from Boxee's app, and grab more in the app "store," which has a very healthy selection of customized streaming content.
  • Play anything (technically): Boxee uses a reworked Firefox browser to view Hulu, but it's available for nearly any kind of web video page you find on the web. The Boxee Browser is a kind of last resort for any web content that doesn't have its own app.
  • Love-it-or-leave-it interface: Even with its content-forward redesign, many media center aficionados have said they can't get used to Boxee's hidden left-hand sidebars and forward/back functionality. Some just don't like the default looks. It's not a make-or-break issue, considering it's basically the same core tools as XBMC, but if you're going to spend serious time with a media center, you want to like how it looks.
  • Local file handling: Boxee doesn't seem as smart about recognizing and updating local file stores. In the words of one Lifehacker editor, "Local files are almost an afterthought." That's to be expected, somewhat, on a system that's so web-facing and stream-savvy, but Boxee could do a lot more to make downloaded music, movies, and pictures easier to gather, organize, and access.

We know—we absolutely know—that we may have missed a feature, put in "No" where "Yes" should have been, or otherwise missed a detail or two in our breakdown of these media centers. We tried our best to research and check them, but if you see something wrong, or missing, in our explanations or charts, by all means: tell us, politely, in the comments, and we'll update this post, and the charts to match the reality. Feel free to also tell us which system has worked best for you, and why, in the comments.