HTPC, Software

HTPC Frontend roundup

Update2
Here you find my complete list with links to all the HTPC-frontends I know of.

Update:
Tivo has recently made headlines as people have discovered a horrible functionallity that lets content providers delete shows on your box. My god, what a stupid move!

Kind of like:
You can buy this VHS tape, but you’ll hand over the keys to your apartment so that the content producers can come and take it when they decide that you shouldn’t be able to watch your recording anymore.

Open solutions like MythTV and MediaPortal suddenly became even more interesting. Still, even Microsoft haven’t implemented something like the Tivo “we’ll delete whatever we want”-functionallity. So, you’ll be better of with Windows MCE than with a Tivo.

This roundup boils down to:
For flexibility, total freedom and control: MythTV and MediaPortal
For usability: Microsoft Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE)

Original post:

I have been messing around with home theatre PCs (HTPCs) for a couple of years. This is my software roadmap:

1. Early experiments with an ATI All-in-wonder RADEON and the ATI Media Center
2. ShowShifter
3. MyHTPC + SnapStream PVS
4. Meedio + Beyond TV (+ tested Beyond Media)
5. Microsoft Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE)

Software that I have not testet seriously: SageTV, MythTV, MediaPortal

Conclusion

ShowShifter worked fine and offered a complete suite with PVR, DVD, a photo module, a very good music module and a movie archive. However, they did not provide an EPG and did not support hardware encoding cards. Unfortunately, Home Media Networks (the maker of ShowShifter) are slow on updating ShowShifter, so they lost me as a customer while I was waiting for hardware encoding support and EPG. ShowShifter now includes this, but as far as I can see, they’re still slow on updates…
If you are running ShowShifter, feel free to use my HTPC Backgrounds here. It could make the GUI look better…


MyHTPC + SnapStream PVS.

I started using SnapStream PVS as my PVR because I wanted hardware encoding and an EPG. SnapStream PVS was a PVR only solution so I installed myHTPC as the frontend to my music, pictures and video archive.

This worked quite well, and upgrading to Meedio (successor of myHTPC) and Beyond TV (successor of SnapStream PVS) was obvious.

Beyond TV is a very good PVR. It has a fantastic WEB based configuration GUI, client / server support and built in streaming of recorded shows and live streams directly through the WEB GUI. However, it is not a complete solution so you have to run it in combination with some other software to have a frontend to your music, pictures, DVDs and other movies.

I tested BeyondMedia (SnapStream’s effort on a media frontend), but found it very limited and not very user friendly. In adition to this it was actually poorly integrated into BeyondTV. I kept using Meedio. Meedio is a very powerful frontend to your music, DVDs, pictures and movie archive. Meedio has a big user base and huge amounts of plugins. It is very open and configurable.

But, I was tired of running several programs. The BeyondTV + Meedio solution gave me huge flexibility, but quite low usability and stability. The system needed maintenance quite often. If you are going to utilize the plugins and possibilities in Meedio you have to prepare for some late evenings (and a lot of fun!)…

So, I was willing to sacrifice possibilities and features for stability and usability. I bought a new screen card and installed Microsoft Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE) (I happen to work for a company that has an MSDN subscription).

And I must say… wow, now we are talking! Old and boring Microsoft. The company that still does not have a clue about design and media. The company that still delivers their operating system with “Paint” as the hard core imaging tool. The company that thinks PowerPoint is good for presentations and visual work… They have actually done it. They have made an impressive solution. MCE is by far the easiest and most complete HTPC front end I have tried.

It was very easy to install. It has a big user base and lots of plugins. You can rip CDs, burn CDs and even burn DVDs from the 10 feet GUI. On my box it runs completely stable. It is a bit limited compared to Meedio, but still it has lots of plugins and more than enough possibilities for tewaking.

What I liked was the fact that it played nice directly after a standard install. Perfect deinterlacing, HD-playback, several tuners, CD ripping, DVD burning… Just the word deinterlacing makes me think of the hours of tweaking in BeyondTV.

Of course, it is not perfect. It has serious issues with large music collections (slow performance). You can not record from the time shift buffer. It needs slighly more powerful hardware than the other solutions I know. If you already have an operating system on your HTPC it is quite expensive since it is only sold together with Win XP SP2. It lacks a streaming server and a web GUI to give you complete remote control.

Still, if you want a stable and very user friendly HTPC do not be afraid to install MCE.

I will keep an eye on the different solutions out there, and before you know it I am back here saying “the latest version of BeyondTV + BeyondMedia rocks!”… But for now. From what I have tried. MCE is the way to go.

And, the big question: Where is Apple in this? When will Apple release the most sexy HTPC ever?

More info:
You find my del.icio.us MCE-links here. And HTPC-links here.

Also please use the HTPC Category here at eirikso.com as well as the MCE-tag and How to….

Edit:
A very interesting thread over at AVSForum on these issues:
PVR Software for HTPC : SageTV, SnapStream, MythTV, WinXP MCE, myHTPC, Freevo etc.