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.

HTPC Frontend roundup

29 thoughts on “HTPC Frontend roundup

  1. Some issues from the discussion over at HTPCNews:

    POST FROM “BLUE”:

    QUOTE: “The BeyondTV + Meedio solution gave me huge flexibility, but quite low usability and stability.”

    Would you mind expanding on this a bit? To me flexibility is a key component to usability. Although, if this is in reference to one getting caught up in “tweaking”, then I can see how such a person may not take the time to use their HTPC. I don’t believe this is a fault of the software though.

    In terms of stability, are you referring to the BTV + Meedio combination, or to either program individually? I cannot speak for BTV (since I don’t use it), but I don’t believe there have been many people complaining about the stability of Meedio Essentials (can’t say the same for their forum though, which has been down all weekend).

    Thanks for posting the roundup. I’m always interested in what others have to say about the various PVR/frontend options…

    MY ANSWER:
    I agree. This needs some more detail:

    Meedio alone is very stable. BTV alone is quite stable. The problem is the fact that I had to switch between the two.

    I used Girder in an advanced way to give the system as much usability as possible, but having two different players for video. Several different ways into my video files. And huge amounts of small differences when it comes to navigation made some issues regarding stability and usability.

    I wanted control over my music collection through NetRemote, so in addition to Meedio and BTV I had to run J River Media Center and a plugin in Meedio to control my music through J River. That also caused issues regarding stability. Now NetRemote controls MCE directly.

    Yes, flexibility is a key issue and that is why I have not considered MCE before now.

    I guess a clean Meedio install, using Meedio TV as the PVR will be better than my Meedio + BTV solution.

    _eirikso

  2. Hi
    How would you like to come on the Windows Media Center Show and talk about your findings? I think it would make an interesting chat

    Ian

  3. Benneh says:

    Why would you do this kind of review and ignore something as advanced and capable as mediaportal?? IMO it is on par with mediacenter in many aspects, and better/worse in some aspects.

  4. I would like to emphasise that this is not a systematic review. It is the tale of an experienced HTPC user trying to find the best solution.

    I have followed the development of MediaPortal and find it very interesting. I installed an early version and it had huge amounts of potential. It seems like MediaPortal has been growing seriously over the last couple of months.

    I will for sure test it again, but the motivation for my switch from Meedio and BeyondTV was an attempt to make things as easy as possible. When I found both the installation and use of MCE so easy and stable I settled with that (… for now). :-)

    And, while we are talking about alternatives: XLobby is also something that should be considered as well!

  5. I found your article very good and well written. I thought that I would also add a link to something that I wrote up with more of a discussion of SageTV. I am using that because I do not have the needed hardware to run Media Center, but SageTV requires a lot less to run. I am running the client on a Pentium 700 mHz laptop without any problems… So if you are interested, please visit: http://www.learnfamily.com/data_files/dvr.php

    -Matt

  6. I agree completely with your observations of Beyond Media and Beyond TV. Beyond TV is the best PVR I have used but it is not integrated with Beyond Media. I like MediaPortal because it is a full HTPC frontend with PVR functionality. It has great picture quality with my Hauppage WinTV PVR250 (better than Beyond TV) and the Mpeg2Dec filter. It is constantly being updated and is getting more and more stable.

  7. Although it is owned by a corporate entity, ReplayTV has so far resisted an actual delete option, although they have eliminated automated commercial advance due to pressure. I recommend ReplayTV if you want an inexpensive option that doesn’t require computers, software installs, etc. Its isn’t Tivo, but neither is Tivo anymore.

  8. Nat says:

    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.

    How do you know what Microsoft hasn’t implemented? Tivo’s woes only came to light because of a bug, or bad data from a syndicator. Tivo seems to be claiming that the anti-features in question are a mandatory element of a Macrovision license, which Microsoft needs as much as Tivo does.

    I’d bet dollars to doughnuts the MCE functionality just hasn’t been exposed yet.

  9. Remus Shepherd says:

    Do any of these PVRs work by dialup?

    Many of us country folk are still without broadband access. And as far as I know, TiVo is the only PVR solutions that doesn’t require constant broadband net access. TiVo will dial up to their servers to download the show listings. Will any other the other options out there?

    Considering I bought a TiVo just two months ago, I’m also curious about whether I can recondition this brand new TiVo box into a different PVR — or failing that, a Linux mini-PC. Hate to throw money away by throwing the box away so soon after buying it…

  10. Nat,
    I guess you’re right. I can’t be sure what kind of protection or strange stuff Microsoft has put into their system. But, MCE is based on a standard PC. As long as the files are unencrypted they can be moved out of the control from any obscure “automatic delete”-function…

  11. […] To make it easier for Dagbladet’s readers I will give you a quick roundup of some media center links and advice: – The complete list of software solutions – A quick roundup of some of the systems I have tried – An update with links to other articles as well – Converting DVR-MS files from your media center – Placeshifting, your media everywhere! – Remote control your music collection in MCE – Everything in the HTPC category […]

  12. Abhay says:

    Thnx a LOT !

    for this compilation of various frontends , some time back i didnt knew what a HTPC is and by accident i happened to visit this site and this is what ive been looking for , just tried one of them its good , and it works GR8 with my Sony Ericsson REMOTE C feature , i can easily access the UI with my Cell W810i

    Thnx again ,

  13. hello…

    this is some great reading. but iam still a bit unsure.. but why not ask you :)..

    witch software would u recomend to use and workes best for larged music collections – and playing movies thats located in multiple dires and off cource remote access…
    :)

    and keep the good work

  14. We at Cinemar (creators of MainLobby) are also fans of BeyondTV. There is now a tightly integrated solution tieing all of the MainLobby components (WebLobby / TVLobby / XMLobby / MusicLobby / and hundreds of hardware device drivers) with BeyondTV. The user interface is completely customizable so that it blends in with your home. Works via a PC desktop or an in wall touchscreen or handheld touchscreen (like a UMPC).

  15. What about front row on some not so new mac mini? I’ve also tried back row (read: opensource thing looking like ugly apple front row, bot is easy to make it prettier :)) ;)

  16. Fulvio says:

    Hi! I’m trying Meedio but I can’t find the WinLirc.dll plugin, how/where can I find it? I think Meedio is great to play music and films remote controlling :)

  17. Unfortunately I don’t know the answer to that question. Guess you’ll have to rely on some of the people following this post, or maybe try some of the HTPC-forums out there.

  18. Tukom says:

    When reading this old media center round-up, it really shows how much media center softwares have evolved in the past 5 years. The online video content has added new requirements to not only to media center softwares, but also to the HTPCs. The 10-foot interface is really a hot topic nowadays and it seems that it might finally a time for HTPC to become more mainstream.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s