You don't have to hunch over your PC monitor to watch YouTube, downloaded movies or TV shows. If you happen to have a PC connected to your big-screen TV, or even if you're thinking of hooking one up, then there are a few choice pieces of media centre software for you to pick between and get a great cinematic experience.
Home theatre image via Shutterstock
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Here are a few of the best programs you can install on your living room PC to transform it into an entertainment machine — capable of playing and navigating through a library of TV shows and movies, live TV, or even playing games. And, once you're done, you can play some games (maybe with Steam Big Picture)!
Plex is more than just a piece of media centre software — it's a complete media ecosystem. You'll have to have Plex Media Server installed — it's the backend program that catalogues all your photos, videos, music and other media files and streams them out across your network to any device you want — but the Plex Home Theater front-end is the 10-foot GUI that shows you everything in a beautiful, well organised format.
The Plex Home Theater interface is beautiful on the big screen — it's made for viewing from the couch, navigated via remote control. Images, album art and movie posters are presented in big, bold blocks, you can organise videos specifically into TV shows and movies, and the video-watching experience itself is just all-around excellent.
Even if you aren't using a PC in your living room, you can have Plex Media Server installed on the PC in your office or study, and stream video out to another device like a PS3, PS4 or Xbox One using Plex's huge range of apps. If you have multiple media-streaming devices set up all over your house — like a true gamer — Plex is one of the best choices you can make.
XBMC started out as the Xbox Media Center, and it's one of the original — and the best — pieces of media centre software that you can find. As the name suggests, it started out as a software hack for the original Microsoft Xbox, but as its feature-set grew the devs decided to take their hard work and port it onto a more capable platform — and thus you have XBMC for PC.
As a media center, XBMC is one of the absolute best. The application itself supports a huge range of codecs, and as part of the installation process you're prompted to select the photo, music, video folders on your PC, and from there the world is yours — you can use XBMC for just about any media streaming or viewing or listening task that you might require.
A specialised fork of XBMC is OpenELEC — that stands for Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center, if you were interested. Designed to get the absolute most out of super-low-power and miniature home theatre PCs, OpenELEC is a mere 125MB in size, so if you're running a system entirely focused on network streaming, or if you don't need the full power of Windows, it's a feasible choice.
A media centre PC isn't always just about watching videos. If you have an appropriately powerful computer connected to your TV, you can use it to play games — either with a controller, or a keyboard and mouse — using the gaming-focused media interface of Steam Big Pictrue.
If you don't have said powerful PC, you can use Steam's In-Home Streaming feature or Nvidia GameStream to hook up a more graphically-capable PC and stream gameplay of demanding PC games from PC to PC over your home's wired or wireless network. Especially if you're using a miniaturised PC like Intel's NUC, In Home Streaming transforms your low-powered living room computer into a gaming machine.
You have to have an external media folder for Big Picture to address — it takes a bit of finagling to set up initially — but if you only wanted to use one piece of media centre software, Big Picture can handle your TV- and movie-watching needs as well. It's made for gaming, and it does that exceptionally well, but it's also a little more versatile at the same time.
Windows Media Center has lost a little bit of its glamour and glitz in the last couple of years, but especially if you're still running Windows 7 then it's an excellent all-in-one program for your media — especially if you're planning on watching live TV, which was the initial purpose of the software itself. It's also available for Windows 8 and 8.1, although not RT, as long as you pay the $9.99 asking price.
Media Center is probably simultaneously the most complete and most streamlined piece of software for watching live TV, and recording it, for Windows home theatre PC users. For viewing a library of downloaded media, like movies and TV shows, or even your home movies, it also does a pretty good job although you have to view pictures and video within the same home screen sub-heading.
It's worth mentioning, though, that Media Center has lost the ability to play DVDs in its latest iteration in Windows 7, so you'll need to download an external DVD-playing program like Cyberlink PowerDVD. If you're in Windows 8 or 8.1, the Media Center Pro Pack from the Windows Store takes care of your DVD requirements.
MediaPortal is one of the lesser-known 10-foot media centre programs. It's completely free, and starting out initially as a fork of XBMC it fills most of the same roles — but it's a completely distinct and different piece of software despite that.
When you set up MediaPortal, you're prompted to select whichever of the built-in features you want and set the location of your various media libraries; you can use the interface to navigate pictures, movies, music or TV shows through the completely skinnable home screen — which you can navigate with either a keyboard and mouse or a supported remote control.
You can use MediaPortal to stream over Wi-Fi to a mobile device like a laptop or tablet, too. The entire program requires a little bit of tweaking and configuration to get just right, obviously, with the massive range of adjustment available to even amateur users, but what you get out of it is a comprehensive suite for big-screen media playback.
Honourable Mention: VLC Media Player
VLC is not a 10-foot GUI in the traditional sense, but I really think it deserves a special mention in this list.
VLC is so simple that it hurts. It's a barebones, lightweight, media player that functions best when you're opening files from a folder on your PC — double click and go, nothing more complicated than that. It does have a playlist and media centre function — you can set it to monitor folders for new content, pull metadata, add cover art, stream over a network connection, download Internet radio — but those features are better served with a more comprehensive piece of software.
If you already use your PC for other tasks than just watching movies and TV shows, streaming YouTube or listening to music, then a piece of software that doesn't get in the way can come in handy — and as far as that goes, you can't find many media players much more powerful and straightforward than VLC.