Just because Microsoft killed Windows Media Center in Windows 10 doesn’t mean that you’re out of luck with your home-theatre PC. Here’s how to turn your Windows 10 machine into your home theatre’s best friend.
If you don’t already have a home-theatre PC (HTPC) up to the job of streaming your content, you’ll need to source one from parts or buy one off the shelf. Here’s how to get started!
Choose Your Specs
Building a home-theatre PC is relatively easy, but you have to remember up front that not all hardware is created equally. You’re going to need a machine with enough grunt to make sure that your HTPC is up to the job in front of it.
Sure, you could use something like the cheap and cheerful Raspberry Pi mini-computer, but what you really need for that hot new HTPC is something a little more grown-up. Ideally, you’d like this thing to be your ultimate media PC, so let’s use that as our frame when looking for specs. And don’t worry: building a HTPC isn’t like building a gaming PC. You’ll need a fraction of the cash.
For a basic system, you shouldn’t need more than 2GB-4GB of RAM, an Intel Core i3 or AMD A6 CPU, a decent Blu-ray disc drive and a hard drive that’s at least 1TB in size. Also keep in mind that you’ll want a small-ish case that fits inside your entertainment unit. Check out this list for specific component names and numbers.
Of course, you can always just buy a machine off the shelf for your HTPC needs. If you’re doing that you’ll need to remember you lose the ability to truly customise your machine with an off-the-shelf purchase, and you might end up paying more for the convenience at the end of the day.
Buying your own machine comes with the added benefit of getting Windows 10 pre-installed, whereas building your own machine means you need to factor in the cost of a software licence.
Of course, if you have your own machine already, you can skip this step and get on with your software install!
Choose Your Software
Windows 10 is fantastic, because it runs a swathe of great software suites. There are hundreds of options for your home media centre software, and you should experiment with as many of them as you can to find one that’s right.
We have two recommendations: Kodi (formerly known as XBMC) and Plex.
Setup and Configuration
Plex takes about five minutes to set up. Kodi can take five minutes too, but it can also take a lot longer if you want to configure additional features and customise your setup. If you’re looking for a simple process, you’ll probably prefer Plex. All you do is install the server software, tell it where to find your media, and create a Plex account that you can use to log in from the server and any client devices. When running Plex on a client computer, mobile device, television or set top box, it will automatically detect any servers connected to your account. From there, you can just start using Plex whether you’re home or thousands of miles away.
That isn’t to say you’ll have a hard time setting up Kodi. You can simply download Kodi for your platform, tell it where to find your media and call it a day. However, most users want to do more than that. If you have your media in a remote location, you’ll need to set up file sharing on that system and tell Kodi how to access it. You’ll also spend some time configuring Kodi’s settings to work just the way you like, as it contains far more fine-grained controls than Plex. Still, if you’re only installing the app on a computer the process doesn’t require too much effort. When you get into customisation, however, you can spend hours getting Kodi just the way you like it (which we’ll discuss later). For some, this can be a plus or a minus. It really depends on how much effort you want to expend and what you want to accomplish. Finally, Kodi’s setup process differs from platform to platform but we have guides to help you through many of them: any Windows, OS X or Linux computer, small, Linux-friendly hardware, Apple TV 2, Raspberry Pi and inexpensive, custom hardware.
The Bottom Line: If you want to get up and running in minutes, including powerful features, Plex will do the trick. If you don’t mind spending more time setting things up manually and tweaking settings to get exactly what you want, Kodi’s setup process won’t deter you (and you might actually like it).
Kodi offers a remarkably high level of customisation, from plug-ins to skins to additional features such as watching live television. If you can think of it, chances are Kodi can do it. It may not right out of the box, but because of its customisation options, you can add on almost whatever you want. On top of that, Kodi is filled with little settings and tweaks. If you don’t like the way something works, you can most likely change it.
Plex isn’t very customisable, but it unofficially works with many plug-ins designed for Kodi. We’ll discuss this further in the next section, but if you want to add new features to Plex, you have a means of doing so. That said, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the flexibility of Kodi.
The Bottom Line: If you like to have things exactly your way, you’ll want to use Kodi. If you only plan to add features via plug-ins, you could get by with Plex.
Internet Video Channels and Plug-ins
Kodi, through plug-ins, supports several internet video sites (on some platforms), like YouTube. Just install the plug-in you want and you’re good to go.
Plex also allows you to install plug-ins, which few users actually realise. Plex officially supports a small few that come installed automatically (including Vimeo, Revision3, Funny or Die) but unofficially works with many others. Plex also offers a myPlex Queue featuring, allowing you to save internet videos for later viewing directly from Plex. This feature works well with YouTube and some online video sites.
The Bottom Line: Both Kodi and Plex support a wide variety of channels. Kodi has a better reputation for plug-ins, but Plex unofficially works with most of them and has an excellent internet video queue feature.
Kodi provides several remote control options. To start, you can get a ton of apps for your mobile device. The Kodi team created the Official Kodi Remote (Android), which provides a standard remote and library-browsing functionality so you can easily choose TV and movies to play on your HTPC via your phone. Kodi Remote (iOS, $2.99) does the same thing, and Boxee, Plex & Kodi remote (iOS) offers a simple remote option. If you don’t want to control Kodi using a mobile device, you can use several hardware controllers, such as a keyboard, mouse or media centre remote.
Plex’s official mobile apps can serve as feature-rich remote controls, but require a $5 purchase. Plex Remote (Android) and Boxee, Plex & Kodi remote (iOS) offer free alternatives. Plex also supports the Apple Remote and Logitech Harmony Remotes out of the box. Other remote options can be configured, such as a Universal Remote Control (URC) and a standard computer keyboard.
The Bottom Line: Both platforms offer great remote control support, but Kodi provides more flexibility and a cheaper (and larger) mobile app selection. If you need help choosing a remote for either, read this.
Plex handles remote streaming better than anything. Not only does it stream video reliably and in the original format whenever possible, but it will also convert the video into a different format when necessary. If you want to stream a video from your home to your tablet while on holidays, for example, Plex will convert the video — in real time — to account for the slower connection speed. If your tablet doesn’t understand the video’s format, it will convert it on the fly as well. If your tablet has a fast internet connection and understands the format, Plex will stream the file as-is. Unless you ask Plex to always handle streaming in a very specific way, it will choose intelligently on its own and rarely makes a mistake. Equally admirable is Plex’s simple remote streaming configuration. Because everything runs through your Plex account you just need to log in on any device to access your media library. Everything else happens automatically. You can even stream on the web.
Kodi doesn’t stream remotely. You need to forward ports on your router in order to access your media outside of your local network via Kodi. Although not a difficult task, Kodi won’t convert files for you, so you better have a fast connection if you plan on streaming higher-quality HD content.
The Bottom Line: If remote streaming is important to you, Plex does it best. For all intents and purposes, this just isn’t a practical option with Kodi.
Choose Your Screen
By default, most of us watch movies and television on, well, TV screens. Finding a good set isn’t too difficult, after all. You have to choose the appropriate size, read reviews to make sure you’re not buying a lemon, ensure your set has the ports you need, and calibrate it.
That said, flatscreen TVs aren’t your only option. For around the same price, you can put a movie theatre in your home with an inexpensive HD projector. Although not a perfect option for daytime viewing, when ambient light doesn’t get in the way there is really no TV that can mirror the size and quality of a projected image. If you already have a TV elsewhere in the house, you should strongly consider a projector for your main home theatre — especially if you can keep the room reasonably dark.
Speakers, Soundbars And Super Sound
Your TV may now look great and might have beefed up smarts thanks to that nifty HTPC sitting under it, but what about your sound?! It can be super confusing to pick between a home entertainment system, soundbar or wireless set up.
To give you an idea of what you might need, here are the basics:
• Soundbars give you a simple, one-piece boost to your TV’s integrated stereo speakers.
• Home-theatre-in-a-box systems can give a cheap but noticeable boost over TV speakers or a soundbar.
• Wireless home theatre setups are super-convenient, but they also have their pitfalls.
Your home network is absolutely crucial to your HTPC set-up. Bringing new content in, bouncing it from device-to-device and getting all your remotes working together is absolutely crucial. Give your home network a bit of a spruce with our ultimate networking guide here.
If you have a powerful gaming PC hidden away in one corner of your house, but want to knock out a quick game of Crysis or Dark Souls II on your laptop or home-theatre PC, you’re officially in luck. Valve has made its In-Home Streaming service available to any Steam customer.
Steam In-Home Streaming is a simple enough concept — when you have two computers sitting on the same network, log into Steam on both computers, and they’re automagically linked; after that, you can remotely install, launch and play games from your laptop (or any remote PC on that network) as if you were sitting in front of your gutsy gaming rig.
All the processing is done on the more powerful PC, and not only Windows PCs are supported — since you can run Steam on a Mac OS X PC, for example, you can stream games from your Windows gaming machine to your svelte HTPC. It’s highly dependent on the quality of your home network, so don’t expect dodgy 802.11g Wi-Fi to work, but if you have a solid wired network or some high-speed 802.11ac, you should be set.
Windows Media Center
Of course, if you’re still a die-hard fan of Windows Media Center and don’t want to replace it just yet, you can always go and hack it onto your machine running Windows 10. Follow these instructions from our friends at Lifehacker.
Adam Dachis contributed to this article.