A little while back I asked if anyone knew about an audio player that met certain specifications. Web suggested ZoomPlayer, which I have used for video before but never audio. Before trying that, I finally got around to trying XBMC. For those of you that don’t know what XBMC is, it’s the software package for the XBox Media Center. They have a release for Windows, Mac, and Linux free for downloading. It was the comprehensive solution I was hoping for to set up a better PC for my TV. Up until now, I’ve been running regular Windows, which does the job but does not have an interface remotely friendly to TV. I tried Windows Media Center Edition only to discover that it ridiculously required special drivers that I did not have. Then I beefed up on Linux to try MythTV, but the video out wasn’t functional for my laptop video card and since using a laptop is part of my eventual plan that scrapped that. So all that was left to try was XMBC.

It’s very impressive. In fact, it comes achingly close to having everything I could want and a little more on top of that. I say “achingly close” because there is nothing more frustrating than that one missing feature that would otherwise make for the perfect app. Or a handful of missing features in this case. So wonderful is the interface, though, that a handful of defects seems like only a few. And none of them are deal-breakers. They’re just frustratingly absent.

XBMC has a beautiful interface that’s extremely easy to navigate. The vast majority of my concerns prior to installing the program were not only addressed, but were addressed in ways far superior to what I had envisioned. For instance, creating the “library” was supposed to be a headache but was instead a breeze. Not only will it give me easy access to an emulator, but it even has a special place designated for it. File management was going to be an issue where I thought I would have to go outside the app, but what they provide is far superior to the ways that I was figuring I was going to have to rig it up. It’s got easy-to-access options for music, videos, optional libraries for each, emulators (installed separately), and more. Very nice.

Unfortunately, there are the absent features. Whenever features are absent from an otherwise excellent program, I figure that usually (a) it’s one of those areas where I use a computer differently than the average user. I have a special setup or a special way of doing things. Or (b) there is a way to do it and I just can’t figure out. There are probably some of each. Part of the problem is what I call the Linux Disease. Linux, by virtue of having different distros and desktop environments, provides good choices of things to pick between but none of them have everything. XBMC likewise has various “skins” you can install, some are superior to others, but with each one having something the others lack I have to choose between functionality. And because of the different versions and whatnot, you can’t just pick something and install and have it work. I keep running into compatibility issues.

The most troubling problem I’ve hit so far are fast-forwarding and rewinding audio and video. For audio, you can’t. It’s just next/prev track. Worse, on some skins, there’s no button for it and you have to select the next song you want to play. For video, you can jump forward 30 seconds or 10 minutes. Neither work for me. If I want to go back a little bit, it’s probably because of a line of dialog that I didn’t hear. So I just need to go back ten seconds or so. Likewise, if there’s some big plot point I missed, I don’t want to go back ten minutes. I usually want to go back five. And there doesn’t seem to be any way to easily change this setting.

The secondary issue is alluded to in the first. The options for music are limited. You can’t move backwards or forwards within a track. And on most skins, you can’t even tell it whether you want to shuffle or play straight through or whether you want it to start back at the beginning when it’s done. This is some pretty basic stuff.

Thirdly, it doesn’t accept a large number of buttons on my remote. This really isn’t that big of a deal because I can still do what I need to do. Does anyone know of a good remote control programming application? There’s got to be something like that out there. Or maybe I just need to buy a remote with all-assignable buttons.

Ordinarily, either one of the first two of these might be enough to get me to say “screw it” and move on, but the rest of the application is so impressive that I am trying to figure out how to work my way around it. I’m going to the trouble of researching it to see if there are options that I’ve missed.

If you can accept these limitations, so far I endorse this application.

Category: Server Room

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3 Responses to Helpful Software: XBMC

  1. web says:

    XBMC is stellar software – admirably maintained – for the original Xbox itself. I have two of the old things I use as networked video boxes, and they have performed beyond all my expectations in this role. The only thing they can’t handle is video that’s been encoded all the way up to a 720p frame size, which is understandable given that they have a mere 733-MHz processor.

    If you ever want to, pick up one (they can be had as cheaply as $25 from your local flea market these days) and bring it by. I’ll be happy to get it humming along quite nicely as a netbox for you to use.

    The problem for the XBMC ports is that (A) they are right now in “extreme alpha” stages, and (B) they are trying to (currently) rewrite a large portion of the code to make it work well under OSX, Windows, and the varying flavors of Linux. You’re right that Linux Disease plays a role, but the more pressing problem is that many of the software techniques that worked so well speeding up code or making features so nice on the original Xbox do not port well into the Linux/OSX/Windows worlds. There are also a few “kludges” that were thrown around on the original Xbox (where they tended to trigger certain happy things, like “trash cleanup”) that actually can cause some pretty ugly bugs under the other OSes, and so they occasionally have to hunt those down and remove the “nonfunctional” ones.

  2. trumwill says:


    Does the X-Box version address most of my complaints? Can I plug it in to my Windows network (with add-on hardware, if need be)? If so on both counts, I think it’d definitely be worth the investment. I’d still probably want to play around with the Windows version first, but I’m not opposed to spending the money if it can get me flexibility. Particularly $25!

  3. web says:

    The Xbox version will plug directly into your Windows network with no worries. Given that an original Xbox can be had for relative peanuts (and XBMC is also specifically designed to work well with the old Xbox’s dvd remote add-on, presuming you don’t want to deal with using a controller) it is probably well worth it to you.

    The 30-second skip isn’t something you’re likely to see changed that much. I’ve noticed that as well, and it’s mostly a function of the fact that the original concept (in a DVR capacity) was Tivo’s “commercial skip” setup. It’s exacerbated by the fact that it’s not really a “30 second” skip, but a “next/previous keyframe” skip, due to the way modern video compression is done.

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