Want to turn your PC into a digital video recorder and media center box? For more than a decade Microsoft has made that by offering Windows Media Center. But when Windows 10 ships in the summer of 2015 it won’t include Media Center.
The good news is that there are still some good options available for Home Theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts.
The bad news is that some of the best alternatives were killed long before Windows Media Center:
- Google acquired SageTV a few years ago and stopped selling that company’s DVR and media center software (although an open source version may be on the way).
- Snapstream ceased development of BeyondTV and stopped selling the commercial version of its digital video recorder software to focus on the enterprise market.
If you want to retain all the functionality of Windows Media Center, Microsoft says your best option is not to upgrade to Windows 10. The company will continue to offer support for Windows 7 through January, 2020 and for Windows 8 Pro through January, 2023.
And if you’re using Windows Media Center with a CableCard to record encrypted broadcasts from your cable TV provider, that really is probably your best bet.
Update: Some home theater PC enthusiasts have come up with an unofficial Windows Media installer for Windows 10. Since it’s unofficial you may want to proceed with caution… or try one of the Media Center alternatives listed below.
On the other hand if you’re looking for a way to record broadcast television from an over-the-air antenna or unencrypted channels from your cable provider, there are still a few other good options which should work with Windows 10 (and some work with Linux if you feel like leaving Microsoft behind altogether).
If you’re in the US you’ll probably have to pay $25 per year for electronic program guide updates from Schedules Direct. But that’s still probably cheaper than the cost of a TiVo subscription or of renting a DVR from your pay TV provider.
Don’t care about live TV at all? Then you’re in pretty good shape, since there are a number of solutions that will help your turn your ordinary PC into an HTPC, allowing you to plug your computer into a TV, sit back on your couch with a remote (or keyboard), and navigate videos, photos, music, and streaming media.
Here are some of the best solutions as of mid-2015:
Media Center Software
This is probably the most popular cross-platform media center solution. Originally started as a XBMC: a project to turn the first-gen Xbox game console into a media center, Kodi outgrew the name and the game console.
Now Kodi is available for Windows, Linux, OS X, Android, and supports all sorts of hardware including the inexpensive, low-power Raspberry Pi mini PC.
Kodi is an open source application with a strong development community, support for third-party add-ons, and a customizable look and feel thanks to support for skins.
You can use it to manage and play music, videos, and photos stored on a local hard drive or a shared network drive. It also supports DVD playback. But you can also use add-ons to stream content from hundreds of internet services. With a little work you can also use Kodi as the front-end for for a digital video recorder.
You’ll need to install a third-party DVR app (see the DVR section below) to actually handle live and recorded TV functionality. But once everything is set up, you can use Kodi to watch and pause TV, view program guides, and schedule recordings.
Kodi costs nothing to install or use.
This open source app isn’t quite as versatile as Kodi since, among other things, it only runs on Windows. But it has one thing going for it: Media Portal has a built-in DVR, which means you don’t have to install and configure a separate digital video recorder package.
Like Kodi, Media Portal includes support for music, videos, and photos and there’s support for plugins and skins.
Media Portal costs nothing to use, but you may need to pay for program guide data if you use it as a digital video recorder.
This is one of the most popular media center applications not called Kodi (or XBMC), and it’s a cross-platform solution that supports Windows, Mac, and Linux.
But Plex is a bit different from Kodi or Media Portal since it’s basically a two-part system composed of a media server back-end and a home theater front-end.
The media server indexes your content and lets you install plugins to add features. The front-end lets you play your media… either on your PC, or on you phone, tablet, Roku, or other device.
What’s interesting about Plex is that the front-end can either run on the same PC as the back-end or on a different device. This lets you, for example, load up all of your music and movies onto a desktop PC with large hard drive, install the Plex Media Server, and then stream your content to a laptop, smartphone, tablet, or TV box such as a Roku, Chromecast, or Amazon Fire TV.
The basic Plex service is free but the iOS app costs $5 and while the Android app is free, you’ll either have to pay $5 or sign up for a Plex Pass subscription to stream videos to your Android device for longer than one minutes. Plex Pass also grants access to some premium features and previews of upcoming features that may be available to all users in the future.
Plex, by the way, doesn’t have native support for DVR functionality, but there are some DIY solutions.
This media center app works a lot like Plex. There’s a server that you install on your PC to index your media and a series of client apps that you can install on the same PC or on other devices to view your content.
Emby will stream your media to any device and it can convert files on-the-fly if necessary.
Up until recently Emby was known as Media Browser, but the team changed the name when it became clear that it does a lot more than simply let you browse your media.
Emby is free and open source software. You can run the server on Windows, OS X, Linux, OS X, FreeBSD, or network-attached storage devices that support FreeNAS or Open Media Vault. Synology NAS support is also in the works.
You can use a web interface to interact with your media library, install an Emby Theater app, or use any number of other client apps.
Among other platforms, there are Emby TV apps or plugins for Roku, Xbox 360, Kodi, Samsung Smart TVs, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Chromecast, and even Windows Media Center.
There are also mobile apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and Windows 8.1.
Best known for its DVR features, this open source software for Linux and OS X also includes music, photo, and video features as well as support for plugins and a MythWeb utility that lets you remotely control your MythTV box through a web-based remote.
Once it’s configured, MythTV provides a 10-foot user interface for navigating and playing media as well as for DVR functions.
MythTV can be trickier to set up than some of the other applications on this list though. The official project page offers source code for MythTV rather than pre-compiled binaries. But if you don’t want to compile it from source, you can find pre-compiled packages for several operating systems or install an operating system such as Mythbuntu which is built around the media center suite.
Looking for a free and open alternative to Kodi and don’t care if it supports Windows? LinuxMCE is another open source media center app, and as the name suggests, it’s designed to run on Linux.
In fact, LinuxMCE isn’t just an app that you install on your computer. It’s a complete operating system. Download a disk image, burn it to a DVD, and the LinuxMCE installer will load Kubuntu Linux on your computer and walk you through the process of installing LinuxMCE.
You can use LinuxMCE as a media center for organizing and displaying your media. But it also supports home automation features, letting you control your lights, security system, VoIP phones, and heating and cooling systems, among other things.
It’s not the prettiest media center software, but it’s pretty powerful.
The latest stable release of LinuxMCE came in February, 2013, but the software is still under active development and you can find recent pre-release builds from the download page.
LinuxMCE includes the MythTV DVR for digital video recorder functions.
Speaking of Linux-based operating systems, these are two relatively popular options for turning your PC into a media PC.
Both are free and open source GNU/Linux operating systems that put Kodi/XBMC front-and-center.
Sure, you could just install Kodi as an app and use it with your current operating system. But OpenELEC and GeeXboX take a less-is-more approach and offer a light-weight operating system designed specifically for media.
OpenELEC boots quickly and takes up less than 125MB of disk space when installed although it might use more space after you install some third-party add-ons. It supports a wide range of hardware including Raspberry Pi and Cubox-i mini PCs with ARM chips as well as more powerful hardware with Intel and AMD processors.
GeeXboX has been around longer, but it’s less well-known these days. Like OpenELEC, GeeXboX supports systems with ARM and x86 chips.
One of the biggest differences between these operating systems is that OpenELEC is designed to be installed to local storage, while GeeXboX can be installed on your hard drive or SSD or run from a LiveCD, USB, or SD card.
While MeediOS isn’t as popular as some of the solutions listed above, this open source media center for Windows has a fairly long history, features an attractive user interface and support for themes and plugins.
But honestly, I’d check out some of the other options listed above before trying MeediOS.
At least it’s free.
Setting up Media Portal to work as a media center is pretty simple. It takes a little more work to set it up as a digital video recorder since you’ll need to configure it to work with your TV tuner and to import TV schedule data for the electronic program guide.
The software basically includes two parts: a TV server for those functions, and a client, which is pretty much the same thing you’d use to even if you weren’t planning to use Media Portal for TV.
Once Media Portal is set up though, it’s probably one of the strongest alternatives to Windows Media Center since it’s a one-stop-shop for TV, music, video, photos, and more. Or you could just use Media Portal’s DVR features as a back-end for Kodi.
Sadly, like all of software-based DVRs in this section, Media Portal cannot decode encrypted channels if you’re using CableCard.
This free personal video recorder comes from the developer of the discontinued GB-PVR project.
It can be used as a standalone DVR and media center app, or you can NextPVR as a back-end for recording videos while using Kodi as the front-end media center.
NextPVR runs on Windows and it’s available to use for free, but unlike some of the other applications on this list, it’s not a community-supported, free and open source software project.
So it’s a decent option if you’re looking for a DVR package that supports a wide range of TV tuners, offers a powerful feature set, and which is relatively easy to set up and use.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a new DVR solution because Microsoft has ceased development of Windows Media Center, you might want to look at an open source solution since they’re not as likely to shut down if one company decides to cease development (that’s not to say open source projects live forever… but there’s always the chance that someone will pick up the pieces and continue development even if the founders leave the project).
This open source, Linux-based software can handle program guide data from a variety of sources including Schedules Direct and offers all the basic DVR functions including support for playing, pausing, and recording live TV and scheduling recordings.
MythTV also includes support for automatic commercial detection and an option for automatic commercial skipping.
MythTV has back-end and front-end components and while the back-end is Linux/OS X-only, there’s been some work to develop a Windows front-end.
Rather than a full-fledged DVR and media center system, Tvheadend is a back-end TV streaming server and digital video recorder.
Install the open source software on a Linux or OS X computer and you can pair it with a front-end like Kodi.
You can also use several other front-end clients including Movian and VLC, or use a mobile app called TvhClient to control Tvheadend and stream media to your phone.
These clients let you play audio and video files, search your library, play live TV, and do much more.
Set top boxes
Part of the reason Windows Media Center (and BeyondTV, Sage TV, and several other projects) have been discontinued is because while geeks like me have been plugging computers into our TVs for years, most people would rather have something simpler… like a smart TV with built-in support for Netflix and YouTube or a small, cheap, low-power set top box that requires next to no configuration.
Sure, you might not be able to use a web browser with these devices. Most don’t offer support for live TV or include enough built-in storage for your massive media collection. And you might need to pay subscription fees to stream content from sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.
But the best smart TV boxes are relatively inexpensive and dead simple to use.
While I’ve still got a computer plugged into the TV in my living room, I’ve been using a Amazon Fire TV Stick for most of my media needs for the past half year. After spending a decade trying to configure the perfect DVR/HTPC, I’ve decided I’m tired of dealing with glitchy recordings from an imperfectly aligned rooftop antenna. I don’t actually spend all that much time watching TV or movies anyway, and there’s plenty of great content on Amazon and Netflix.
So I only switch over to the PC input on my TV when I want to use a web browser or watch a show I recorded before I disconnected my TV tuner.
Incidentally, you can install Kodi on the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, but it’s not quite as simple as installing Kodi on a PC and some features may not work as well on a Fire TV.
Many new TVs come with “smart” features, but I’d rather buy a dumb TV and a smart box because if the manufacturer stops pushing out software updates for the box in a few years it’s a lot cheaper to replace a Roku or Chromecast than a big-screen TV.
Here are some of the best options for TV boxes available in mid-2015:
- Amazon Fire TV – $99
- Amazon Fire TV Stick – $39
- Apple TV – $69
- Google Chromecast – $35
- Google Nexus Player – $99
- Roku – $40 – $100 (depending on model)
- TiVo – varies (depending on model)
The TiVo could end up being one of the most expensive options, since it’s a digital video recorder with a $14.99 per month fee for program guide data. But recent TiVo models can do much more than just record television programs. They also support streaming content from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, and other sites.
We should see more boxes in the coming months as a growing number of devices running Google’s Android TV software hit the market.
The maker of the (relatively) popular HDHomeRun network-connected line of TV tuners also plan to launch their own DVR software soon, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.
The idea is to let you use an app running on your PC to schedule recordings or watch or play live TV streaming from an HDHomeRun tuner. The recordings can be stored on your PC or on a network-attached storage device and then you can play the content on your PC or on an Android phone or tablet.
So while Windows Media Center may be on its last legs, it looks like there’s still a future for media center/DVR software… even in an age of subscription-based, on-demand streaming services.