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.
OpenELEC and GeeXboX
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.
I will continue to use WMC, we just changed to cable so I have a cable card tuner. However TWC has some channels that were HD on DirecTV in SD, which is disappointing to say the least.
I use a plug-in for Kodi to launch it from WMC. Since everything I do with Google is auto login, I can’t use the You Tube plug-in for Kodi because I don’t want to reset my passwords. I had been just opening a Chrome browser to use You Tube TV, but recently I finally got the BT remote for my PS3 and started watching You Tube on the PS3.
So Kodi is mainly used for other streams. I use Navi-X and a few other plug-ins and I use it for my TV/Movie archive which is a WIP.
A slight overhaul to the setup is coming, along with a long awaited update to the server to triple it’s current capacity (4TB). Also the cable card tuner is spotty. It’s the Hauppauge tuner which is buggy and requires a hard reboot every so often. You can connected the ethernet versions of these directly the PC and re-run the setup, I may go that route as may use my current HTPC as my upgraded server and get a small client I can put on the back of the TV.
Anyway, even the newest DVR’s are slow and on-demand services are overrated when you have the USENET and other sources online.
I just need to like I said finish my server so I can put Couch Potato, etc on it.
I can’t see why MS can’t open-source MCE and let the community hack at it directly like it’s always wanted to.
For me the best solution still is Windows Media Centre. Windows 7 will be supported until 2020, windows 8 longer. Both have versions with mce installed. It’s not only that after all those years it still has the best Live TV options. It also is a complete OS, which allows me to easily surf the web, check my mail etc too.
Brad, Thank you very much for this great general review article. It covers all the three groups with many links and is timely. I have visited some of the sites and saved this article. Thank you for the updates also.
PlayOn/PlayLater fits in here too.
You should really check out Emby/MediaBrowser @.https://emby.media/ I looked at and tested several “Media Centers” before I settled on Emby. Video, TV, Music and Live TV. DVR options etc. Well worth a look.
Honestly, even if I were buying a new media center computer today or next year, I would still use Windows 7 and Media Center. I’ve used MC for years – but only for DVR and movies. For local music and photos and streaming it’s pretty bad. For local movies the plugin Media Browser is excellent. But as a DVR solution it’s excellent, far easier than setting up Myth or Kodi . . . tried a number of the ones you mention on Windows and Linux too. I’m fairly certain that just sticking with Win 7 and WMC for as long as they keep updating the TV schedule will remain the easiest solution. You could spend a week figuring out and setting up Myth and frontend and backend and tweaking it to get to the usability MC comes with out of the box. And you know what? You can play recorded tv or movies quite easily on other computers on your network just by playing the files in the recorded tv directory in Windows Media Player. No front end setup needed.
For music I mostly use Spotify and Google music. For streaming I use a browser and Netflix and Amazon Prime and Youtube. I can stream music radio through VLC or WMP. I find that a wireless mouse and the MC remote with the green button all work quite well on the couch as a 10 foot interface on a 55″ tv. Only very seldom is the KB needed at all.
Very useful overview article, especially with the crowd-sourced corrections and additions.
Windows Media Center has been great – very nice program guide, so easy to schedule a recording of an episode of Nova or a season of off-the-air shows. An HTPC and a minimum 32″ screen is the only way to go for me for all computing / gaming / video unless I am absolutely forced by work to use a laptop. I am not seeing a suitable replacement for WMC so I guess those of us who compute on big screens need to keep Win7 around indefinitely, especially if the free program guide is supported to 2020.
Thanks! I’ll probably try to keep this article up to date if/when new solutions become available (I have to check out that Emby thing mentioned in another comment).
Sadly Microsoft confirms that Windows 7 will be supported through 2020 and Win 8.1 through 2023… but it’s not *entirely* clear that support includes continued EPG updates. It might just mean that MS will continue offering security updates.
That said, even though Snapstream stopped selling BeyondTV software a while ago, I still get free EPG updates for it today… so there’s some hope.
I wonder if the EPG service in WMC is the same one being used on the Xbox One. Might be a glimmer of hope for WMC users.
Last month Microsoft changed the EPG service in WMC and it caused some hiccups. Not sure if the fact that they changed it is a good sign or a bad sign.
The easy way to setup xbmc – https://www.ultimatexbmc.com/
Above the already mentioned problems with the Plex part in the article another missing point: there is a standalone OS version for Kodi too: KodiBuntu (Ubuntu Linux + Kodi), can be installed or run from CD or pendrive.
You have the idea behind Plex Pass completely wrong! You really should fix this in the article as its a bad representation of the software, and kind of takes some of the credibility away from an otherwise nice article.
I want to note that, plex does NOT cost you those fees for streaming to other devices.
You are talking about Plex Pass, which is for the most part a Pay to Participate beta community. It sounds a bit odd, but it can be worth it for some users. Basically new features or platforms are often launched to Plex Pass only. This however only last for about 2-3 months, then the platform is open to everyone. The Chromecast for instance started it Plex support life, as Plex Pass only. Then about 2 months after its release everyone could use it.
Just a few days ago Plex introduced their newest server build with access to much improved Music scanning and library creation. This was NOT introduced as a Plex Pass only feature, its available to everyone. With that said, there are some features of it, like direct VEVO integration that are Plex Pass ONLY.
Plex will cost you the cost of the device you are streaming to, so if its a Roku thats it.
If you are using a Chrome Cast, you could use a laptop to initiate the stream at no additional cost, but if you want to use a mobile device, then it would cost you the price of the mobile app, approximately $5.00.
Sorry — I’ve tried Plex in the pat, but it’s been a while and I’ve always found it kind of confusing compared to Kodi or Media Portal. I forget what I saw on the website that implied that you needed Pass for all device streaming, but a second look shows that you’re right. I’ve updated the article.
OK… Try to play/use Plex client on iOs, Android or Windows tablet without paying $5 for each,seperatly, or… monthly subscription fee. It cost, at least 15$, if you chose all. And what happens when you (let’s say) have big family, and each of them wants to yous plex as well?
Don’ take me wrong. I do like Plex, but Kodi is not bad either, and it IS TRULY free.
NextPVR is able to construct its own EPG free of charge, by utilizing the semi-hourly updates embedded within digital broadcasts (OTA or cable). Whether it’s a problem with NextPVR’s implementation or the broadcasting stations’, I have no idea; but if you’ve used it you know it’s not reliable for each channel
DVBLogic is another option. They have DVR software for all the major NAS vendors as well as Windows and Linux. Recordings can be viewed in Kodi add-on or any other software that can play the files.
I use Win7 HTPC and 2 extenders. I have a paid SKY subscription which I decode using a Dreambox and then use DVBlogic to configure the satellite tuners, which MCE then sees. This gives me LIVE TV across all 3 rooms, subject to the tuner limits. Recorded TV is available across all 3 rooms also, using an identical interface and identical remotes. The whole family can use it because it works the same everywhere. What replacement is there for this, especially multi room Live TV? I don’t know of anything that comes close. Its quite amazing to me that as we progress in time we are actually going to lose functionality rather than gaining more. What’s the point of streaming a TV show on an overpriced Ipad when I can watch the same thing any time on a proper TV. Streaming is ok for when I’m away on business, but I want the big picture when at home. Plex and some others may do some of this but come on, the real replacement for multi room TV doesn’t exist. I’ll be eeking every last drop from Win7 MCE.
Brad … nice summary of most of the available software options … usually hunting down up to date HTPC software options is tedious work due to the fact that it is such a niche area. One that is also worth mentioning is Emby … https://emby.media/ formerly known a MediaBrowser … it has lots options and can be set up on just about any device … HTPC, Linux, Windows, Apple, Roku … there’s even a plug-in for WMC. I’ve only experimented with it in the past and liked it … very nice looking and user friendly. It’s the one I plan on moving on to once I throw in the towel on WMC.
Psst, Schedules Direct is $25/yr, not per month.
Whoops! That’s what I meant to say!
If you want to stream media from a desktop PC to other devices (as noted for Plex), note that Windows supports DLNA sharing as standard (it’s not part of Windows Media Center, so I hope it won’t be going away with Windows 10).
I’d rather get smart TV features as standard in a TV for $0, and I still have the choice to buy an add-on box in a few years if necessary. (Even if software support ended, that won’t stop me being able to stream via DLNA which is what I mainly use the smart features for.)
A UK only option is the very cheap (£20) Now TV box.
What device can stream from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and, hopefully, other services? I don’t buy any discs and I don’t watch live TV anymore. I’d like something that can stream from the most services as possible.
A Roku or a Fire TV product can handle all of those and more. You’ll need to pay for a subscription to each service though — content that’s free from Hulu when you’re using a PC web browser requires a Hulu Plus subscription when you use a TV box or mobile device.
Thanks! I don’t buy DVDs/Blu-rays nor have cable TV. Paying for streaming services still saves me money over traditional media sources and I’m no pirate. I’ll look into the Roku offerings.
I’ll pass on Hulu. I just personally/subjectively don’t like the company.
Just get a Google Chromecast or a Roku, both are very easy to use.
I am sorry, but to clarify… NOBODY is watching all shows live. What Hulu and Netflix does is a DVR in the Cloud, which charges you for programming that is free,and available OTA. That’s is why WMC is great for this one reason. Yeah, I used WMC to run DVD… on some occasions, but there are other solutions, which can replace it very easily. However, DVR, pausing and going back as you watch life sport events…? WMC cannot be beat, as far as I can tell. I am in the process of evaluating all other options, but if they don’t work, I am staying windows 8.1 or even 7 as long as I can… there is no rush.
You haven’t been to Australia where live TV is alive and well, and you can’t get live tv anywhere else (well other than one paid private torrent tracker)
I use Kodi (with the Eminence skin) on my Mini ITX htpc. Pentium G3258 with 4gb ram and 120gb SSD. Cost about $250 to build.
Most of my media is on a 1tb USB 3.0 hdd plugged into the htpc. But i also have a media directory shared over the network from my desktop.
Is it not about time for a Roku 4
Rokus are nowhere near as functional as an HTPC. They’re pretty much just streaming apps.
…which is what most people want and/or need.
Sure, that’s just not the topic of the article. The article is about HTPCs. Something far more functional than a Roku
The article is about alternatives to WMC. Very little of WMC was about streaming–mainly just the Netflix add-on.
There are a number of streaming options, including just having a computer with a browser. Streaming by itself is very limiting. But this article is not about that.
Many of us used WMC for live TV using a tuner and cablecard sans Netflix.
You can always use the Roku as a client to many streaming servers on your LAN. Some have their own “channel” while others can be played via the Roku Media Player “channel.”
It’s called the Roku 3… again.
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