How to turn an old PC into a media centre

Posted: 08/11/2009 in How to...., linux, Tutorial

Play media on your TV with an old PC and XBMC

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For years, Microsoft has been trying to convince us that we need to have not just a PC in the living room to serve up our media, but a full-blown installation of Windows too.

Both Intel and AMD have joined the fray – Intel with Viiv (the brand that no one knew how to pronounce), and AMD with its Live! initiative.

Despite all the marketing dollars spent on these ideas, they’ve been almost universally unpopular for a few simple reasons. First of all, most people don’t want a modern high-powered PC, with all the noise they usually make, in the living room.

Much as we would like to, we won’t be sidestepping this aspect in this tutorial; unfortunately, you’ll still need a fairly decent PC.

Second, having a PC next to your TV or stereo means that you can’t really use it as a standard PC. Trying to run standard applications on a TV screen will make you myopic in an instant, while watching movies on anything under a 24in widescreen monitor in your living room is a very unsatisfying experience.

Last but not least, the incredibly long boot times of your average Windows install make a mockery of any sort of instant-on concept.

XBMC – which was originally an application for the first-generation Xbox known as the Xbox Media Center – has become one of those annoying recursive acronyms so common in the world of software: it’s now the XBMC Media Centre.

Despite the name, it’s a very capable cross-platform, opensource application that will meet all of your media centre needs. Although it comes in versions for Linux, Windows, and OS X, we’re going to look at the Live version.

It can be run from CD or installed onto your hard drive, and it is built around its own self contained operating system.

Get the software

1. First, head over to here and download the Live CD image. It will arrive as a ZIP file, so you’ll need to extract it once it’s been downloaded.

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Inside the ZIP file you’ll find the ISO image, a Readme file and two other files. The file named ‘installXBMC FromISO.sh’ is a script file that can be used to install XBMC in a Linux environment, so unless you intend to do that, ignore it.

Use your standard disc-burning software to make a bootable image from the ‘XBMCLive.iso’ file and, once you’re finished, plonk the disc in the drive of your old computer.

Run the Live CD

2. Before you do anything else, you’ll need to change the BIOS settings of the PC that you are going to use as the media centre so that it boots from CD. To do this, press the appropriate key – such as [Del] or [F1] – when the computer starts to enter the BIOS settings, and then go to the Boot section.

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After you’ve made the appropriate changes, make sure you save them before exiting. When you restart, the PC should run the Live CD and show a Boot menu with various options, including choosing the GPU, running in Safe mode and an option to install to your hard drive.

For now, either select your GPU or allow the system to boot to the Live CD automatically. While running the Live CD enables you to get a feel for the application, any settings you change will be lost the next time you reboot, so you’re best off installing to your hard drive once you’re sure you like what you see.

Install XBMC

3. To install, reboot your machine and choose the last menu option, ‘Install XBMCLive to disk (USB or HDD)’. Some older PCs don’t support booting from USB devices, in which case you’ll have to go with an internal drive.

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Be careful here: installation will completely wipe all information from your hard drive, so make sure it doesn’t contain anything important before you proceed. Fixed disks must be larger than 5GB, while USB sticks need to have at least 1.5GB of usable capacity.

You’ll need to designate the drive you are installing to. If it’s a single fixed drive, this will be Drive 1. You’ll also need to confirm that you want to install to a fixed disk rather than removable drive as well as entering a password. The install process takes about 10 minutes. After it’s finished, remove the Live CD and reboot.

Access your media

4. Rather than a media centre – where your content is stored locally – XBMC is more of a ‘media extender’, in that it is designed to fetch media across a network from shared folders, NAS drives and other UPnP devices. You can use local folders, but this works best if you installed XBMC in Linux or Windows.

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If you didn’t do this, you’ll either need to set up a network share on another computer on the network or use a removable hard drive or DVD drive. To set a folder’s source, click on the media category – say, for instance, ‘Video’. Right-click on the ‘Videos’ link on the next screen and choose ‘Edit Source’.

Click ‘Browse’ and have a look for the shared folder. If necessary, enter a username and password for protected shares. Once this is done you can either add a new shared location using the ‘Add’ source button, or move on to the next category.

When playing video, moving the mouse to the bottom-left corner of the screen will bring up a Playback menu. Press the [Esc] key to go back up the menu levels.

Add extra features

5. As well as playing back your media collection, XBMC can retrieve weather information, run scripts and be customised with different themes and skins.

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If you fancy being able to access forecasts, click ‘Weather | Settings | Region’ and change the region to ‘UK’ and the time zone to ‘Britain’. You will now be able to enter your location in the Weather section and receive local weather forecasts.

Now go back to the main menu screen and click on ‘Settings’. Here you can tweak the defaults for video, music and pictures, as well as editing things like your network settings and autoplay.

Clicking the power icon will bring up a new menu from which you can eject discs from the optical drive, shut down, reboot or enter Suspend mode. The only thing left to do is sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

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