MediaPortal: What Windows Media Center Should Have Been

As your computer is probably home to scores of videos, a massive music collection and countless digital photos, it makes sense to connect it to your television and sound system so you can enjoy all of this media on a larger screen and with better sound from the comfort of your couch.

While there’s nothing to stop you from using one program to view your photos slideshow, another to listen to music and yet another to watch videos, DVDs and TV, MediaPortal is a free media center tool that enables you to do all of this in one place.

If you’ve ever tried Windows Media Center you’ll have something of an idea of what to expect, but while Microsoft’s offering is slow, cumbersome and a pain to use, MediaPortal is lightweight application that can transforms your computer into a home theater PC.

Getting Started

Things get off to a great start as early as using the installer. You’ll be prompted to choose whether you want to download and install all of the components you need or just download them ready for use later, and you can then indicate whether or not you intend to use the program to watch TV – this makes little difference really, but if you do not have a TV card you may as well say ‘no’.

Got a TV card? MediaPortal can be used to watch your favorite shows.

Got a TV card? MediaPortal can be used to watch your favorite shows.

If you don’t mind getting a little hands-on, or you want to configure more elaborate setups such as a TV-server, you can use the Advanced Installation option, but otherwise the Once Click Installation will take care of copying the necessary components into place and creating a database for you.

Depending on which components you are missing, you might find that the installation actually takes a little while to complete, but good things come to those who wait. You can jump right in and start using the program, but there are plenty of options to play with.

Standard and Expert settings provide access to different levels of configuration.

Standard and Expert settings provide access to different levels of configuration.

Exploring Settings

Whether you decide to work with the basic or more advanced settings, there is a lot of potential for configuration. You can change the look of the program using skins, but the default UI is pleasant enough to work with. The program will look in the standard Windows folder for images, music and video files, but if you store your media elsewhere you can specify different locations that should be included in the library.

The MediaPortal interface can be completely customized through the use of skins.

The MediaPortal interface can be completely customized through the use of skins.

One of the great things about using a media center app through your TV rather than at your desk with your computer monitor is that it enables you to playback content whilst relaxing on your sofa. To save having to get up and down every time you want to pause playback or switch media, there’s support for a range of remote controls, but you can also stick with using your wireless mouse and keyboard.

Whatever remote you have you should be able to map the buttons to work with MediaPortal.

Whatever remote you have you should be able to map the buttons to work with MediaPortal.

MediaPortal In Use

Assuming you have a fairly standard set of codecs installed, once you’ve told MediaPortal where your media is stored and configured your remote, you’re pretty much ready to jump into the app. There is something of a delay in launching the program, but it is nothing like as slow as Windows Media Center so you can be up and running and ready to watch and listen faster.

The clean, uncluttered interface makes MediaPortal easy to navigate.

The clean, uncluttered interface makes MediaPortal easy to navigate.

Browsing through your videos, you can perform searches of IMDB to pull in information about films shows and actors, but unless you have a thorough file naming methodology, you’re likely to find that you end up performing manual searches more often than not.

If MediaPortal cannot recognize files automatically, you can manually search IMDB for details.

If MediaPortal cannot recognize files automatically, you can manually search IMDB for details.

MediaPortal can display subtitles for DVDs you play as well as standalone video files for which you have a subtitles file, but there is, unfortunately, no option to automatically download new subtitles on the fly – this is a sad oversight, but not enough to render MediaPortal worthless by any means.

MediaPortal can download a wealth of information about your files, but not subtitles.

MediaPortal can download a wealth of information about your files, but not subtitles.

Summing Up

This is a very accomplished tool which not only makes it easy to access your media, but is also open to growth through the use of extensions and plugins. Built in are a couple of game plugins, but there are various others available online – you can check the weather, read the news, access Wikipedia and much more. Full support for TV cards means that you can not only use the app to watch live broadcasts, browse through TV listings and schedule recording – anything you record will be added to your video library.

Got a TV card? MediaPortal can be used to watched and record your favorite shows.

Got a TV card? MediaPortal can be used to watched and record your favorite shows.

The fact that the app is open source means that development happens more quickly than might otherwise be the case and there’s a greater number of plugins and extensions available than for similar applications. There’s a thriving community at the MediaPortal web site and if you’re having problems with any aspect of the app, want advice about something, or even want to request a particular feature or plugin, there’ll probably be someone on hand to help you out.

For anyone who has never used media center software, Media Portal neatly balances ease of use with depth of features meaning that you’re not overwhelmed with complex settings, but can still reap the benefits of powerful software. The relatively low system requirements mean that if you have an older PC or laptop lying around, you can transform it into your entertainment center with the addition of this free program.


Summary

A staggeringly good media center tool that will serve anyone mourning the loss of Boxee - and anyone just looking for a flexible means of playing back media on their computer

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