Streaming video, digital DVD backups, DVR recording—it's all possible from your TV-connected media center, and you don't need a system administrator to pull it off. These 10 apps make filling and controlling your media center PC even easier.
Photo by William Hook.
10. Give your tunes the covers they deserve
Your favorite band, assuming it’s not Motörhead, probably spend a good bit of time thinking about their album art. Pay credit to their creative indulgences, and give your media center something to show when their tracks are playing, by embedding album art in your MP3 collection. Rick Broida ran through the basics in his 2007 guide to whipping your MP3 library into shape, and I revisited the best sources and tools for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems in a 2008 album art guide. Whatever tool you use, having album art consistent across your library might feel a bit obsessive, and it is—but there's a certain reassuring payoff when your TV displays the same art as your iPod.
9. Remove ads automatically from recorded TV
Some commercials are worth their short time commitment, but sometimes you just want to watch exactly 24 minutes of condensed television. Windows Media Center plug-in Lifextender does the job inside your hooked-up PC, while DVRMSToolbox runs through Media-Center-recorded files independently, and can then export them to more generally usable formats than Windows’ somewhat locked-down system. (Original posts: Lifextender, DVRMSToolbox)
8. Boost Boxee with repositories and feeds
Boxee is basically the XBMC media center app with a different look and a more social flair. It also supports a lot of independent content creators and independent developers, whether through the official App Box, through adding repositories of new apps, or through stand-alone RSS feeds. We’ve covered some great sources for Boxee apps and content in a quick Boxee guide. Looking for even more app repositories? Check out Boxee’s list of known repositories and see what strikes your fancy.
7. Rename files for easier detection
Media player apps try their best to figure out exactly what TV shows and movies you’ve got loaded into storage, but they often have a hard time keeping up with the naming schemes used by a variety of applications and fallible humans. Grab an app like MediaRenamer (for movies and television) or TVrename (for shows alone) and whip your files into a shape that XBMC, Boxee, Windows, Plex, or any other media center can easily figure out. For a quick read on what media center apps like to see—XBMC in particular—read Jason's guide halfway through his XMBC add-on guide.
6. Plug Hulu into Windows Media Center
It’s not an officially supported streaming site, like Netflix or CBS, but Hulu’s own Hulu Desktop can be worked into Windows Media Center with a clever little back-and-forth plug-in. Install Hulu Desktop Integration, and you’ll get an icon for Hulu among your video options. Click it, and Windows Media Center closes down, opens up Hulu Desktop; when you’re done watching Hulu, the app shuts that down and re-opens Media Center. Clever, helpful stuff.
5. Rip DVDs the easy way
Rather than find out halfway through the final disc of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles that your Netflix disc is scratched beyond repair, you could rip the suspect DVD to a digital file and play it from there, with just a minor skip. Adam’s built a tool called DVD Rip to make it a dead-simple process in Windows, but it’s fairly easy to pull off with HandBrake or VLC Media Player on Windows, Mac, or Linux systems.
4. Schedule TV recording from any browser
With a TV tuner installed, Windows Media Center or Home Server makes for a pretty hardcore DVR device, without the monthly fees. Make it easier to catch good TV when you think of it at work with Web Guide, a free scheduling program that shows you what’s on in the future, streams what’s on now, and otherwise delivers your media center’s TV experience to wherever you happen to be at the moment. (Original post)
3. Media center remotes for your phone (or iPod touch)
Sure, you could go the easy route and buy an infrared-based, media-center-friendly physical remote for your TV-attached setup, but if you'd like a bit more functionality—and, more importantly, actual typing input—there's probably a free or cheap remote for your Wi-Fi powered phone or iPod. Gmote turns an Android phone into a multi-system remote, assuming you don’t mind a quick software installation. iPod/iPhone owners have their pick of many XBMC-compatible remotes in the App Store, the free Boxee remote, and MediaMote (iTunes direct link) ably handles your Windows Media Center remote.
2. Make your router more media-friendly
Your standard off-the-shelf router treats all net traffic the same, can’t tell you exactly how much you’ve downloaded this month, and is fairly difficult to turn into anything other than an agent of your cable modem. Install DD-WRT or Tomato on your little antenna box, however, and it can be a wireless bridge for your entertainment center, as well as ensure that Hulu and Netflix get all the bandwidth they need with quality of service rules. (Installation guides: DD-WRT, Tomato)
1. Convert and transfer tracks to your portable player
The best media centers can play just about any video or audio format out there, but even the coolest phones and media devices have a fairly limited format range, and only so much space. Among the five best media converters we rounded up, Super and Format Factory can match most devices and file types, while MediaCoder and HandBrake get the job done on any platform. Need help getting the file onto your phone or device? The doubleTwist media manager is the easiest drag & drop solution we've seen.
What helper applications make your digital entertainment experience that much more enjoyable? How do you smooth the kinks out of your admittedly geeky setup? Tell us all about your tricks in the comments.