Mediaportal V Media Center: Fight!

1. Background / Environment

As a long time HTPC fan and serial tinkerer (is that even a word? If not, it should be!) I like to try a full range of HTPC software so have tinkered with a range of Operating systems and HTPC software when attempting to find the best software to suite my needs. As someone who doesn’t have Sky or Cable, its imperative that the HTPC perform all my multi-media requirements while acting as a PVR and media-aggregator for everyone in the home. In the last few years I’ve played with SageTV, MediaPortal, XP Media Center 2005 (MCE2005), Vista Media Center (VMC) and Windows 7 media center (7MC). I’ve also fluctuated between 32 bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) for the right architecture. My most widely used have always been MCE2005 and MediaPortal on top of Windows XP Pro. Recently, however, I’ve been using the Windows 7 beta. I tried the PDC build, the public beta (build 7000) and upgraded to build 7022 when it surfaced. This is now my default HTPC front end but both XP and 7 remain on my machine (its allways good to have a fall-back if one fails!) so I have the option of booting into MCE 2005, MediaPortal or 7MC. This then, is an unbiased comparison between the latter pair MediaPortal and 7MC.


For the purpose of this comparison I will be evaluating my own implementations of mediaportal and 7MC. These are by no means the perfect set up (and I welcome comments on where I can improve the current config in either installation), so here is what I am using in each:

MediaPortal version 1.0

Installed plug-ins include StreamMP (skin), 4TheRecord (TV/PVR interface), MovingPictures Plugin (Media browser/management), Various EPG grabbers (TV), TV-Server (TV) and a few standard plugins that come with the application

Windows 7 Build 7022

Installed plug-ins include TunerFreeMCE (IPTV), (IPTV), Homeworld (Theme), MediaBrowser (Media browser/management)

2. UI

From experience, the single most important factor in any HTPC software is the interface. If it looks like a dog and feels like a dog, it’s a dog! It doesn’t matter how well it functions. That’s been my experience. The number one element in gaining WAF (wife acceptance factor) is a nice looking user interface that is intuitive to use, well organised and easy to navigate. MCE2005 excelled in its usability due to its simplicity, but Vista introduced a host of usability issues that cased the WAF to evaporate. For example – showing the Photo’s folder in the video library, music folders in the photo’s library etc. etc. The libraries were cluttered with un-necessary elements. Thankfully, 7MC has reversed this trend due to the slick libraries management that is ubiquitous throughout the entire Operating system and along with its well designed ‘crossbar’ interface consisting of multiple, vertically stacked strips of icons, the extensive functionality of media center is easy to navigate. The start menu has been cleaned up, unnecessary items stripped out and the whole Interface has been given a little spit and polish that separates it from its older brother VMC. Other changes such as the Music Wall (which looks absolutely stunning I might add and gives a definite WOW factor when guests see it in action), TurboScroll, Scattered Slideshows, Mini-EpgGuide all add lovely enhancements that make the Media center interface the best I have ever seen.


Out of the box, MediaPortal is a little on the ugly side. Nothing horrific (think SageTV in terms of visual appeal), but nothing to get excited about. Thankfully, however, the user-created plug-ins address this issue with some aplomb and some of the skinning options for MediaPortal are just pain awesome. At the time of writing there were no fewer than 92 skins listed on the official website ( and this number increases significantly if you look hard enough. Two of the most impressive are MonoChrome and StreamedMP, both of which look simply stunning in comparison to the default look of MediaPortal. Setting these up is simply a matter of of installing the skin (selecting which parts of the application you would like to skin) then selecting the skin in the MP Configuration tool. Once you’ve skinned Media Portal, then you’ve a beautiful GUI to rival any HTPC software.


To compare the two, I’d say that MediaPortal is on par, if not slightly more visually appealing than 7MC, but the vast majority of its UI is focused around visual appeal and ‘fan art’ (which does admittedly look sensational). Windows media center, on the other hand, not only looks amazing, but there are so many functional enhancements in the interface that it is a joy to use. The telling factor comes in the form of my Girlfriend. While she could use both for all our multi-media needs, and greatly approved of both interfaces, 7MC is quicker, easier to navigate and more intuitive to her; and I’d tend to agree with her findings.

3. Features

Make no mistake, both pieces of software are absolutely crammed to the rafters with functionality. Both are aptly equipped to handle your digital needs in the form of Movies, TV Series, Music and Live TV. However, the differ greatly in their performance in these areas.

7MC shows exactly how Live TV should be done. The setup and configuration of your tuners, the guide, channels and recording management are as simple as can be. Microsoft really have done a first class job and with the TVPack integrated and now fairly mature, it offers all the functionality you could want (except for proper support for ITV HD and DVB-S2). Mediaportal on the otherhand really struggles. Its biggest weakness is the TV functionality. It was when I first tried it a couple of years ago, and while it has made great strides, it remains its achilles heel. The native TV server is second rate at best. Limited recording options, poor EPG integration, unreliable and not a very enjoyable experience at all. A third party plugin by the name of ForTheRecord salvages some pride, replacing the TVServer component of Media Portal and giving much more functionality. Setup and configuration of this is a deeply involved process though, and if you don’t follow the setup process to the letter, you are likely to come unstuck. Setting up the TV functionality in MediaPortal took substantially longer than I expected – I could easily reformat the entire drive and install and configure all aspects of 7MC in less than the time it took me to get the 4TheRecord service co-existing happily with MP. Once working it proved fairly reliable, and the 4TheRecord config tool offers an amazing myriad of recording options and permutations (although as with many aspects of mediaportal, you need to drop out into its own windows config tool to harness its full power).

Both systems have excellent music capabilities, supporting all the popular formats and recognising the meta-data necessary to create an engaging music experience. 7MC steals a march with some of the lovely new features – rating music direct from the remote control is something I’ve cried out for since XP, the music wall negates the need for any music visualisation and the media centre now has a Shuffle/Play all option (something that drove me potty in XP MCE!!!).
MediaPortal offers the same basic featureset with playlists, albums, genres all handled very well (like 7MC, providing your meta-data is in tact) but lacks the same elegance of 7MC. The default views are unpractical, and setting up the views in the config tool can be a little arduous as you have to specifically configure the views (again outside of MediaPortal in the config tool) at each stage of the music hierarchy. 7MC just works as you’d want it to – for me at least. What MediaPortal does do is aggergate additional meta-data for your albums (leaving the unerlying MP3’s untouched) which is a lovely touch, and it offers the ability to use Winamp, WMP, Foobar or (gasp) iTunes for plaback depending upon your preference. If truth be told, the music functionality of both are excellent.

DVD playback simply works out of the box in both systems. The quality is excellent and the feature set is similar. Again MediaPortal offers a slightly higher level of tweakability but to be honest, the DVD playback in both is hard to fault. Where there is some distinction though, is general video playback.
While 7MC out of the box Media Centre comes with Video library and DVD library functionality, neither are particularly brilliant. You get an adequate folder view (which incorporates folder art if its is there) and not a lot else. Only when you add in MediaBrowser into the equation can 7MC hold its own. Now you are treated to a visually appealing, configurable Video and TV series management tool that plugs the enormous gap that previously existed. With Stunning visuals, excellent metadata support and series/episode control, MediaBrowser does everything that 7MC should but doesn’t do out of the box. The same story exists for MediaPortal. You really need a plug in such as MovingPictures to get the best out of your video’s and when you do, you’re in for a treat. Automatic integration of FanArt is seamless and almost faultless. The TV series management surpasses anything that 7MC with media browser can offer (one nice little feature in MovingPictures is that if a program synopsis contains any form of spoiler, it is automatically hidden until you watch that particular epside. Slick, very slick!), and with both MediaBrowser and MovingPictures both moving at a relentless pace, there’s little to chose between the two at the current point in time, although if I had to chose, I’d say MediaPortal just edges it right now.

4. Stability & Performance

This one is clear cut. MediaPortal has come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years from the horrible and buggy platform it was, to the mature HTPC offering it is today. However, it still has lots of issues, largely due to the fact that much of its functionality and core operations are performed by less-mature third party plug-ins. For this reason, much of the code is of variable quality and MP is unable to overcome this difficulty. Despite an amazing community following, willing to commit time and energy to resolve issues with you, MediaPortal suffers from underlying stability issues that 7MC simply does not have. I would anticipate the app fails ever day or two on a regular basis, in varying parts of the system. Not a show-stopper you might think, and a reboot always resolves any problems, but certainly a turn-off when you have guests over or just catching that latest episode of 24! Although still only in beta, 7MC brings through much of the architecture of VMC and the unified feature-set means the ONLY stability problems I have witnessed to date have been within the few plug-ins that I frequent – TunerFree MCE and Mediabrowser (the is still early in its Beta lifecycle). The core application has never stalled and you have to think that by the time the full release hits our stores, it’ll be on par with MCE2005 or even better.

The same goes for resource consumption. In the rare occasion I’ve had to dip into task manager to kill the processes, MediaPortal can often be found to consume in excess of 700MB Ram, while 7MC consumes less than half that. Not a showstopper when the machine has 4GB and its used as a dedicated HTPC, but when you consider either of these make really elegant media front ends for low powered machines such as netbooks then every megabyte begins to count.

5. Extensibility/Customisability

In recent versions, this would be a case of men against boys. A closed platform like media centre versus an open and thriving platform like MediaPortal. MP always has, and probably always will be more customisable and configurable than WMC, but the gap has narrowed significantly. Whether through official 3rd party plugins or unofficial ‘hacks’, MediaCenter has gotten a whole lot more customisable than it has been before. Now we can do things like arrange the front screen (to a limited extend), re-skin the theme (again, to a limited extent), interact with other applications and run an array of extra’s that we previously could not. Maybe Microsoft have awoken to the fact that a thriving development community increases a products popularity? MediaCenter now has some real ‘killer’ 3rd party apps and hacks that you’ll see on 90% of thensusiasts setups. and TunerFreeMCE do an amazing job at satisfying your lust for IPTV and are developing at an incredible pace, MediaBrowser adds features almost by the day and work is afoot to restore the functionality of some old classics like LifeExtender and DVRMSToolbox for Commercial skipping etc. While mediaportal still has no meaningful IPTV solution (the MP community craves a TunerFreeMCE or, it has a myriad of other offerings that dwarf what WMC has to offer. Integrated RSS neatly scrolls a chosen feed unobtrusively throughout the menu’s, seamless streaming from the online service, fantastic Weather integration for multiple cities, arcade and game emulators galore, home automation, contacts management, IP Telephony plugins and a whole lot more. Simply put, if the complete range of features is your number one priority, the MediaPortal will feed that passion and then some!


6. Annoyances

While I am certainly a big fan of both platforms, neither is without their issues. Ranging from little niggles (such as why, oh why did Microsoft remove the time/clock from the screen when pressing play/pause during media playback? :EDIT: This is now fixed in the latest W7 build!) to the bordering-on-major-flaw (lack of integrated IPTV content in the UK like they have in the USA, or the dual-tuner bug that still isn’t fixed), 7MC lacks any acceptable video/DVD/TV-series management tool out of the box. Also, the .WTV format has broken all existing commercial skipping applications. For MediaPortal, my biggest bugbear is the fact that you need to continually drop out of the front end, plug in a KB/Mouse and enter the windows-based config GUI. This is something I never have to do with 7MC and something that really shouldn’t be the case from a HTPC front end. Also, the back-button behaviour can be a little erratic. Sometimes you go back to the previous screen, others its back to the main menu and the odd occasion somewhere in-between. Organising media is also a little laborious. Getting the views of your TV, movies and especially music is far more ‘fiddly’ than it should be, but once its up and running you’re set. Indeed much of MediaPortal is its initial config – set aside a good few days to get it working exactly how you want, but once its in place, you wont need to tweak that much until the next release/update arrives.

7. Conclusions

Overall then I think it’s fair to say that both are amazing pieces of software. For a beta product, 7MC shows incredible promise and has re-invigorated the Media Centre enthusiasts belief in Microsoft and their platform. MediaPortal is a stellar example of how free, open source software can harness the power of the masses and deliver a powerful and productive application that offers the user a wide variety of choice. While currently windows only, MediaPortal will work on anything from XP to Windows7 so there’s no need to upgrade that old HTPC just yet. However, the time-consuming and overly complex setup will be too much for some, while its greatest strength (its plug-ins and add-ons) also prove its biggest weakness, at the cost of reliability and performance. Offering the more flexible and customisable solution, MP is a seriously viable alternative to its Microsoft counterpart, and head-to-head I’d chose it over Vista Media centre right now. However, the new functionality and design improvements in 7MC, coupled with the vibrant developer community makes 7MC the winner and remains my default HTPC front end at the time of writing.

5 thoughts on “Mediaportal V Media Center? Which to choose?”
  1. Dear Mr. Jones šŸ™‚
    I confess, I signed up just to thank you for this fantastic blog post. I have been scouring the net for hours trying to decide between MediaPortal (MP) and 7MC. I don’t use a separate HTPC so the ability to configure MP on my computer screen is actually a plus for me. Even when I install a network I still would rather do it with a keyboard! (old habits die hard!)

    You list MP 1.0 as the version you tested? I understand MP 1.1.0 is in Beta release and their site says RC will soon be released. I wondered if you have tried this out yet and if it has improved the TV functions at all?

    Also, do you know if both apps support DRM, Blue-ray, digital audio, OGG, FLAC etc., and full network support to stream all TV, Music, Videos and Radio to all client PCs? I am considering that when I upgrade my system.

    Which one has more flexibility for adding features?

    I have to say that I am surprised that a little open source software like MediaPortal can compete even that well with the great MS! It’s like David and Goliath! And of course MP is free, which is a plus for me!

    Thank you for one of the best articles I have read out of about a hundred or so.. and counting (my head hurts!)

  2. Just found this article, very interesting as I am in the process of transferring from 7MC to MediaPortal.

    I wonder if you will have time to re-visit this anytime, as I think the MP software may have improved a lot over the last 3 years.

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