Having been a Windows Media Center user for many years has not stopped me looking for viable alternatives. Over the years I have dabbled with many “media centre” products both software and hardware but there has always been one stumbling block: TV tuner card support and the whole DVR aspect of the HTPC. I recently discovered MediaPortal, a Windows only fork of the XBMC project that is heavily influenced by the great features and style of Windows Media Center but takes the functionality a lot further. The UI is even fully skinable although I’ve just kept mine to default for now.
As I’ve mentioned, MediaPortal is an open source project that was forked from XBMC a while ago. As they have concentrated on having live TV / DVR support as their core feature it makes sense that the project is Windows only at the moment. I have found through experience that trying to set up tuner cards to work in Linux still very challenging although not impossible. Being Windows based means the project can rely on the rock solid drivers and ease of setup that Windows systems have for TV tuners.
Advantages over Windows Media Center
So what is the benefit of using MediaPortal on a Windows 7 HTPC over the built in Windows Media Center software? Well everybody has different requirements but to be blunt being UK based makes Windows Media Center a lot less useful than if you are a US user for example. Many US Media Center users have CableCARD tuners in their HTPCs and plenty of online content natively integrated into the Media Center UI. This allows for access to premium content that UK users cannot match without hacks of 3rd party help. So if you are not a CableCARD user or outside of the US you may find these features attractive:
A “softsled” experience for live and recordeded TV – The MediaPortal setup is server / client based. This means that you install the backend on one machine then your can have multiple clients access the “‘TV Server” giving each client an identical experience. You get access to the same EPG, recorded TV and live TV from any client. You can manage recordings and schedule recordings from any client. The setup process is pretty straightforward for somebody with experience in HTPCs.
Tuner cards are handled differently than in Windows Media Center giving you much more flexibility. MediaPortal has the ability to record multiple channels on the same transponder using only one tuner. For example if you have a Freeview HD card all the HD channels are on the same transponder so potentially, if your machine has enough processing power, all the best the UK has to offer is yours to record. I personally recorded 5 channels and watched a 6th channel live with no problems on my modest HTPC. In terms of codec support, the standard Microsoft codecs can be used if you wish but you have the added advantage of being able to switch to 3rd party codecs for all types of media including TV content. Recordings are stored in .TS format making them very portable to other systems. Unlike XBMC, MediaPortal does not ship with codecs out of the box but uses those installed on the system but if they are available it will play practically everything.
Flexible and accurate EPG functionality – There are many plugins available that add functionality to the system and this includes customising and localising the EPG. EPG data can be pulled directly from the stream, via XMLTV sources and also from dedicated EPG “channels” which differ depending on the provider. I am using a particular build of MediaPortal that integrates the ability to pull all EPG data from SKY. I have it update all entries every 8 hours in case there are any changes and it also gives me access to Sky’s ‘Series Link” functionality usually reserved to their own receiver boxes. This is a much more accurate way to record content as it uses the program ID as oppossed to other metadata to decide what gets recorded, meaning no repeats!
Another nice plugin I am using gives me great channel logos.
Other useful features include an adjustable live TV buffer so that you can go back quite far into a live stream without permanently recording the channel. Radio has some good support as well and has a separate EPG of its own, useful if you are a keen radio listener.
To talk about other features is almost never ending as there are many additional addons for MediaPortal expanding its capabilities.
Personally what has sold the experience for me is the ability to get a lot of the seamless functionality available in XBMC into an integrated experience that includes live TV. This includes addons for hundreds on online streaming services as well as Netflix (US) support that works fantastically in the UK under the right conditions. There is even a plugin ‘store’ to browse and download new plugins in a 2ft interface. The entire setup seems to be catered for ex-Media Center uses as far as having built in Media Center remote integration, including an option to disable all Media Center services and redirect the “green button” of the remote to launch MediaPortal.
I am very happy with my current installation of MediaPortal but unlike Media Center, development continues with some very intriguing updates on the way. All I can say is that you are looking for a new way of consuming TV on your HTPC I can’t recommend it enough. You are getting a very robust and flexible system, all for free, and there is support for non Windows clients as well. I will be looking at the TV Server plugin for XBMC which adds PVR functionality and access to the MediaPortal backend to XBMC. Of course this means your client can be Linux so I am eager to try this out on the Raspberry Pi.
I recently joined Ian on an episode of The Digital Lifestyle Show to talk about this project which you can find here.
A short video review of MediaPortal in action can be found on my TeknoCratik YouTube Channel and you can find me on my blog and podcast TeknoCratik, where along with my cohost Tim we discuss are experiences in technology, digital media and related subjects.