Your HTPC Experience: Let’s Talk About Software

Your HTPC software is where the rubber meets the road; this is the stuff controlling what you see and how you see it. Depending on what you pick, it also can have a pretty big impact both up and downstream; some need a bit of power behind them to function well, but others can be run on pretty basic hardware, such as the Rasberry Pi or Apple TV. There’s plenty to choose from, all with their own strengths and weaknesses.

My software of choice is Kodi, formerly (and forever in my heart) known as XBMC. The grand-daddy of HTPC software, this open source platform has been around since 2002 and started as a homebrew application for the original Xbox. Since then, it’s branched out to nearly every OS and platform out there with pretty solid success. It has an active development team who turn out fairly regular updates; in addition, it has a vibrant third-party community, churning out all sorts of add-ons, skins, and other fun extras.Getting started with Kodi is extremely easy; go to their downloads page, pick your OS, and go.

Picking a Kodi Version

While you can run Kodi on any normal OS, I encourage those dedicating a machine exclusively as a HTPC to use Kodi’s dedicated Ubuntu distribution, named Kodibuntu. It’s significantly more responsive and will run well on just about any hardware setup. Any Windows power user with access to Google could set up and maintain it without much difficulty, however I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone unwilling or unable to develop an understanding of basic Linux administration, specifically:

  • SSH – I’m sure there’s a way to get a terminal within Kodi, but why bother? Use putty and remote in.
  • APT – The advanced package tool is how you update things in Ubuntu.
  • File Editing –  Occasionally you’ll need to edit configuration files. I like vim but nano works just as well and comes with.
  • The basics – making directories, removing files, moving around, etc.

While I’ll point you to the official step-by-step guide instead of writing my own, I will say that the Linux Live Drive Creator for Windows is very easy to use, and from there the process is almost identical to installing Windows.

A few tips for your setup:

  • When creating the installation stick, download the Kodibuntu ISO manually instead of letting LiLi download it for you; their version is usually out-of-date.
  • Don’t bother setting up any of the persistence features. Kodi can be run entirely off of a USB stick, but I’ve found that it’s a noticeably slower and crash-ier experience.
  • If you have a lot of high-definition content, use a wired network connection whenever possible, particularly if you have several wifi networks competing for airspace. If you are stuck using wifi, use 802.11ac to give you the most throughput available and try to avoid uncompressed files.
  • Though easier to setup, recent Kodi versions have had issues with SMB file shares, and I have had to move over to NFS. Setting it up involves remoting into the box via SSH and adding a line to your “etc/fstab” file. You can check out this how-to for the fstab syntax details, but in essence it’s [address of remote share][space][location to place the local symbolic link][some options] or, for an example: /home/user/NFSshares/Shows nfs rw,hard,intr,nolock 0 0

Add Some Sparkle

Changing your skin allows you to modify the look and feel of your Kodi installation to something a little less boring than the default “Confluence” theme. I am particularly fond of “Aeon Nox”, the current scion of an ancient and distinguished line, but there are tons of options so feel free to explore. Most of the skins can create some visually interesting things, but remember that every piece of artwork they display is another piece of artwork you need to provide. If you have a big library, I would suggest picking a skin which supports “custom home items”, as this will come in handy later.

Download Some Add-Ons

For those of you who want a powerful on-the-go media device, don’t want the hassle of maintaining a library of content, or just prefer the carefree lifestyle of streaming, then you’r next stop will be downloading the add-on for your services of choice. However, in addition to the standard Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other traditional choices, there are also some less well-known examples that allow you access to large libraries without a membership via *ahem* irregular methods.

Your Library

Kodi comes with two ways to look at media you have closer to home. The more basic of the pair is found under the “Video” main menu link, and is a no-frills file browser. As a long-term strategy, it’s best used if you tend to cycle through content, as it simply shows you your files as they are on the local or remote share.

If you maintain a standing collection (you never know when you need to watch that one South Park) though, you have another option. Kodi can scan your content and build a “library”; when populated with meta-data and artwork, the right skin can use this database to do some very pretty things.

There are three library nodes, built around the three mains types of content: “TV shows”, “Movies”, and “Music”. When you add a new source, you are prompted to identify it as belonging to one of these categories, which then tells it what meta-data files to expect when it scans them.

While the initial configuration is pretty straight-forward, here’s a few tricks I’ve picked up over the years:

  • Those of you with large collections should skip Kodi’s built-in scrapers or add-on’s and use a separate library tool. While it can be a little buggy, I like Ember Media Manager because it supports all of the artwork Kodi can read (banners, posters, etc.) and the “XBMC configuration” setting will automatically choose the right names for each image.
  • Speaking of metadata and artwork, it’s usually quicker to simply remove and re-scan a source or show than it is to manually edit the images and metadata, so take my advice and get your library into shape before you import it into Kodi.
  • The last screen in the ‘Add Sources’ process asks you if you want to refresh all info within it. When adding multiple sources at once, select “No”; then when you’ve added them all, trigger a library update. This will bring all of your content in one shot, as opposed to needing to wait for the previous scan to finish in order to set up the next one.

Getting Fancy with Smart Playlists

If you have a particularly large library and/or diverse audience, you may prefer to break up your content into more manageable chunks as opposed to the “all in” approach offered by the “TV Show” and “Movie” default options. This can be done by taking advantage of smart playlists:

  1. Break apart your content into discrete folders for each “type” of content; for instance, I have separate NFS mounts for my shows, my fiancee’s, and the ones we watch together. You can do this either by creating entirely new network shares for each folder or by separate sub-folders within the share, just so long as they have distinct paths.
  2. Set up each segment you want with a smart playlist. The unique paths for each category allows you to use the “path starts with” rule to create a playlist, which are elastic and will automatically incorporate any new content every time you update your library.
  3. Add each playlist to the home screen as a custom item. If you’re using Aeon Nox, you can also go to the main menu customization screen and select “video playlist” under “set item background” to use artwork from items on the playlist as a shuffling background when that menu item is highlighted.