Revisiting XBMC, and the trouble with Blu-ray

The developers that run the open source media software project XBMC released the latest updated version of their excellent music, movie and TV consumption application.

Actually, describing XBMC as a media player does it something of a disservice. It is simply the most full featured, beautiful and easy to navigate media centre I’ve ever had the pleasure to use, while handling the vast majority of file formats with aplomb.

Groovy new features

Version 10 (codename ‘Dharma’) continues the fine tradition of adding great new features while preserving the professional style and usability that has been a hallmark of the project since back before it ran on anything besides the original Xbox.

The biggest change, and something I’m personally looking forward to trying out when I finally get around to building that HTPC, is a new interface for installing skins, addons and additional functionality extensions. Previously, you had to be prepared to trawl through forums, download files and manually install your extensions; not exactly a stretch of technical skill, but time consuming nonetheless.

Now, a new ‘Addons’ section from the main menu takes you straight to a repository of useful stuff that will install straight from the GUI. Want to browse a few YouTube videos with a remote control from your couch? No problem, just click to install and go.

Hardware acceleration has also been boosted under Windows and Linux, with support for a wider range of graphics chipsets including low power CrystalHD hardware often built into commercial media streamers, or available as low profile PCIe cards for system builders. The playback engine now supports new video formats like WebM and VP8, as well as unencrypted Blu-ray content. Most commercial movies are still encrypted however, so the feature is of limited use.

Enough talk, lets install!

Like most Linux-based software, XBMC is available as a LiveCD for booting directly into the environment, which is what you’ll want when building an HTPC. This option will also let you test out XBMC on your existing hardware without making any irreversible changes (great for testing).

If you don’t want to keep a DVD drive blocked with the system disc, you can always install straight to hard disk, or use UNetBootIn to create a bootable USB drive with the software you can use just like the LiveCD.

Download the latest XBMC stable release from here and get more information on how to set up your media centre from the XBMC wiki.

Blu-ray, and why patents are irritating

XBMC is an open source project. What this means in practice is that development is carried out by volunteers, and the only money the project makes is from individual donations.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s the reason that XBMC won’t play your shiny new encrypted Blu-ray discs.

The Blu-ray standard was developed by the Blu-ray Disc Association, which is made up of large commercial technology and media companies. They charge anyone who wants their software to play Blu-ray discs a licensing fee, and anyone who won’t pay, can’t play.

XBMC can’t pay, and indeed like most open source projects, makes a political point out of not paying.

You can get round this by buying a product like PowerDVD, where the manufacturers have stumped up the cash for a licence. XBMC can be set up to launch PowerDVD whenever you try to play a supported disc, handing over to the commercial application. But what if you can’t justify spending £60 on playback software?

Well, a member of the XBMC forums who goes by the name ‘magnetism’ might be able to help you out. Magnetism’s addon uses the free MakeMKV application to convert Blu-ray movies on the fly to a format XBMC can read.

The process can be little complex and processor intensive, and some users have reported running into problems, but with a little patience you can have the high quality sound and video of Blu-ray piped to your TV without having to invest in a separate piece of hardware.

Be aware however that in some countries such as the US circumventing the protection on a Blu-ray disc, even one that you own, is a crime. Make sure that you know the local law, and if you find it restricts your freedom to play your own content, perhaps you should think about changing it.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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