The benefit of using a media center software is that you will get an appliance look and feel that is user-friendly. This top 10 list will simplify your task by highlighting the most popular HTPC software.
1. Kodi (was XBMC) Media Center
I’ve tested all available media center front-ends and I think Kodi (was XBMC) is clearly the best, but it is not the easiest to set up to make it user-friendly.
Kodi was originally designed as a media center interface for the Xbox game console.
It is a powerful entertainment center for Windows, Linux, Android and Mac OS X that is capable of playing most available media file types.
The user interface looks elegant even without any customization.
However, you can customize the interface with skins that you can download online.
There are several add-ons available, which allow you to truly customize your media experience.
To get started, read how to customize it with all the bells and whistles.
Plex Media Server is a back-end application for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X-based computers that is great for streaming media files across your home network.
In addition to its own front-end software, Plex Media Player, the back-end server application is compatible with many other front-ends like Kodi.
There are also mobile front-end apps available.
Plex’s strengths are in finding all your movie and music metadata without any problem.
Plex Media Server has the ability to transcode your TV recordings, depending on your device and network. This way, TV shows will play smoothly on your mobile phone or your iPad over a wireless network.
Another great feature of the Plex is that you can continue the video file from where you left off on any device. For example, you can start watching a TV program with your HTPC in the living room and then continue watching it on your iPad elsewhere.
Plex has a built-in live TV and DVR server, so you can also record and watch live TV with it.
Click here for a complete guide to Plex Media Server.
3. Windows Media Center
Windows Media Center is no longer included in Windows 10, so you’ll be able to use it only in Windows 7, 8 and 8.1
However, it is still great media center software for beginners (and for advanced users) who wish to, for example, get live TV working easily.
Windows Media Center is one of the few media centers that will allow you to integrate a Blu-ray player into the interface.
It used to be the most mainstream media center thanks to Microsoft’s advertisement and bundling efforts. There is nothing too technical about Windows Media Center and it plays most media formats out there.
Windows Media Center has been a favorite choice especially for those who enjoy watching and recording live TV. Since releasing Windows 10, Microsoft has left WMC to fade away, so many people need to transition to new media center software.
Emby is another great alternative to centrally manage all your media files and then watch them using the front-end application.
Emby organizes your media files so that it never takes more than a few clicks to find the latest movie or TV show.
In addition, you can set up customized views of your library for each member of your family with the ability to pause and resume from different devices.
Emby has a built-in live TV server, so you can also record and watch live TV with it.
Emby also has an add-on for Kodi that brings you a super easy way to view your content.
NextPVR is probably the best alternative to Windows Media Center to watch and record live TV.
It is easy to set up and supports advanced features like recording series.
You can use NextPVR as a front-end application, but the user interface is not as stylish as WMC or Kodi, but it is clean and simple.
You can also use NextPVR as a back-end and integrate it with Kodi using a PVR add-on.
6. Media Portal
Another good media center with TV tuner support is Media Portal. Media Portal turns your computer into a highly advanced media center.
It is an open source application like Kodi, but the key advantage of this software is that you can turn your PC into a PVR (Personal Video Recorder).
7. JRiver Media Center
JRiver Media Center is a jukebox-style media center like Windows Media Player or iTunes. However, it comes with a 10-foot interface optimized Theater View, which works perfectly with your HDTV.
The great thing about JRiver is that it supports even the most advanced codecs out of the box, and it is known to playback your music with excellent sound quality.
It even comes with Netflix, Hulu and YouTube services integrated, so it is suitable for playing online video content, too.
It is a perfect choice for you especially if you are an audiophile and like to play lossless formats of audio like FLAC, APE, ALAC, WM and WAV files. JRiver costs $49.98.
8. Steam Big Picture
Valve’s Steam is the most popular game platform available. Using Steam’s Big Picture mode allows you to buy and launch PC games from your sofa.
When you integrate Steam’s Big Picture mode with Kodi Media Center, you will get a powerful combination that gives you much more control over your media experience in comparison to any commercial game console.
Click here to learn more how to build your Steam Machine.
9. HDHomeRun DVR
HDHomeRun DVR is SiliconDust company’s attempt to fill in the gap in the DIY DVR market after Microsoft decided not to include Windows Media Center into Windows 10 anymore.
HDHomeRun DVR works with your front-end device and NAS server adding the ability to watch, schedule and record live TV.
It is still in the development phase, and I have not evaluated it myself yet since it is not available in the country I live in.
However, features like DRM (for protected cable TV shows), Live TV pause, Kodi and Plex integrations will certainly make this DVR software popular in the future.
MythTV is the PVR of the Linux media center. You can record your shows and play them back at any time. It used to be a great alternative to TiVo.
This one is for advanced users that want to set up their home theater computer to link to their television. Once linked, you will be able to record live television programs and store them on your PC.
Unfortunately, MythTV development has been discontinued.
As you can see, there are several media center software available to choose from. Which media center is the best depends eventually on your needs for the media center. Are you interested in basic DVD playback and music listening capabilities or more advanced ways to play online and high definition video content?
Don’t know how to get started? My recommendation is to get started with Kodi media center and then set up a back-end with Plex Media Server.