Since we moved to Kawasaki, I’ve been working hard to hook up my PC and TV in such a way that I can watch the videos on my hard drive without moving from the sofa. After a few months of sustained effort, I’ve finally settled on a solution.
Hooking up a PC to a modern TV couldn’t be simpler. There are expensive wireless systems available, but I use two cables: one is a VGA-to-D-Sub cable which carries the video (D-Sub is apparently a predominantly Japanese TV alternative to VGA), and a male-male 3.5 jack cable to carry the audio signal. Both are 3-5 metres in length, passing through my sliding door and along the skirting board (held in place with some Heath Robinson adhesive pads and cable-ties). If I had a surround-sound system, my audio would need an alternative solution, but for half-decent stereo – I’m not too fussy – my way is simple and effective – one of the problems, however, is that I have to plug the cable in manually before watching TV as the only slot available is designed for headphones, thus shutting off the PC speakers when plugged in, however, this is a small nuisance.
After a long duel between Boxee and XBMC, XBMC became the most effective media centre application for me. However, the reason is apparently linked to my network or laptop hardware and it will be useful to discuss both here.
As a university student, I bought and chipped an Xbox which became my central means of watching movies on my TV – mainly because I needed a DVD player to replace my previous DIVX/DVD player. The key was the XBMC dashboard. Fast forward to today, and now XBMC is a multi-platform application and as a result is more versatile than its older Xbox-based incarnation.
The basic function of XBMC is creating an accessible media library in a package that can be controlled by remote. Newer features include media scraping, which allows you to browse through your shows more easily.
Boxee takes XBMC to the next level. With XBMC code at its foundation, Boxee incorporates internet based content to allow the user to watch streaming content, search for subtitles, and all other useful features. However, in my case, Boxee overloads my Internet connection with media scraping requests that essentially stops all net-based functions from working properly. This is the primary reason I am using XBMC now.
Both programmes have support for music, but anyone used to using iTunes, Winamp, or MediaMonkey will be disappointed with its lack of advanced playlist features.
In addition to XBMC/Boxee, you might want to get the iPhone remotes for whichever you choose. The Boxee remote is free but is rather limited. If you want a bit more functionality, the XBMC remote is a paid app ($2.99) but for the money you get more buttons, customisation and access to your library directly (making choosing the right film or song easier).
Hook up your TV and computer using the video and audio cables. You will want to set your TV as a secondary monitor and find a good resolution for it using Windows native Display Manager. Unlike simply switching display modes (standard function on laptops), using your TV as a secondary monitor allows you to use the laptop while your media is playing. This is essential if you are running this as part of a family.
Next you want to make sure that XBMC actually opens on the secondary screen. For this, you need XBMCLaunch.exe. Put XBMCLaunch.exe anywhere you wish, and then create a shortcut to it on your desktop. Right-click on the shortcut and launch Properties. You need to edit the shortcut so that it looks like this:
[XBMCLaunch.exe location] [XMBC.exe location],[Screen Number]
C:\Users\JamesinJapan\Documents\xbmcLaunch.exe C:\Program Files\XBMC\XBMC.exe,2
Once you’ve done that and click on the shortcut, XBMC will load in the other window with a blank profile. This means that even if you have already configured it, you will need to do so again. It might be helpful to be able to see the screen from your PC as you set it up – I have a door between me and our tiny TV which made setting it up, at least to the point where I could use the iPhone, was a little difficult.
The next step, if you’re will to make the effort, is to make your media scrape-friendly.
I have separated my files into type of media. In the movies folder you will want to have each movie in a subfolder with consistent names including the year of release. My system works like this:
Within each folder, name each file ‘Title (Year)’ plus ‘.cd1′ or other information where needed.
Likewise, with TV shows, proper file names are essential.
\TV Shows\Title (Year)\Season #\
Each episode is named ‘Title – S##E## – EpisodeName’.
To help with the scraping and renaming, I recommend Ember Media Manager (for your movies; it’s designed for XBMC specifically but generally applicable) and TV Rename (for your TV shows).
This system is not perfect, and there are many alternatives. I’m interested in hearing your suggestions in the comments below!