About seven years ago I painted my television’s screen with thick bright colors to turn the distracting time-sucking device into a permanent artwork. My friends resorted to even more drastic measures such as cutting the power cord with scissors (turn off the device first, thank you!)

But we all had one thing in common: We were sick and tired of being programmed. We got rid of our tellies and never looked back. But we were no media ascetics. As much as we loved to watch our favourite movies, series, music clips, etc. we simply wanted to decide what to see and when to see it.

Set-Top Boxes & Sofa TV

Nowadays, many televisions come with Internet access and free apps either directly embedded into the device or fed through a set-top box. I don’t own one of these plasma-spewing monsters (not yet?) but I was curious about the “new TV” experience.

And what I quickly found out that it’s very easy to build your own customized home media center. Here’s how I did it.

Step 1: The Hardware For Your Media Consumption

What you need:

– computer

– screen

– loudspeakers

– remote control

I had an old netbook with Windows XP, a set of tiny but powerful USB speakers and a nice big screen. The only thing I added was a dead-simple little remote control for free browsing that I got from Ebay for $3.

Some people also simply buy little mini-desktop PC for about $200 bucks to do the job. But if you have an old computer lying around somewhere, chances are it’ll do just fine and you can build up a media center for free! (note: desktops can be too loud!)

The main thing is that  all the hardware you selected is compatible with the software part.

Step 2: The Media Center Software

If you’ve ever used a Windows PC, you might have seen the Windows Media Center (MCE) – a so called 10-foot user interface with easy access to photos, music, videos, etc.

But did you know there’s tons of free alternatives? Here’s a selection:

(quoted from deviceguru)

I tested a few of them on a lazy afternoon and decided on XBMC for its sleek interface and huge repository of add-ons, apps or plugins (all of them for free!). The following might differ, depending on which Media Center you use, but here’s what I did:

Step 3: Extending Your Media Center Functionality

XMBC worked right out of the box on my hardware. So I added my music library and looked around a bit in the add-ons section. The cool thing about XMBC is that you can easily download/install add-ons or plugins from within the system.

Among other things I installed:

Grooveshark – After entering your grooveshark login details you can browse, search and listen to playlists.

Youtube – Simple and effective interface to access Youtube.

Academic Earth – streams lectures and discussions

IceCast – Huge selection of internet radio streams

Mediathek – Various German TV streams for my expat existence

and so on and so forth…

Step 4: Troubleshooting And Hacking

It’s possible to boot XBMC directly before Windows but I decided on a more moderate approach and simply replaced the windows shell  to fire up my media center immediately. [tutorial]

The tutorial linked above also mentions EventGhost, a brilliant free software with which I was able to map, edit and customize some of the buttons on my remote, i.e. opening music library with one click, etc.


I’ve been using it now for two or three days and I think it’s great. Since I don’t own either a TV or sound system (anymore) this home-brew media center is a one-size-fits-all-solution and it lets me consume media without being consumed by it!

img: xmbc