XBMC: “Free” TV and Serious Business Geekery

I’m going to do a full “How to” trip report on this one when I have everything tweaked, but I am pretty close to being able to cancel my Lovefilm and Sky subscriptions and swap to freeview satellite, thanks to a couple of evenings spent setting up XBMC on an old PC I had lying around.

Since those subscriptions cost something in the ballpark of sixty or seventy pounds a month, this is not to be sniffed at!  After all, that’s more than eight hundred pounds (thirteen hundred dollars) a year.

The first step was to install the XBMC media centre application.  Originally descended from a very unofficial mod for Microsoft’s XBox, this is now a powerful multiplatform product used in several commercial and open source platforms.  I wanted to leave the PC it ran on in a fit state for my wife to use, so installed the Windows app rather than the Unix version.

After installing XBMC I connected the PC to my TV.  I first pointed it at my iTunes library, my photo collections, and some of my DVDs that I had already ripped onto hard disk.  It’s nice enough at that point to be able to access all of those via the television, but I can also view any of those media from the two XBoxes and various computers on my home network, just as I could with, for instance, Microsoft’s own Media Centre.  There were nice touches: when I chose to listen to an album I was also presented with relevant full-screen artwork as a backdrop and automatically-downloaded information about, and reviews of, the band and the tracks chosen.

Next, I installed some add-ons: the iPlayer app was a cinch, and gave me access to the BBC’s excellent output, especially any BBC Four programmes that I had missed.  Similarly, the YouTube add-on took seconds to install and now I was able to search for and watch any YouTube content I liked.

Now for something a bit more challenging.  I wanted to be able to download television and movies.  I didn’t, however, want a cease-and-desist letter to arrive, accompanied by a large bill, from HBO.  i also didn’t want Virgin Media’s traffic shaping to throttle me back to a trickle of data. So the usual file-sharing add-ons like bittorrent were out.

Instead, I chose to use usenet through an SSL connection.  Once I installed Sabnzbd, Couch Potato and the delightfully-named Sickbeard I was able to search for a program by name, choose which episodes I wanted to download from the resulting list, and then have it retrieve the selected series, save them in orderly, clearly-named locations, and retrieve posters, branding, cast and plot information and more.

I can do the same for movies, with the nifty addition that, if I browse IMDB, I can click a button at the bottom of the page and add it to my download list.

Some projects still to go: set up interaction with my iPhone, both to use it as a remote control for the box and to allow it to view the contents; set up LastFM, flicker and other integration; get it recording live TV; work out how to securely serve up some of my data remotely to locations outside the confines of my LAN.