Media Centers: Alternative, Open-Source, Cross-Platform Solutions - A FLOSS Comparison
Looking for an open-source alternative to proprietary media center solutions from big brand names like Microsoft and Apple? Tired of buying into their own closed and proprietary business strategies? Here is a report showcasing you all of the alternative open-source media centers available out there.
Photo credit: ishook
A media center is a multimedia hardware/ software combo which gives you easy access to all of your media (whether it be audio, video, images, or text) from one location.
Managing all of your media is becoming increasingly more difficult as the formats and methods through which they audio, video and other multimedia content are delivered, keeps expanding.
Even today, the number of different media formats you interact with on a daily basis can be overwhelming. You have to have one program to handle your music and video streams from Last.fm or YouTube and Hulu. Then you need another program to store and playback your digital music and video files on your hard drive. You need yet more hardware and software to watch and record live television via the various IPTV providers. Even your newspaper has become digital, and so you need a program to read your latest news via RSS feeds. In addition to all this, you are increasingly unprepared to manage your growing stack of thousands of digital photographs as well as your collection of DVDs and CDs.
To help you re-gain control of your own exploding media assets, new hardware / software devices which take care of helping you organize, select and access all of your media have emerged in recent years under the name of "media centers".
In this report, from the Telematics Freedom Foundation, the most interesting open-source media centers available on the market.
Each of the media centers reviewed moves beyond the limited, proprietary, closed platforms philosophy offered by iTunes, Windows Media Center, and others, offering a true alternative business model approach.
This report is "not aimed to 'pick a winner' [but rather] the goal here is simply to share knowledge about the current state of the art of FLOSS Media Center devices."
"Typical, complete media centers offer the following functions to the user:
- Integration of all forms of media, entertainment and communication functions including TV-reception (analogue TV, DigitalTV via terrestrial-, cable-, satellite-, IPTV-, webTV-networks), broadband Internet access, IP-telephony, video-telephony, e-mail etc. into one common user friendly GUI (graphical user interface) controlled with a remote control or wireless keyboard by the family members typically in the living room
- Ability to receive digital media files (via direct video signal, computer network or USB)
- Ability to store digital media (usually on a standard computer hard disk drive)
- Ability to play back digital media through standard television or hi-fi equipment
- Simplicity (compared to a computer equipped to accomplish transfer, storage and TV/hi-fi playback)
- Cost savings (compared to a computer equipped to accomplish transfer, storage and TV/hi-fi playback)
- Portability (compared to a computer equipped to accomplish transfer, storage and TV/hi-fi playback)
Though media centers are often built using similar components to personal computers, they are often smaller; media centers sometimes have hardware that is not usually seen in personal computers, such as receivers for remote controls, or television tuner cards.
The term media center refers either to a dedicated computer appliance or to a specialized personal computer software, both of which are adapted for playing various kinds of media (music, movies, photos etc.). A media center may also allow watching DVD movies and watching and recording television broadcasts.
The media itself may be stored, received by terrestrial, satellite or cable broadcasting or streamed from the internet. Stored media is kept either on a local hard drive or on a (wireless) network attached storage. Some software is capable of doing other tasks, such as finding news (RSS) from the Internet. Media centers are often operated with a remote control, connected to a television set for video output, and can sometimes function as a normal personal computer.
A media center can be purpose-built, modified or created by individuals by adding media center software to a PC or some other computer, for example an Xbox."
This paper presents a Comparison Chart reflecting the State of the Art for the most prominent Media Center (MC) projects in the FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) community at the time of this writing. This document is not aimed to "pick a winner", nor to promote any of the compared MCs. It also shouldn't be considered the "ultimate truth" about the Media Centers showcased here. Please do your own research before picking your choice.
The goal here is simply to share knowledge about the current State of the Art done by the community on FLOSS MC projects, and to provide project leaders and developers with enough feedback on which features to focus on next in opposition to other projects, in an effort to discover new synergies with other existing FLOSS projects. Before starting a public survey, we divided projects into two main categories:
- FLOSS Media Center Projects (with or without PVR features)
- FLOSS All-in-one solutions (custom GNU/Linux Media Center distributions)
We'll be focusing and detailing the first category of Media Centers here.
Media Center Comparison
Boxee is a startup company. It is also a "Social Media Center" that enables users to view, rate and recommend content to their friends through many social networking features. Boxee's CEO, Avner Ronen, announced the first alpha release on June 16, 2008. The alpha phase is invite-only but anyone can apply for an invitation on Boxee's website. Boxee is a FLOSS Media Center based on XBMC and currently runs on Mac and Linux platforms. Alternatively, it can run on Apple TV with a patch.
- The CenterStage Project
The CenterStage Project was founded in January 2005 by Neil Curry. In May 2008, Elan Fieldgold, who was working on the Mac OS X port of XBMC, left the XBMC project and started a new project called Plex. On July 13, 2008 Plex and CenterStage projects announced that they had teamed up, with Plex developers focusing on backend and the CenterStage developers working on the GUI. The new Media Center is still under development and currently only an alpha version of Plex is available.
- Elisa Media Center
The first release of Elisa Media Center was issued in July 2006. The private company Fluendo decided to start developing a cross-platform solution, targeted at both Home Theater PC's and set-top boxes. Elisa runs on top of the GStreamer multimedia framework. The core system is licensed under the GPL version 2. The GPL part of Elisa is also available under a commercial licensing agreement from Fluendo. Elisa core plug-ins are licensed under the MIT license.
- The Entertainer Project
The Entertainer Project was started in October 2007 by Lauri Taimila, as his pet project to learn Python and build something like Windows Media Center for Linux. Entertainer is a very young project and is still in its early stages. It uses GStreamer's multimedia framework for multimedia playback and the UI is implemented with the Clutter library, which allows OpenGL animated user interfaces.
Freevo started up in 2002, and, as with the majority of other Media Centers, basic functions provided can be extended by plug-ins. Freevo is written in Python, which makes it easy for users to develop new plug-ins. This may also be the reason why many plug-ins are discontinued. Various plug-ins are bundled with Freevo, and they just need to be activated. Freevo offers so many plug-ins that it is almost impossible to know and use them all. Freevo runs on Linux, but there are reports of users using it on Mac and Windows too, though a certain degree of expertise is required to install it.
MediaPortal is an XBMC fork started up in February 2004 by Erwin Beckers (also known as Frodo), who was actually one of the founders of XBMC in its early days. MediaPortal is built on the Microsoft .NET framework using C#, and supports a plug-in system and a skin engine allowing users to extend the base software. In 2006, MediaPortal released the "TV server." For the first time users can now use multiple frontends for viewing and recording TV streamed from 1 or more TV servers.
- My Media System
The project My Media System (mms) was started as "Mpeg Menu System" in the summer of 2002 by Anders Rune Jensen. After a half year of development, mms was rewritten in late 2002, and mmsv2 was released in January 2003. After four years, it was time for a new name, since mms had grown out of its mpeg-only output starting point and into a full media system. The new name, My Media System, was selected with overall consensus from the forum's users. Versions prior to 1.1.0 do not support plug-ins.
The MythTV project was started up in April 2002 by Isaac Richards. In early 2007 a book called "Practical MythTV" about MythTV and its installation was published. During this time, MythTV grew considerably, and is still growing today, supported by a very active community. There are several other projects which include a Linux distribution bundled with MythTV ("all-in-one" solutions) to make the installation, configuration and maintenance easier and faster. MythTV has a modular structure, so that what can't be found in default modules is probably available using unofficial plug-ins.
- Neuros OSD
The result of a spin-off from Digital Innovations in December of 2003, Neuros Technology is a private company selling Neuros OSD, a set-top box running an Open Source firmware based on Linux. The next generation (Neuros OSD2.0) is part of the "Neuros Open Internet Television Platform", a system aimed to bring the freedom of the internet to the people's living rooms. It is almost ready for shipping, and will support HD.
XBMC initiated in 2002 under the name "Xbox Media Player" (XBMP); it was renamed XBMC a year later, since it was growing out of its "player" name and into a "center" for media playback. It runs on Linux, Mac, Windows, Xbox console and Apple TV. The Xbox version of XBMC has the ability to launch console games. XBMC is not produced, endorsed, or supported by Microsoft or any other vendor. As a result, XBMC for the Xbox console requires a modchip or softmod exploit to run. Apple TV also needs a patch in order to run XBMC. XBMC is a very mature Media Center project, and Boxee, Plex and MediaPortal are all forks from the XBMC project.
A Word About "All-in-one" Solutions
Although not the focus of this paper, we thought it might be important to say a few words about the other Media Center projects providing a full application environment to enjoy video, music, photos and much more...
LinuxMCE is also a Media Center. The best definition would be it is a Smart Home Entertainment Center. LinuxMCE started in mid 2006, initially as a fork of the PlutoHome system from Pluto Inc. to Ubuntu. It bundles MythTV with Kubuntu as the GNU/Linux distribution. It can perform light and climate control, manage home security systems with alarms and stream video to a mobile phone. It blends media center, home automation, telecom control and home security into a single unified user experience. Users can (optionally) control the user interface with a Gyro remote and 3 command buttons. Any peripheral connected replicates across to the entire house, and any media is also available house-wide. Presence detection is also available, and can be implemented with either Bluetooth or RFID technologies, to implement "Follow Me" functionality, so that media, lights, climate, and telecom follow the user throughout the house.
Note: Although the majority of the software is under the GPL license, some key pieces of LinuxMCE (the DCERouter, Orbiter, etc.), are under the PPL license which is not GPL compatible. The PPL is almost exactly like the GPL, except that when LinuxMCE is sold as a bundle of hardware and software, a license must be paid to Pluto on a per-unit basis.
Based on Ubuntu and MythTV, MythBuntu is designed to simplify the installation of MythTV on a Home Theater PC. It can be used to install a standalone frontend, backend, or combination of the two. All unnecessary standard Ubuntu applications such as OpenOffice, Evolution, and a full Gnome desktop are not installed for MythBuntu. Users who wish to do so can add a full desktop onto their installation after using the control panel. The development cycle of MythBuntu closely follows that of Ubuntu, with releases occurring every six months, approximately two weeks after Ubuntu releases.
KnoppMyth has been around since August 2003. It is a blend of Knoppix and MythTV. It is a Debian-based operating system using Knoppix configuration scripts and Knoppmyth-specific scripting that installs and configures the MythTV PVR software and a number of add-ons. Similar to MythBuntu and MythDora, the goal is to make the often complex installation and configuration of a MythTV-based Linux Home Theater PC system relatively easy and pain-free. KnoppMyth can also run directly from a LiveCD (i.e. without installation), providing there is a network connection to a PC with a 'complete installation' (a MythTV backend server).
MythDora is a GNU/Linux distribution based on Fedora and MythTV. Like KnoppMyth and MythBuntu, MythDora is designed to simplify the installation of MythTV on a Home Theater PC. Unlike KnoppMyth, however, it does not run as a LiveCD yet. The work on a LiveCD is in progress at the time of this writing. Currently, the distribution must be installed on the computer in order to run. The project started in early 2004 as a pet project, with no real intention of going public.
- iMedia MythTV Linux
iMedia Linux is a GNU/Linux distribution used in streaming encoders/servers and Mini-Box embedded systems by iTuner Networks. iMedia Linux distribution aims for a small footprint installation, stability and usability on small disk space and memory restrictions. iMedia MythTV Linux distribution is created as a showcase for the larger commercial iMedia embedded Linux distribution. It is based on MythTV and a freedesktop.org X.org kernel with several modifications and specific drivers. Target hardware are small embedded mini-ITX systems with VIA EPIA mini-ITX mainboards and Hauppauge PVR capture cards. With this hardware configuration, iMedia MythTV distribution will run out-of-the-box after its installation has been performed. Different hardware configurations should use iMedia's commercial version.
The MiniMyth project was initiated in 2003. It is a small GNU/Linux distribution that turns a diskless computer into a MythTV frontend. Originally, MiniMyth was developed to download and boot the root file system over the network, and run on VIA EPIA motherboards. It now supports local boot, runs in several new chipsets, and supports more MythTV plug-ins. MiniMyth was developed to run on a diskless computer. As a result, MiniMyth runs with its entire compressed file system resident in memory, thus requiring more memory than a typical MythTV frontend.
With a tiny 8 megabyte ISO, GeeXboX can boot from a CD, USB stick, or the network and run totally in RAM. It comes with a utility called 'generator,' which allows for the customization of GeeXboX discs, including the possibility of adding custom media files, non-free codecs, extra themes and configuring a wide range of custom settings. GeeXboX can run on diskless computers, and there is an alpha version for the Nintendo Wii console. The project was started in 2002; by 2006 the GeeXboX and Freevo projects decided to work together, redefining a multimedia framework that could be used either as a standalone application on any GNU/Linux distribution or natively built-in with the GeeXboX project.
Originally written by Giovanni Spagnolo for the Telematics Freedom Foundation and first published on October 15th 2008. The original PDF can be downloaded from their website. Get the latest version of this file at: www.telematicsfreedom.org/en/flossmediacenter. For information on latest updates: www.telematicsfreedom.org/en/blog. This continues to be a work in progress. Send feedback, notes or corrections to Giovani Spagnolo at: info (at) telematicsfreedom (dot) org
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. All RAW data collected through survey forms and the most important research links are also available to anyone willing to extend, complement, correct or create a derivative work.
About the author
The Telematics Freedom Foundation was set up to bring in the age of telematics, Internet, mobile phones and the web, all those freedoms and rights that the Free Software Movement has already brought to PC users worldwide. To learn more about the Telematics Freedom Foudation check out www.telematicsfreedom.org.
Giovani Spagnolo -
Boxee - Avner Ronen
CenterStage - Enrique Osuna
Elisa - Fluendo.com
Entertainer - Laterix on Flickr
Freevo - ComNetSlash.com
MediaPortal - Team MediaPortal
My Media System - MyMediaSystem.org
Myth TV - Team MythTV
Neuros OSD - Mike Kurdziel
XBMC - Team XBMC
Reference: Telematics Freedom Foundation [ Read more ]
blog comments powered by Disqus