Throughout this year I’ve been trying very hard to find a practical solution to storing and streaming all my digital media to my TV and stereo. After many months I settled on a Netgear ReadyNAS for the storing but I am yet to decide on the best way to actually play movies and music on the television. Whatever I choose it’ll probably end up being a Christmas present to myself so I have a while to come to a decision.
My current two options are an AppleTV or an Acer Revo running XBMC or Boxee. Until Apple announced the updated AppleTV at the beginning of the month I was fairly certain I would go with the XBMC option.
XBMC (XBox Media Centre) predictably started out life on the original XBox. People could hack their consoles to play movies and music from a networked computer – this increased the console’s usefulness and there are still people running XBMC on the original XBox (although development has ceased for that hardware).
XBMC is now focused more on home theatre PCs. With the recent wave of ‘nettops’, small PCs using Intel’s Atom processor and NVidea’s HD capable ION chipset, it’s now easy to create a small, quiet, set top box style PC for the living room. You have to add a IR sensor for a remote control but you can also use the many iPhone apps available to control it as well.
The advantage of this set up is the sheer flexibility. You can connect to your storage device with a multitude of different protocols including UPnP, SMB and iTunes sharing among others. You can install extra add ons such as Last.fm and BBC iPlayer (although a recent change to the iPlayer API broke this). Disadvantages to me as a Mac user are a lack of proper integration into the Apple/iTunes eco system. Playlists I create on my iPhone or laptop aren’t copied over automatically and it can’t access things like my iPhoto library.
Now the AppleTV’s advantages and disadvantages are pretty much the opposites of those discussed for XBMC. It’s obviously a very closed system – it can only stream content from an iTunes library and that content has to be in a very specific format. This means no streaming from my NAS so my laptop will have to be turned on and iTunes running to stream anything. There are also no added applications (although this may come in the future officially or through jailbreaking). The AppleTV also has no analogue audio out so I would need an adapter that costs around £50.
The advantage is complete integration into the Mac environment. I can stream music from my Mac either by choosing it on the television or by using the newly rebranded AirPlay feature. AirPlay also means I can stream music and video straight from my iPhone. It’s also £100 cheaper than the average cost of an Acer Revo.
From thinking about it on my drive home from work and writing it down here it looks pretty clear what I should get. XBMC, whilst being more expensive, provides a lot more. I’m starting to think that a good compromise would be picking up an Airport Express to stream music from my iphone and Mac to the stereo and using XBMC purely for video.
I still have a few months to decide. In that time hopefully someone will get a hold of the new AppleTV, hack it and install some applications that close the feature gap between it and XBMC. I do really like the form factor of the AppleTV. I’d quite like the look of one sitting under my TV… the Acer Revo isn’t much of a looker and would probably be relegated out of sight.