Whilst writing my recent article about XBMC, I came across a few quality Linux distributions aimed solely at providing media center capabilities.
Many people have used Microsoft's Windows Media Center at some point, either on their PC or Xbox 360. Personally I found it a frustrating experience, with my Xbox 360 not recognising my Windows 7 laptop, not to mention limited streaming and playback options.
If you really want a powerful media center and are fed up doing it Microsoft-style then one of these Linux solutions might just do the job.
I've already mentioned it once – and for good reason. If you read my XBMC article then you'll know that I personally think it's the bees knees. Once a hacked media solution for the first generation Xbox console, XBMC now packs a punch and comes with its own stripped-down Linux distro.
You can use a blank CD or USB stick to create a Live version of XBMC which boots straight into its media interface. Once you're satisfied you've got no hardware incompatibilities you can install it straight to the hard drive (or even keep it on the USB stick for a truly portable solution).
XBMC is responsible for a number of other media products including the highly praised Boxee.
Based on Ubuntu (clue's in the name), Mythbuntu is a dedicated MythTV distribution with full recording support (use your box as a PVR). The team of volunteers closely monitor the main Ubuntu project and release updates for their media distro every 6 months.
Mythbuntu uses the XFCE desktop (found in Xubuntu) for its fast and simple nature. All the usual Ubuntu software extras have been stripped out, and your system is administered from the Mythbuntu Control Center.
The distribution provides you with a highly configurable system on which to build upon. What's really nice about it is you retain compatibility with Ubuntu which makes customizing your box a cinch.
A fantastic all-in-one solution which brings the power of several services to your living room. Included in Element is the aforementioned XBMC, Boxee, YouTube XL, Hulu and more. You also have access to a web browser (that'll be Firefox) with Cooliris support and as many extras and add-ons you can download.
Thanks to pre-installed Boxee and the fantastic XBMC you'll be able to stream the best live TV and make the most of your local media too. Element is based on Ubuntu, and thus binary compatible with available software.
Much like XBMC, GeeXboX aims to be a ready-to-go media solution ideal for streaming local, networked and online media. The project has spawned numerous side-projects including networking protocol uShare.
GeeXboX uses an integrated media center frontend called Enna (which you can also download separately). The latest version (2.X) has improved on the visual style and aesthetics to bring this dedicated media OS in line with similar projects.
The distro can be run from a Live CD or USB stick, or you can install it on your media PC's hard drive. The goal of the project is to embed all media applications into a single interface for the perfect media hub.
Do It Yourself
It might sound like a bit of a long shot, but there's every opportunity for you to custom build your own particular set-up to use as a media center. There's a myriad of lightweight Linux installs, many of which are binary compatible with big distributions such as Ubuntu.
What this gives you is the barebones of a media center PC and the option to install what you want, be it Boxee, XBMC, MythTV and even set up games and emulators to enjoy from your living room. You can then use a fancy launcher to sew it all together.
Time consuming but rewarding!
You're not exactly spoiled for choice, but considering these offerings are completely free and have been developed by volunteers they pack a considerable punch. Luckily it's easy to download and test out any of these distros using just a CD or USB stick.
If you've not tried these before then prepare to be impressed at what the developers have been working on in their spare time.