You won't find a better media center than the open-source XBMC, but most people don't have the space or desire to plug a noisy PC into their TV. Instead, I converted a cheap nettop into a standalone XBMC set-top box. Here's how.
In the spirit of our Winter Upgrades theme this week, this guide details how to turn a cheapo nettop (think netbook for the desktop) into a killer settop box running XBMC. It handles virtually any video file I throw at it with ease (including streaming Blu-Ray rips from my desktop), it looks tiny next to my Xbox 360, it's low energy, and it's whisper quiet.
Huge props to this guide on the XBMC forums, which served as the starting point for much of what I did below.
What You'll Need
- Acer AspireRevo: This $200 nettop ships with 1GB of RAM, an Intel Atom 230 processor, 160GB hard drive, Windows XP (which we won't use anyway), and an integrated graphics chip that handles HD video and can output it to HDMI. It also comes with a small wired keyboard and mouse, but once you're done here, you shouldn't need either of them. Oh, and it's tiny. (Other, more powerful nettops will work [like this one's beefier, $330 older sibling], but this is the cheapest one I could find with the NVIDIA ION graphics powerful enough to handle the HD playback.)
- XBMC Live: This is a Live CD version of XBMC that boots directly into XBMC and has a tiny footprint. Basically all you're running is XBMC, so your media center stays light and snappy. You can find the download specifically set up for these NVIDIA ION machines on this page, you can grab the direct download here, or download via BitTorrent here.
- A thumb drive: It doesn't have to be huge, but it'll need to be at least 1500MB of capacity, according to the installer. You should also format it to FAT32.
- An IR receiver/Windows Media Center remote: This isn't strictly necessary, but if you want to control your shiny new XBMC via remote control, you'll need some sort of supported remote with a USB receiver. I bought this $20 remote because it was the cheapest I could find. (Incidentally, it also works like a charm with XBMC as soon as you plug it in.)
Getting XBMC Live up and running on your nettop is a breeze if you follow a few simple steps, so let's get started.
Install XBMC Live on Your Thumb Drive
XBMC Live allows you to try XBMC on any computer from a bootable CD or thumb drive, then optionally install the lightweight, XBMC-focused Linux distro directly to your device if you like. Since our nettop doesn't have a DVD drive, we'll need to first install XBMC to our thumb drive.
(There are ways around this. If you had a USB optical drive, you could probably burn XBMC Live to a disc and go from there. The thumb drive method isn't much more difficult, though.)
Here's how it works: