Whether you are looking to create a Home Theatre PC or a slick interface for a showroom/exhibition demo machine, the open source Media Portal could be just what you are looking for, especially as it's free!
Microsoft are pushing XP Media Center on media PCs hard, and Vista will include Media Center elements out of the box. 2006 will also see Intel pushing its VIIV (pronounced Vive) specification to make PCs more consumer friendly. And high definition TVs will be flying off the shelves this year due to the launch of Sky+ and the World Cup.
Adding a Media PC to the living room, however is no longer a luxury confined to those with money to burn. A relatively modest PC will be capable of playing DVDs and photo slideshows. Add in a TV card and you can record to disc - add in two and you can watch another program while you're doing it! But there is one problem with this scenario - XP Media Center edition is only available bundled with (some) new PCs. So what do you do if you want the easy of use without shelling out for a new computer? Simple - download and install Media Portal for free!
This open source application provides a surprising level of functionality for an application that has yet to reach version 1. For the price of a download you get:
As mentioned earlier, Medial Portal is open source. This means that not only is it free to download, it is also free to customise. You can design your own interface to suit your requirements - imagine setting up an interface for a showroom, say, for an estate agents selling overseas properties: They could use the weather module to show local country weather, pictures to show each property and video to show properties or location. All of this could be designed around the company's corporate livery.
Before installing Media Portal you will need the .Net 2.0 framework, which is available for download from the Microsoft website. Once both are installed you are taken through a simple wizard to set up your system and tv cards (if fitted - you do not need a TV card to run the system, but TV capabilities will obviously be unavailable otherwise). Once done you can run the application, after a rather long startup time (35 seconds on a 2GHz Centrino laptop) you are greeted with the main menu.
Simplicity itself. You don't even need to use the mouse for most functions. The cursor buttons and various shortcut keys can operate most functions. Right-clicking over the middle of the screen within certain sections brings up a context sensitive window with relevant options, while right-clicking outside of this area returns you to the previous screen. Record programs is simple and you even get a very nice EPG (Electronic Programming Guide) now common to all digital freeview or satellite systems.
What strikes you as you investigate this application further is the level of developer support, which is common with open source applications. While this review was carried out on version 0.2. RC3 it has a vibrant community developing plugins.
Performance and stability
My main potential criticism of Media Portal is performance. It was tested on two different PCs: One running on a P4 2.4GHz with 512MB Ram and an nVideo 6600 Turbo graphics card, while the other was a P4 3.2GHz hyperthreading system with 1GB Ram, ATI all-in-wonder card and fast SATA hard disc. It still took 20+ seconds to load on either system, and a sluggish second or two to go between menus. Video playback was unaffected, which would be a show-stopper otherwise. Stability may also be an issue for some - while Media Portal worked fine for me most of the time (with a couple of unannounced 'bomb-outs') it is clear from the software discussion forums on it that has a number of issues, however these seem to be patched pretty quickly, with frequent new test builds made available.
If you are comparing Media Portal against upgrading to XP Media Center, then Medial Portal will win hands down on functionality. XP Media Center does, however run quicker in general operation. The number of plugins available for Medial Portal makes for an extremely customisable system which can easily be 're-skinned' to your own design. Make sure you run it on a reasonably quick system though as this can get frustrating after a while. All-in-all this is a slick application which, with a £0 price tag provides little reason for you to give it a try. Only stability and speed issues stop this from receiving the full 5 stars.