Rhodri Marsden: What do I need to do to turn my living room into a media hub?


The idea of a computer forming the hub of our living rooms was considered the stuff of madman's dreams not so long ago, along with the idea that we might push badly executed ballroom dancing to the top of the television ratings. But the already blurry line between the telly and the computer is disappearing; unless your TV has the word "Bush" embossed on the front and its buttons go "ker-thunk" when you change channel, you can introduce your computer to it – they'll get along famously. An old laptop with a knackered screen, a Mac mini or a new netbook can all sit unobtrusively under the TV, allowing you to watch stuff from BBC iPlayer or 4OD while sitting on your sofa rather than perched on a distinctly un-orthopaedic office chair. Stick all your MP3s on there, run a cable to your stereo and you have your ideal jukebox; install Orb, and your MP3 collection is suddenly streamable to any other computer with an internet connection, should you find yourself either stuck in the spare room with swine flu, or bored out of your skull in a Travelodge in Ipswich. Add Spotify, and said jukebox expands by six million tracks. Add a Freeview USB stick, and your TV suddenly looks completely indistinguishable from a computer monitor.

Of course, the rationalisation of all our entertainment needs into a single box that we might already have knocking about and were thinking of sticking on eBay is worrying for a technology industry that, for example, tries to persuade us that hard-disk based video recording is a great idea ("but I can stream these shows, I don't need to record them") or that HD is a worthwhile investment ("but I'm happy with the quality from iPlayer, and that's not even as good as normal telly"). But while they fret over that, there's a battle afoot to provide a single piece of media-playing software that brings all our digitised audio and video collections together.

Two of those – Boxee (for PC, Mac and Linux) and Plex (Mac only) are frontrunners; both are descendents of Microsoft's XBMC Media Centre (or XBox Media Centre Media Centre: so good at being a media centre that they named it twice). The thrill of running one of those on your computer while, say, using your smartphone as a remote control can even make the entertainment itself pale in comparison. But I always did get a bit overexcited about making disparate bits of technology work in tandem.

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