[Apps] Review: XBMC v2 for iPad

For some time now XBMC has been the pre-eminent media centre software for home theatre PCs. With more features than Windows Media Player and more flexibility than its own commercial offshoot Boxee, XBMC is the play-all solution for people with large collections of disparate video files. It makes perfect sense, then, for the multi-format application to be ported to Apple’s iPad, a device perfect for home media playback, but one crippled by Cupertino’s choice of limited baked-in video decoding options.

So it’s great news that the XBMC dev team have finally released a version of their masterpiece for iOS devices. The first build was unveiled just a few weeks ago, but on February 6th, version 2 of the iOS build was unleashed, with several major improvements and bug fixes. The build works not just on iPads, but on iPhones and on the new version of Apple TV.

The first thing to note is that you’ll need to have a jailbroken iPad to install XBMC. That’s down to Apple’s restrictive rules on media players in the App Store. It doesn’t matter massively though, as you’ll need to be happy tinkering with xml configuration files and the like to fully use XBMC anway, so it’s perhaps best left to those of us willing to look under the hood of our devices. It’s not hard to configure, it just requires a bit of confidence and some knowledge of the iPhone’s file structure.

Installation is a relatively simple process, and a full guide can be found here. Essentially it’s just a case of adding a new source in Cydia, then installing a single file. Once you’re up and running you’ll notice that the interface is identical to the UI of regular XBMC. That’s because it is the same UI. The iOS build uses the same skins as every other build. That means, of course, that the interface isn’t optimised for your iPad.

XBMC uses its own OSD and options during playback

XBMC uses its own OSD and options during playback

The first thing I’d recommend is tapping on System to bring up the settings page. Hit Appearance, then Skin to bring up the list of skins. Tap Get More and you’ll be presented with a list of skins to download from the XBMC repository. Brilliantly XBMC 10’s built-in skin and add-on downloading and installation features work perfectly on the iPad, so go ahead and tap PM3.HD, then Install. Once it has downloaded, select Yes when you’re asked if you want to use the skin. PM3 is the old XBMC default skin, and may not be the sleekest, but it is the most useable on a touchscreen device like the iPad (some skins don’t have scrollbars to drag, and keep many options hidden behind context menus).

To navigate the menus, you’ll need to figure out a few gestures. Double tapping on a button or icon brings up its context menu (the equivalent of right-clicking), and swiping rapidly once from right to left on the screen exits the current menu (the equivalent of pressing escape). When playing a video tapping the screen once brings up the OSD, which is skin-specific. Note that XBMC uses its own media player controls, not the default iOS media player.

Once you’re up and running you’ll need to tap on the video section and add a source. Brilliantly the app allows access not only to files stored locally on the iPad, and to files being supplied by a UPnP media server, but also to standard SMB Windows network shares. I have a 3TB NAS that contains all my DVD rips and TV shows. In just a few seconds XBMC on my iPad had connected to it and was busy populating my library. That’s enough to get you up and running with some media files. I’m not going to run through how to set up your movie and TV show libraries here – but suffice it to say that the process is identical on the iPad to the set up for a normal PC, except scraping is significantly slower (it took around 2 hours to scrape all my media files, and I store all my info and poster art files on the same NAS so they don’t have to be pulled from the web).

The PM3.HD skin is the best combination of looks and usabilty on the iPad

The PM3.HD skin is the best combination of looks and usabilty on the iPad

Video playback itself is remarkable. Almost every format of file I threw at XBMC played smoothly over my wireless network, even 6GB 720p Blu-Ray rips. Until now the only way I’ve managed to play some of the more obscure formats on my iPad is to run them through Air Video on my laptop and convert them on the fly as they’re pushed across the network. The only problem XBMC had was with ISO files. Quite a lot of my collection are DVDs ripped to unencrypted ISO files. The playback on those was quite juddery, with frequent pauses for buffering. Clearly the sheer amount of MPEG2 data that the iPad was having to convert on the fly was too much for it. It’s worth noting that ISO playback was only baked in with version 2 of XBMC for iOS, so it might improve in future releases. In the meantime it’s just convinced me to get on with converting those ripped ISOs to smaller MP4 files – something I was meaning to do anyway as the MP4s are around half the size and my NAS is getting full.

Despite the shortcomings of the interface, XBMC for iOS works brilliantly on the iPad. If someone out there in the XBMC community can work on a more touchscreen-friendly skin (no doubt someone already is) then the app will be a real winner. For now, I wouldn’t bother installing it on your iPhone. It works just as well as on the iPad technically, but the screen is so small that until there’s a dedicated skin most button presses end up being more luck that judgement. I’m afraid I don’t have an Apple TV 2 to test XBMC on, but if I hear more positive reports I’m tempted to sell my Acer Asipre Revo HTPC and grab one of the little grey pucks to replace it.

8/10

For more information, check out the video review above.

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Categories: Apps

One Comment on “[Apps] Review: XBMC v2 for iPad”

  1. April 7, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    Nice Post. First I’ve seen commenting on the benefit of switching to PM3 skin… Haddn’t thought of it till I read it here. Good suggestion.

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