[Tech] Expand XBMC With Add-Ons

So much content, such little time.

So much content, such little time.

Once you’ve got yourself up and running with the best free media centre software around, XBMC, you’ll doubtless want to explore what else it can do, besides providing a beautiful library of your digital video, music and photo files. The software has long featured the ability to add plugins, which XBMC calls “add-ons”, but in the most recent versions the process of installing those extra bits and bobs has been beautifully streamlined.

Before, users had to download zips and extract them into specific plugin folders outside of XBMC itself. Now, all you have to do is hit a “get more” button in the add-ons menu of XBMC itself. Once you do, you’ll be given the chance to install new skins, media scrapers and programs – the apps will even auto update as new versions are pushed out by the developers. By default you’re given access to just one, official, repository of add-ons. The selection there is impressive, but there are other sources out there that can give you access to even more exciting possibilities.

To install a new repository, you need to download the relevant zip file. Store it locally on the machine where XBMC is installed. Then in XBMC go into the add-ons browser, navigate to “install from zip file” (you might have to backtrack up through the browser’s heirarchy to find this). Once the file browser pops up, select your zip file, and within seconds you’ll have access to all the add-ons stored on that particular repository for as long as you like. Nice.

So here, without further ado, is a whistlestop tour through some of the sexier add-ons you can find away from the safety of the default repository.

BBC iPlayer (Hitcher’s repository)

OK, so I should point out that this will only work in the UK, but for those of us based on these sceptred isles, this is a great way to catch up with the Beeb’s output. Once up and running, you’ll navigate your way through menus offering the same sections as the iPlayer site. You can choose the most popular streams, those highlighted by the iPlayer team, or drill into the full archive by channel, air date or genre. You can even set up text searches for your favourites shows, then save them as menu items to select whenever you like.

Streams load very quickly indeed, and provided you’ve not tinkered with the default settings you’ll get the highest possible bitrate, including the HD versions of many programmes (if you select the streams filed under BBC HD). The quality is vastly superior to the Wii’s iPlayer channel, and the whole thing seems to run more reliably than the dedicated iPad app. So good is the quality of the high-def streams, that I’ve taken to ignoring shows when broadcast (I don’t have an HD box for live TV) so I can rewatch then via this add-on in glorious 720p. Stunning work.

Icefilms (Anarchintosh repository)

There’s no use pretending that people don’t illegally download movies and TV shows. There just isn’t. So let’s move on from that and discuss this ingenious add-on, which supports the icefilms.info project. This remarkable enterprise (whatever you think about its ethics) sees the latest movies and TV shows made available online through cunning use of the MegaUpload website and the DivX webplayer. It is, I’m reliably informed, a bit of a bugger to set up on a normal PC, but the XBMC add-on beautifully streamlines the whole process.

Listing and streams take an age to load, mostly because each new download has to be paused while MegaUpload’s enforced free-user wait counts down, but for the patient, it’s perfectly possible to stream the latest episodes of the best TV shows without having to mess around with BitTorrent. If you’re not worried about the consequences of illegally accessing your media, and don’t like downloading files yourself, this could be the app for you. Just remember that you’re being very, very naughty, ok?

Advanced Launcher (Angelscry repository)

It hasn’t escaped the notice of those of us who enjoy both XBMC and classic gaming that an HTPC sitting hooked up to a big HD screen is also a powerful chance to rock some TV emulation action. Advanced Launcher allows programmes of just about any nature to be run from the XBMC interface. More than that, though, it has countless options for automatically listing an entire folder of game ROMs, and pointing them at the right emulator once they’re selected. In essence it allows you to sit a multi-machine emulation front-end right there in your XBMC experience. Great if you’re set up is hooked up to the TV and you want to play some classic games without leaving your sofa.

Hulu (Bluecop repository)

I’ve got to admit that because I live in the UK, there’s no easy way I can get this to work. I’m reliably informed that it works brilliantly, in much the same way as the iPlayer app described above. I’ve had a poke around the menus and it certainly seems to navigate around slickly enough. There’s a simply enormous archive of material available and the whole interface is superfast. Obviously whenever I click on a stream I get an error, but for users stateside it should be the gateway to thousands of hours of top telly.

Eurogamer / Gamespot (Dan Dar3 repository)

There was a time when coverdisks on the front of magazines were the best way to experience games before they came out. Now the joys of streaming video mean we can all watch gameplay footage and trailers in glorious HD on our laptops. These two add-ons bring that experience to the TV, by granting access to the archive of video reviews, previews, VODcasts and general gaming footage on the two best gaming mega-sites on the web.

Skins (Passion-XBMC.org repository)

XBMC is very pretty out the box and some of the skins available from XBMC.org’s default repository are great (I use Night on my main HTPC for its combination of speed, beauty and girfriend-compatible simplicity). There are however alternatives out there. Most of them are archived on the excellent Passion-XBMC.org repository. I’d heartily recommend the gorgeous Aeon65, shown in the video above.

And if you want access to more repositories, check out this listing on the XBMC wiki.

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