When picking a media center solution for your PC, it tends to be a matter of compromise. There are solutions that are visually attractive, solutions that are Free/open source software, solutions that are more complete than others and solutions that integrate well with a desktop environment. In the past there have been few, if any, that have been all of these things. After an extensive beta testing period a new version of LinuxMCE, release 0704, was recently made available to the public that shows how we can indeed have our media center cake and eat it too. Read on for details of this release and future plans for KDE integration.
LinuxMCE uses X.org's window compositing functionality to provide a simple to use fullscreen interface that is blended on top of the media being played. This interface is a key focus of LinuxMCE according to lead developer Paul Webber. "The traditional PC user interface doesn't work well on a TV. So a different interface is needed, which is called the '10 foot' interface (in reference to the fact that people interact with media devices such as televisions from a distance). The '10 foot' interface is still in the same state as the desktop was pre 1983. There is no standardisation and each application has to figure out how to present its functionality to a user."
In an effort to address the '10 foot' interface challenge, LinuxMCE and KDE Plasma developers are working to bring the two projects together. The first step was making a prototype showing how LinuxMCE and KDE can work together, which is showcased in the 0704 release where LinuxMCE is integrated with Kubuntu and KDE 3.5.
Future efforts will integrate LinuxMCE technology closely with Plasma to make it a compelling media centre option for KDE 4. Bringing the much needed interface standardisation along with a rich set of features to the masses requires such a combined effort between the desktop environment and the media centre projects. This ambitious goal is possible due to both KDE and LinuxMCE being open source projects which hobbyists and corporate interests alike, can freely participate in.
Of course, interface alone is not enough: LinuxMCE also provides a compelling set of both traditional and innovative media center functionality. From its built-in media browser, one can play media both locally as well as on devices scattered throughout the house over the network. MythTV is used as the basis for the default media player functionality, but with LinuxMCE's design this can be swapped out for other options such as VDR.
Built in thin-client features allow systems to be booted remotely then have media streamed to them, with consumer electronic devices such as HD TVs, stereo components and iPods detected and set up upon being plugged in, often automatically with little to no user setup required. Wizard based screens with instruction video walk-throughs are provided for devices that can not be autoconfigured, making it simple to add even more complex hardware components to the system.
These are only some of the capabilities presented by this very comprehensive system. Other interesting features include its home automation system, motion sensitive gyro remotes that provide full access to all on-screen features with just three buttons and much more.
As a showcase of its breadth and depth, a 25 minute video walkthrough and presentation has been made that shows all the key features of LinuxMCE 0704.
Encouragingly, there is also an emerging marketplace growing up around LinuxMCE. For instance, one can already purchase motion sensitive remote controls made specifically for LinuxMCE as well as pre-assembled, plug-and-play high end LinuxMCE based media systems from companies such as Fiire. Such consumer electronics products are helping open source media centers move from being in the realm of the enthusiast to being a realistic option for the average person.
While much attention is being paid to the KDE 4.0 release, there is already thought and work going into the future of KDE beyond the first KDE 4 release. The integration of media centre technology in concert with the LinuxMCE project is a prime example of this. By bringing a usable, consistent and comprehensive interface to the modern maze of media, Free software is staking out a leadership position in this area of client-side computing.
Downloads of LinuxMCE are available via FTP/HTTP and BitTorrent. DVD distribution of LinuxMCE can also be purchased at cost (US $3-$5 at the time of this writing) via Google Checkout on the LinuxMCE main page.