XBMC: Turn Your Laptop into a Media Center

So now that you have tablets to play around with, is your old laptop feeling neglected?  If it has an HDMI port* then it has the makings of a great media center PC to work with your home theater setup.

The general idea is to install software on the laptop that will organize your media files, stream internet content and play all this on your big screen TV with the best sound possible.

You will need one additional piece of hardware: a long HDMI cable.  Don’t spend a lot for one, wait for a sale.  I’ve seen 50-foot cables sell for under $20 on sale.

As for software you can go with Plex Media Server, or my preference would be XBMC Media Center. For now, let’s go with XBMC.


Download and install XBMC on your laptop.  Since you are going to want the best audio possible you need to set up HDMI audio in Windows.  This requires an active HDMI connection so plug in your HDMI cable connecting your laptop to an input on your AV Receiver.   Turn on your Home Theater setup and select the HDMI connection you just made.  You should see your laptop display on the TV.

Open Windows Control Panel >> Sound>>Playback and select your HDMI output as the default device by selecting it and clicking the “Set default” button. Click “OK” to close Control Panel.

Note: Don’t worry, it will only be the default device when it’s “active”.  When no HDMI device is active you’ll default to your normal laptop sound.

Start XBMC and go to Settings

System>> Audio Output>>  
-Audio Output HDMI
-Speaker Configuration 5.1 (what your Home Theater uses)
-Dolby Digital (AC3) capable receiver (selected)
-Multi-channel LPCM capable receiver (selected)
-(DTS, True HD, only if your receiver can)  
Audio Output device DirectSound:HDMI…
Pass-through output device DirectSound:HDMI…
System>>Input Devices>>  
Enable mouse and touchscreen support (selected)

There are other settings you should make, but they are matters of personal preference.

The final step is to go back to the XBMC main menu, select each media category and choose “Add Source” to point to your media files on the laptop or on your home network.  You can find some useful help and new XBMC skins on the XBMC home page.

A final note.  With the settings you made in Control Panel anything you can watch or play on your laptop can be viewed on your TV with sound even without using XBMC.

* If you have a UPnP device as part of your Home Theater system, future versions of XBMC will be capable of “pushing” media wirelessly to that device.  So, no HDMI cable will be needed.


3 thoughts on “XBMC: Turn Your Laptop into a Media Center

  1. Just for clarity, the order of actions is important for the sound setup to work every time.
    1. Turn on the TV and laptop (wait for boot up to finish).
    2. Plug in the HDMI cable.
    3. Start XBMC.

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