Windows/Mac/Linux/Xbox: What could make the already awesome Xbox Media Center even better? An infusion of eye candy, of course. Read on to see some awesome XBMC skins and learn how to install them.
What is this media center magic we speak of? Originally an open-source package designed to run on modified Microsoft Xboxes and turn them into full-fledged media centers, XBMC gained such a popular following that it has been ported to Windows, Mac, and Linux. If you’re new to XBMC, you’re in luck. Lifehacker has much love for XBMC, and we’ve written guides to help you install it on a classic Xbox, install it on your Mac, run it from a thumb drive, and covered the first completely cross-platform release XBMC Atlantis.
Once you’ve grabbed a copy of XBMC and installed it, the customization can begin. The default skin on just about every distribution of XBMC is Project Mayhem III and its HD variant, the original skin is show at right. It’s a beautiful skin and if no one could customize it away, very few people would complain. You’re not here to keep things stock though, so admire Project Mayhem for being so awesome it was made the default skin and prepare to customize!
Installing skins is about as straightforward as customizing software can be. Depending on which operating system you’re using XBMC on, you’ll need to extract the contents of the archive you’ve downloaded into one of the following directories:
You’ll most likely never come across a skin that doesn’t have the directory structure already carefully mapped out, all of the skins below can simply be extracted into the \skin\ folder and all the necessary components will be neatly placed in \skin\SomeFancySkin\ automatically.
Once you’ve extracted the skins, switching from the default is as easy as navigating in the XBMC menu to System -> Appearance, and selecting your new skin.
Different installation packages and releases for different operating systems have different skins included. Some of the following skins may be bundled with the installation you downloaded, MediaStream comes with XBMC Atlantis for example. Check your /skins/ directory before downloading, you may luck out and already have the skin. Note: Each of the following skins was downloaded and tested on both a classic Xbox and HTPC running Windows XP with a 1080p display, with stunning results. The screenshots below—except some for the Focus skin—are from the respective websites of each design team, their media collections were far more varied and interesting than this humble tester’s.
Aeon was built from the ground up to look stunning in HD. Although you can display Aeon on a SD display, the skin was designed to be native to 1080p. XBMC will scale everything down accordingly, but be forewarned that if you’re using the original Xbox as your XBMC platform, using the rich 1080P background images you see in the screenshots above will cause stuttering—the same is true of any of the skins here that use HD background images. The eye candy factor on Aeon isn’t from the over abundance of items and menus on the screen but on how seamlessly and almost transparently they interact with each other. The skin functions more as a frame to show off your media collection than anything else. The default background for each main menus is an abstract Mac-esque swish of color. The awesome images seen in the screenshots above were pulled from the hundreds of HD background images available on the Aeon website.
MediaStream has menus with a weightier appearance than Aeon, but the skin still maintains a minimalist approach. Menu text is solid and bold, the menus slide out in a blade-style system that is snappy, and navigation is easy. Since version 0.90 there has been support for SD 4:3 viewing ratio, so if you haven’t made the leap to a HD TV yet you can use MediaStream without any scaling. Like Aeon you can set customs backgrounds and use fan art. If you’re having trouble keeping up on which of your shows you’ve watched, take advantage of the unwatched media menu to get a fresh list of all the things you haven’t watched yet.
Focus is by far the most minimal skin in our roundup. It isn’t overly flashy but the transitions between menus are smooth and pleasant. The menus themselves are well laid out with frequently accessed items like unwatched television shows placed near the top. None of the skins we tested felt unwieldy or intrusive by any measure, but Focus was especially quick to melt into the background and make you forget there was even anything there between you and your pile of media.
MC360 is the most complete clone of the XboX 360 dashboard available for XBMC. The animations are spot on and you can even use your real Xbox Live Gamercard info for your profile. The game save manager is very polished, something that isn’t a high priority for some of the other skins in the roundup. MC360 has native support for all SD and HD resolutions up to 1080i—the highest resolution the classic Xbox can display with the component video pack. The skin has three themes: the default 360 skin, the high transparency Glass skin, and Carbon a smokier version of the default. If you’re using an Xbox with a supported modchip, MC360 can change the color of the LED on the chip.
If the purists among you are shocked and scandalized by all of these non-traditional skins, especially that nonsense about putting the Xbox 360 skin on a classic Xbox, don’t worry. The same team behind the beautifully executed 360 skin has a classic Xbox skin that is just as accurate and stunning in its own right. The interface of the original Xbox wasn’t a marvel of flashy transparency but it was a very well implemented—and green!—design. The Classix Xbox skin pays hommage to that design and remains very faithful to the original interface. Love the design but not sold on the bright green? There are themes included to turn the skin fiery red and deep blue.
The screenshots here can’t even begin to do justice to the stunning work these design teams have done. Most of the skins are fairly small, 50-100MB in size, it’s more than worth it to download them all and see which one looks the best on your setup. Between the hard work of the XBMC design team and the teams behind these skins, the experience is so seamless and enjoyable you’ll be amazed you didn’t pay hundreds of dollars for the pleasure.
Love a skin that isn’t featured here? Have a cool hack for XBMC you’re dying to share? Sound off in the comments below and help your fellow readers get more out of their media centers.