Now You Can Play Blu-Ray Movies on Your Media Center

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Dec 4th, 2011
Now You Can Play Blu-Ray Movies on Your Media Center

One common question that I get from my readers is how to get the Blu-ray movie playback working on their media center PC.

So, I decided to go deeper in this subject by testing with three operating systems (Windows, Mac OSX and Linux) to find out how easy it is to get Blu-ray movie playback working with the popular media center software.

In this article you will learn to:

  • Get a Blu-ray drive, if you don’t already have it
  • Play Blu-ray discs with Windows Media Center
  • Rip Blu-ray discs with MakeMKV
  • Enable GPU hardware acceleration in XBMC
  • Set up movie library in XBMC

The computers used in this test:

  • Mac Mini – Mac OSX
  • Mac Mini – Windows Vista Bootcamp
  • Asrock ION 330 – OpenELEC Linux

The media centers used in this test:

  • XBMC (Windows Vista, Mac OSX and Linux)
  • Boxee (Windows Vista, Mac OSX and Linux)
  • Plex (Max OSX)
  • Windows Media Center (Windows Vista)

Get a Blu-Ray Drive, If You Don’t Already Have It

As I did not have Blu-ray drives on the test computers, I purchased Samsung SE-506 external USB Blu-ray drive. The great thing about this drive is that it is compatible with Windows and Mac OSX operating systems. See the full list of best sellers in Blu-ray drive category here.

Play Blu-ray Discs with Windows Media Center

The easiest way to watch Blu-ray movies is with PowerDVD 11 in Windows. All you need to do is to get the free 30 trial of PowerDVD 11 and install it to your computer. It automatically installs a plugin for Windows Media Center, too.

Once you launch WMC, simply select Cyberlink PowerDVD 11 and select “Play Blu-ray Disc”. PowerDVD will open in the background and start playing the movie integrated inside the WMC.

However, if you do not use Windows Media Center, it’ll be a bit more difficult to watch Blu-ray movies with your HTPC. Continue reading on how you can watch movies with XBMC media center software.

Ripping Blu-Ray Discs with MakeMKV

Disclaimer: the MakeMKV software introduced in this article uses decryption technology that circumvents DRM protection used in Blu-ray discs. It is up to youself to follow these instructions and My Media Experience cannot be held responsible for any issues due to this guide.

First, you need to download MakeMKV format converter that allows you to make exact copies of your Blu-ray discs.

1. Open Blu-ray disc content

When you launch the MakeMKV application, it will scan your optical disc drives and recognizes a Blu-ray disc automatically if you have already inserted the disc in. Click “Open Blu-ray disc” button to open the content of the Blu-ray disc.

2. Choose chapters, audio tracks and subtitles

After opening the content of the disc, you can choose which chapters, audio tracks and subtitles you want to include in the MKV output file. It is a good idea to tick only the main chapter, audio track and subtitle you need.

3. Select the output folder

Then, select the output folder. If you are using a network attached storage, it makes sense to rip the disc directly to the NAS, so that you do not need to copy files from your HDD separately later.

4. Make MKV

Lastly, click the “Make MKV” button to start converting. It will take couple of hours depending on the speed of your computer.

Do Media Centers Support MKV Files Out of the Box?

To test the MKV playback on Mac Mini and Asrock ION 330, I streamed the MKV file from my NAS server to the computer. The results showed that most tested media centers except Windows Media Center were able to play MKV files out of the box.

MKV playback supported by default:

  • Boxee: Yes
  • XBMC: Yes
  • Plex: Yes
  • Windows Media Center: No

As Windows Media Center does not support MKV files out of the box, you will need to install suitable video codecs first.

Shark007 Codec Pack worked well for me to get MKV playback working on Windows. Shark007 codecs enable hardware acceleration by default, so the video playback was smooth.

The Importance of the Hardware Acceleration

I tested XBMC on Windows, Mac OSX and Linux and noticed that I got much better video smoothness on Linux with Asrock ION 330 compared to Mac Mini on Mac OSX. Windows Vista’s playback got smooth after enabling the DXVA2 hardware acceleration.

Mac OSX – Hardware Acceleration Enabled – Fail

As can be seen from the screenshot below, Mac Mini’s CPU utilization on Mac OSX was around 80%-100% during the movie playback. Even when I had the hardware acceleration enabled, it really did not seem to have any effect.

Windows Vista – Hardware Acceleration Disabled – Fail

Mac Mini’s CPU utilization on Windows Vista without hardware acceleration was around 40%-80%.

Linux – Hardware Acceleration Disabled – Fail

Asrock ION 330′s CPU utilization on Linux without hardware acceleration was around 100% all the time and the video playback was slow and choppy.

Windows Vista – Hardware Acceleration Enabled – Pass

However, after enabling the DXVA2 hardware acceleration on Windows Vista, the CPU utilization dropped to 10%-30% level. The main reason why Windows playback performance improved with DXVA2 (DirectX Video Acceleration version 2.0) is that it allows video decoding to be hardware accelerated.

Linux – Hardware Acceleration Enabled – Pass

With Linux hardware acceleration enabled, I got similar results as with DXVA2 acceleration on Windows. As shown in the screenshot below Asrock ION 330 with hardware acceleration on Linux was using 10%-30% of the CPU.

The key reason for smooth video playback on Linux is that my Asrock ION 330 is using VDPAU (Video Decode and Presentation API for Unix) in Linux which allows XBMC to offload portions of the video decoding to the GPU video-hardware.

Note: if you are using Intel Core-i3, make sure that you have enabled VAAPI (Video Acceleration API) hardware acceleration in the XBMC system settings to utilize Intel hardware-accelerated media decoding on Linux.

The chart below summarizes the findings. As you can see both Windows Vista and Linux were able to use GPU hardware acceleration properly while Mac OSX was not able to utilize hardware acceleration.

Enable Hardware Acceleration in XBMC

As a conclusion from the previous section, make sure that you have enabled GPU hardware acceleration in your media center.

In XBMC, you can enable it here: System – Video – Playback – Allow hardware acceleration

Setting Up Movie Library in XBMC

Once you have ripped your movie to the hard drive, it is time to add it to your movie library. I’m using XBMC as an example on how to setup the movie library. The process is very similar e.g. with Boxee.

1. Check folder naming convention

Make sure that you name the folder for each movie with the real name of the movie. Here is an example path for the movie used in this test:
\Movies\HD\Full Movie Name\movie_blu_ray.mkv

2. Set content

First, go to Videos in the home menu and press “C” on the folder that contains your movie collection. Select “Set Content” and set “this directory contains” as Movies.

You should also set automatic scanning on and use folder names for lookups. Now, hit OK. Answer “Yes” to the question do you want to refresh info for all items within this path.

3. Enable library mode

Now, you can enable the library mode by pressing the left arrow and select “Library Mode”.

Conclusion

The easiest way to play BD discs on your Windows Media Center is with PowerDVD 11.

The alternative method with MakeMKV is not the most convenient as you are not able to play movies directly from optical drive with most media centers. However, with this method you are able to play Blu-ray movies with Mac OSX and Linux operating systems that do not support BD discs by default.

In addition, I found out that both Windows and Linux have an excellent hardware acceleration support for many popular graphics chips including NVIDIA ION and Intel HD graphics. However, I was not able to get smooth video playback on Mac OSX.

The key finding in this test was that CPU performance does not matter that much when watching Blu-ray movies if you have a decent hardware acceleration enabled graphics chip (either embedded on the CPU or separate graphics card).

What’s Next?

Once you know how to rip and manage your movies, you will need to have enough HDD storage to store them. Check out our comprehensive Network Attached Storage guide to learn how to centrally store all your media files.

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