Rather than download and try all the choices that are out there, I would appreciate suggestions. I am looking for software that I can run on a dedicated HTPC. I would prefer it run on windows but linux is alright too.
What I'm looking for:
-Ability to organize my movies, tv shows, music and photos
-Access to online content
-Optional integration with netflix
Well, if you get Windows 7 Home Premium, you're already halfway there. Win7 comes with Media Center, and it's pretty decent. Windows Media Center has a Netflix plugin built in and also has quite a few internet channels that stream from the internet. If you would like an alternative, XBMC is the most popular and it works with both Windows and Linux. Another popular media center front end is MediaPortal. It's you're choice.
Personally, I use Win7 Media Center. To add functionality, I've added the following plugins:
Media Browser (free) - While XBMC is more geared towards being a standalone media collection management piece of software, Media Browser is integrated into WMC. It is a very customizable media front end to organize movies and is great for TV shows. It can also organize and play your music library. From my experience, it is the best plugin to organize and launch TV series episodes. It will scrape metadata for you, but you may want to explore metadata scrapers to store the metadata locally. Some good metadata scapers that I use are: meta<browser/>, Media Center Master, Media Scout, and Salami's Movie Organizer. All scrapers do the same thing - download movie posters, backgrounds, and other data such as release date, IMDB rating, synopsis, etc. A good alternative to Media Browser is MyMovies4, which does the same thing as Media Browser as far as media collection management goes. Collection management is a matter of personal preference and I suggest you try all options out before settling on one.
Here is an example of what it looks like when set up:
Hulu Desktop (free) - you've probably heard of Hulu. You can stream all sorts of online content with Hulu and it integrates within Windows Media Center with this plugin. It also can be integrated into XBMC.
Stark Covers (free) - From my pictures above, you may have noticed that I added a bit of "bling" to the movie posters (blu-ray cases with reflective fronts). The fancy covers are thanks to a Media Browser plugin called CoverArt which requires a very small donation to use. You can get the exact same effect by using Stark Covers which is free.
Xzener's Icons (free) - If you're like me, then you like to organize your movies into different folders. Xzener has made several very excellent icon sets that give your folders a nice look.
Movie Boxset icons By BAS & DemonSeed (free) - This collection of high quality icons is for movie collections and box sets (for example, all the Matrix movies). Another excellent set to give your library some polish and bling.
My Channel Logos Lite (free) - The lite version is free, the full version is only $3.40 and adds automation. This plugin will replace the default WMC channel logos with nice full color logos on the channel guide... handy if you intend to use your HTPC for television watching:
HeatWave (free) - One of the shortcomings of WMC is that is does not have a weather strip by default. This plugin fixes that:
Haali Media Splitter (free) - MKV is a very popular video container, but Windows 7 does not support it natively. To correct that problem, you just need to install Haali and you will be able to play MKV files using WMC.
Shark's 007 Codec Pack (free) - Most HTPC'ers will advise you to stay away from codec packs. However, if you find a media file that you just cannot get to play natively in WMC on your HTPC, Shark's is the best from my experience. If you are running 64-bit Windows, be sure to install the x64 Components after you have installed the main Shark's 007 codec pack.
Slysoft Virtual CloneDrive (free) - Why would anybody need a virtual optical drive on their HTPC? The answer: to mount your backed up ISO files that you have stored on your HTPC. An ISO is an image of an optical disc. In order to use an ISO, you must virtually mount it using software. The virtual disc acts exactly like a physical disc that has been loaded into your optical drive. It gets assigned a drive letter and everything. Another option for a free virtual optical drive software is DAEMON Tools Lite, thought I prefer VCD for its simplicity.
All of the above are free. If you intend to delve into the world of blu-ray, you'll need to pony-up some money to get the full experience. For those that are super-frugal or on a very tight budget, XBMC will play blu-ray that has been decrypted and ripped to your hard drive, but it will play the movie only- no menus, no extra features, and no 3D. Another free alternative is MPC-HC which has the same blu-ray playback limitations as XBMC (decrypted movie only). For the rest of us, here are the options:
Arcsoft TotalMedia Theatre 5 ($100) - If you plan to play blu-ray movies on your HTPC and you don't have the required playback software, then TMT5 is a top choice. It integrates right into Windows Media Center, and Media Browser can launch TMT5 automatically if set to do so in the MB configuration utility. TMT5 can play movies directly from the encrypted blu-ray disc or a disc that has been ripped to ISO, folder, or even MKV. It's expensive, but you can get 20% off TMT5 on the Arcsoft website with this coupon code: ARC404P20. Also, nearly every holiday Arcsoft will issue coupon codes for 20-40% off their software (even Earth Day and Mother's Day!).
CyberLink PowerDVD 11 Ultra ($100) - PowerDVD may actually be more popular than TMT5, possibly because older versions are bundled with many retail blu-ray drives. The latest version of PowerDVD is an excellent piece of software that integrates into the WMC interface. It is expensive at full retail, but CyberLink frequently has sales on its software, so keep an eye out for a deal. PowerDVD has the same functionality as TMT5.
Corel WinDVD 2010 Pro ($40) - WinDVD is not as feature-rich as TMT5 or PowerDVD, but it will play blu-ray discs with full menu support and it is the cheapest option of the bunch. It cannot play blu-rays ripped to folder structure, unlike TMT5 and PowerDVD.
There are some other programs that I use that make a complete HTPC, but the above should get you started on your way. If you have any more HTPC needs that weren't addressed, post back and discuss.
Here is a slideshow of some WMC customizations I have implemented: