Your home media center may be awesome, but it doesn’t do you much good when you’re at a friend’s place and desperate to watch the Game of Thrones finale, get in a few laps on Mario Kart, or listen to a great new band you discovered. Here’s how you can turn your Android device into a badass portable media center with a few apps and one magic adapter.
In this post we’re going to take your Android device and turn it into a portable media center that can do all the cool things in the video above. We’re going to put together a system that can play and stream your music and videos, function as a retro arcade, and take input from a game controller. When you’re done you’ll be able to hook your Android device up to any television set with an HDMI input, so it’s like you’re bringing your home media center everywhere you go. Every time I’m with friends and we want to watch a movie or show we don’t have or just don’t have something to do, I’ve got the solution in my backpack. After a minute, we’re up and running. It’s incredibly easy.
What You’ll Need
- An Android phone or tablet with a reasonably fast processor. (If it can play 720p MKV files, it’s probably good enough.)
- An HDMI adapter for your device (like this one for the Samsung Galaxy Tab series).
- An HDMI cable (if your friends don’t have any extras lying around).
- Plex for Android, plus a few other apps we’ll discuss later.
- OPTIONAL: A Sony Sixaxis Wireless Controller (my preference) or Nintendo Wiimote for playing games and/or controlling your device from afar.
So how much will this all cost? There’s a decent chance you’ll only need to buy an HDMI adapter, which costs $20-30, and Plex, which costs $5. If you don’t already have a game controller, you can usually pick one up for $30-50 (or less if you buy used). Either way, the set up is pretty cheap and worth the total cost.
Step One: Test Out Your HDMI Adapter
This part is easy if you’ve ever plugged in a cable before. Simply connect the HDMI adapter to your Android device, then connect the adapter to an HDMI input on a television set with an HDMI input. In most cases, this is all you need to do to see your tablet on screen.
In some cases you might need to do a tiny bit more work to get things up and running. In the case of my tablet—a Samsung Galaxy tab—I also need to connect it to power. It provides an additional port to connect a USB power cable. As soon as I do this, the tablet starts sending its video to the television. Other devices may have slight variances, so check with your adapter’s manual if you’re having any trouble.
Step Two: Set Up Plex to Stream Your Media
Plex is fantastic media center software. It’s based on the open-sourced XBMC and, in my opinion, is a marked improvement. It now runs on Windows, Linux, OS X, iOS, and—of course—Android. It’s free on the desktop but will cost you a very reasonable $5 to purchase for your Android device. If you want to stream media from your home, it’s the best app for the job. To get started, download it. You’ll also need to download and install Plex for the desktop. If you’re already using XBMC, or just don’t want the full media center always active on your desktop, you can install Plex Media Server instead. You’ll be offered the choice on Plex’s download page after you select your operating system.
The nice thing about Plex is that to get it set up you just need to create an account and sign in on all your devices (including your desktop computer). This makes it very simple to connect remotely without any advanced configuration. That said, if you want to do it the old fashioned way (i.e. port forwarding) or just want some very detailed instructions, we have a guide to help you out. However you go about, when you’re done you’ll be able to stream media from your home to your device.
Got Image Quality Problems? Here’s How to Fix Them
One problem you may run into is poor streaming quality. In my tests, Plex defaulted to the poorest possible quality even though my computer was fast enough to encode HD on the fly and my internet connection could manage to send large data streams. To fix this issue, go into Plex’s settings on your Android device. You’ll find a couple of settings for streaming quality. Plex will default to automatic quality detection, but you can tell it to always use a particular bit rate. Doing this has helped some people achieve better quality, but it didn’t work for me. I solved the issue by going into Plex’s advanced settings and forcing it to use “Direct Play.” The image quality looked beautiful after that.
Step Three: Set Up Your Retro Arcade
One of the benefits of the Android platform is the number of retro game emulators available for it. Additionally, you have access to several apps that will allow you to wirelessly connect multiple controllers to actually play those games. We’ll talk about the controllers in the next step, as they can also be used to control your device from afar, but for now we’re just going to add the arcade.
Mobile emulation can get pretty specific, so if you want detailed instructions be sure to read our complete guide. That said, installing a couple of emulators is pretty simple. Here’s a list of our favorites for Android:
Step Four: Pair a Controller
Even if you’re not planning to play any video games, pairing a wireless controller is really useful for controlling your Android phone or tablet from the couch. You probably don’t want to have to get up to pause the movie, make adjustments, or navigate to another app. You can map a video game controller’s buttons to Android’s keyboard so you can easily input commands from afar.
Although I prefer the A Sony Sixaxis Wireless Controller because it has more buttons and is more comfortable to hold, a Nintendo Wiimote will also work. You can connect up to four of either type of controller (and, presumably, a combination of both), but you really only need one to get the job done. If you’re visiting a friend and they have a few extra controllers lying around, you can temporarily pair theirs as well.
To pair controllers, it’s best to root your device. While there are a few Wiimote apps that do not require root access, they’re just not as good and there is no option for Sony controllers. If you want to pair a Wiimote (or four) you’ll want to download Wii Controller IME. It’ll run you $3 but it’s one of the better options. It can handle up to four Wiimotes, works with the Classic Controller and Nunchuck attachments, and easily maps buttons to other controls on the keyboard. Sixaxis Controller ($2) does essentially the same thing for wireless Sony controllers that were designed to work with the PS3. Pairing one of these controllers takes a little more work initially, as you have to connect it to your computer over USB and use a pairing tool to set it up, but once you’re done you’re done—it’ll remain paired to your device until you choose to reset it. Sixaxis Controller doesn’t work on every Android device, however, so be sure to download and run the compatibility checker before buying the app.
Once you’ve got your controller configured, you’ll be able to assign letters to buttons in the interface. In Wii Controller IME you’ll be able to do this by tapping the Mapping button. In Sixaxis Controller you can do this by tapping the standard Android settings button, choosing Sixaxis Settings, and then Keyboard Emulation, then Key Mappings. In both apps, you just select the controller you want to map, choose a button, and enter the key you want to map it to. I’d recommend mapping the start and select buttons to enter and home (respectively) and setting one of the top controller buttons (or the button on the backside of the Wiimote) to the back. The directional pad should be mapped to the arrow keys. Everything else is up for grabs. Making these specific choices will allow you to navigate your home screen and launch apps from the couch. When actually playing a game, your button choices won’t matter that much. When you’re navigating the tablet from afar, however, they make a big difference.
Step Five: More Media
Technically, you’re done. You’ve set up a streaming media center and an arcade that can go anywhere and you can control with your choice of wireless video game controllers. That’s pretty great, but you can take your device as farther. For starters, if you prefer higher quality video you can always just copy media files directly to your device to play them locally. You can also add apps like Netflix, Hulu, Google Music, Amazon Cloud Player, Spotify, or anything else you might want. Android is full of tons of apps that can benefit from being hooked up to a television or a home theater system. You can even install Skype for video conferencing on the big screen. Because there are so many apps out there, you have tons of options. With this basic setup in place, all you have to do is add the app you want and it’ll become a part of your portable media center in minutes.
Photo by XYZ (Shutterstock).