The Intel NUC: Giving up on Windows

Well I tried...I really tried. When I got my first NUC long ago I used Windows 7 as the operating system.  At the time it was the logical choice.  As I got more NUCs I experimented with different operating systems and variants. I tried Windows 8, various flavors of Linux, even Android.  I liked a lot of things about each of them, and found it was fairly easy to switch between them.  For my home theater NUC I stuck with Windows 7 though.  It was stable, came with Media Center free, and let me use Netflix.  I set it up to use XBMC as well, so I was getting the best of both worlds. I had the flexibility and customization of XBMC, while still keeping the ease of live tv setup and Netflix that came with Windows 7.  I played around with XBMC on Linux and liked it a lot, but found live tv setup was a pain.  I thought about Windows 8, but the idea of paying for Media Center rubbed me the wrong way.  So I stuck with Windows 7.

At first it was great: I used media center for watching my movie files, I had access to Netflix, and even the world of XBMC was open to me.  I added the Hulu Desktop and was able to watch Hulu content (in low quality, but still).  Sure Windows would have the occasional driver issue, and sometimes when I woke up my NUC there would be an error about low video memory that would require a reboot, but all-in-all things were OK.

Then something started to happen.  For lack of a better word I'll call it "decay".  Microsoft and Netflix dropped any and all support for the Netflix add-in for Media Center.  it still worked, but as time went on it got older and slower.  When Netflix went to multiple users, the add-in wasn't updated so I had to stick with a single user.  Then the search feature in Netflix stopped working. Later, Hulu announced they were no longer supporting development on Hulu Desktop, and it became more and more buggy.  Then the driver issues became more frequent, and I started having trouble even watching my movie files. The more time that went on, the more frustrating and unpleasant the experience became.  But, as a geek I was content to fix each problem as it arose and pat myself on the back for my ingenuity.

The straw that broke the camel's back (a rather unpleasant metaphor, by the way) happened a week ago when I decided to move the hard drive from this NUC to another, identical one (long story, don't ask).  This other NUC was identical in every way; same model, same CPU (right down to the rev level), same bios version, same wifi card, even the same amount and type of memory. There was no discernible difference.  Yet when I booted up Windows I got a popup telling me that a "significant" hardware change had been detected and I needed to reactivate Windows. I tried to use the online activation, but since I'd rebuilt my NUC multiple times and reactivated Windows a lot, it failed and said I'd have to call in.

Really Microsoft?  REALLY?

I decided I'd deal with it at a later time and tried to watch some football, using the greatest sports add-on for XBMC ever: Sportsdevil.  Unfortunately every few minutes the "Reactivate Windows" message would pop up on the screen and I wasn't able to close it with my remote. That meant I had to plug in a mouse and click on the message just to keep watching.  Talk about irritating.

That was it; stick a fork in me...no more.

So last weekend I hooked up my NUC on the workbench (you've seen pictures) and set about eliminating Windows from it. I installed a new mSATA drive and got to work.

I started by following the instructions I'd written long ago on how to set up a non-Windows HTPC, which you can read here.

Not a lot had changed singe I wrote that.  I still used Linux Mint, XBMC, and MythTV.  What HAD changed was that I'd been playing around with this stuff long enough to have figured things out.  I went with the latest version of Mint, and installing MythTV was surprisingly easy.  Where I'd had lots of headaches before, this time I had live tv up and running in under 30 minutes.  I was even able to install and configure the XBMC add-on to use MythTV for live tv viewing and recording from within XBMC (called Cmyth). Getting the programming guide to work meant jumping through a few Linux hoops, but in the end I worked it out and came up with a solid configuration. I hooked it up to my tv last night and could not be happier with the outcome.  The XBMC interface is polished, well-organized, and attractive.  Watching movies, sports, and tv shows is quick and easy.  Live tv works great as well, and I find that it's at least as easy to use as Media Center.

And Netflix?  Well, for now I don't have it on the HTPC, but there IS this news: http://www.theverge.com/2014/9/19/6552939/desktop-linux-is-finally-getting-netflix-support

So when Netflix is stable on Linux (via Chrome) I'll install the add-on for it and my system will be complete.  I no longer need Hulu because all the shows I watch are available through the 1Channel add-on.

I'm SOOOOOO happy I finally did this.  All of the headaches associated with Windows are gone, and the system actually works much more smoothly now.

Best of all; I'll never have to "activate" my operating system on it again.

Jason Hoffman

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