What is Kodi? A Beginner's Guide to the Streaming Media Centre

By Tom Pritchard on at

You've heard the name across the web, even in the Giz UK comments sections. Kodi this, Kodi that. People singing praises about what it is and what it can do. But what is Kodi? If you don't have a clue what's going on, don't fret. We at Giz have your back, and by the end of this you should have a good idea of what Kodi is and what it can do for you.

What is Kodi anyway?

So you're wondering what this Kodi malarkey actually is. Well worry no more. Simply put, Kodi is a piece of open source, cross platform software designed to be used for home entertainment. In even simpler terms, it's a free media centre software that anyone can use, modify, or add to.

Funnily enough Kodi began life back in 2003 as homebrew software for the original Xbox, aptly called Xbox Media Centre (or XBMC), before branching away from the console and onto systems running Android, BSD, iOS, Linux, Mac OS X, Windows, and others. It has the capability of turning devices running those systems into full-fledged streaming/set-top boxes, with the ability to play media files stored on your home network, locally, and online.

That's hardly an uncommon thing these days, but what makes Kodi stand out from the rest is the fact that it's open source. While the system is managed by the XBMC foundation, it's rather different to pretty much every system out there. There's no licensing involved and no strictly controlled app stores, meaning the community is free to develop whatever they like. In theory that means you can watch and listen to whatever you want, without having to worry about big companies like Apple and Google tying things up with red tape.

Naturally this also makes it very popular for pirates. But, just like the likes of BitTorrent, there's a lot more to Kodi than freely (and illegally) accessing copyrighted material. Naturally any illegal or copyright infringing content comes from third parties, and is not endorsed by the people behind Kodi.

Will Kodi work on all my devices?

Nearly. Kodi's official downloads page lets you download software for most operating systems: Windows, OS X, Linux, Ubuntu, Android, iOS, Raspberry Pi, BSD, and Freescale IMX6. There's also dedicated operating software for any devices that will be primarily used to run Kodi. It's called Kodibuntu, and it's designed as an alternative to Windows and Linux.

As you can see, there are some notable exceptions to Kodi's near-universal compatibility. The most obvious are Chrome OS and Windows Phone/Mobile. Getting Kodi on iOS also involves some fiddling, but we'll get to that in a minute.

If you have a Windows phone, you are completely out of luck right now. There is no official Kodi app for the platform, and as far as I can see there aren't any third-party workarounds. It's a pretty odd state of affairs, but it's not exactly an uncommon situation where Windows mobile devices are concerned.

If you're using a Chromebook, there are some options and you can install Kodi if you're willing to work for it. We all know that Google is in the process of rolling out Android app compatibility to Chromebooks, and if you're lucky enough to have a suitable device you should be able to download the Kodi app and install it like any other app. If not, there are plenty of guides to installing Android apps on Chrome OS.

When it comes to iOS, Kodi is not available from Apple's App Store for some reason. Apparently it's something to do with the option of adding third-party add-ons that aren't vetted by Apple. You can get it onto your device though, and you don't have to jailbreak a damn thing.

If you've already jailbroken your device, you can install Kodi through Cydia like all the other apps Apple doesn't want you having. If you want to keep your warranty intact, Lifehacker has a guide to installing jailbreak apps without having to go through the jailbreaking process. They also used Kodi as their example, so you don't have to worry about adapting those instructions for something new.

You may also have noticed that there is no official Kodi support for games consoles. This is a little bit odd, given the software's origins on the original Xbox. There is still an Xbox version of XBMC (called XBMC4Xbox) that runs on the original Xbox and still gets periodic updates. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be anything for the Xbox One or Xbox 360.

On a more positive note, the Xbox One's HDMI input means you can always run a separate Kodi device through your Xbox. Almost as if your console has Kodi running on it, and freeing up an HDMI port on your TV/monitor. Sadly if you're using a PS3, PS4, or Wii U, you don't have any options for running Kodi.

While there are some exceptions, you can get Kodi running on an awful lot of stuff. That must be a nightmare to organise everything, right? Thankfully this isn't the case, since each Kodi device isn't its own stand-alone media centre with its own library. You can have that if you want, but there are measures in place to ensure all your Kodi-running devices can connect with a shared library of content. Kodi has UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) compatibility, which lets you set up your own 'master' server that communicates with the rest of your devices. That means everything you own that runs Kodi will automatically keep up to date with the rest, so you don't have to worry about making sure their libraries aren't all hilariously out of date.

That sounds good, what files does it work with?

When it comes down to filetype compatibility, you're going to be hard pressed to find something that Kodi can't play. Having a look at the list of compatible filetypes will make you realise just how much stuff there is out there. There's quite a bit I don't recognise, and pretty much everything that I do know about.

From what I can see these are the things Kodi can't handle: analogue media sources (naturally), encrypted Blu-rays (obviously), and LaserDiscs. My apologies to all five of you who still have LaserDisc players, but you'll have to put those unwieldy sleeves back in the cupboard. Or convert them to slightly more useful formats, like DVDs. This is especially directed at those of you who have the original versions of Star Wars gathering dust. (I'm talking to you, Dad).

So it's just for streams and stuff, right?

Streaming is a big part of what Kodi can do, as is playing media files from local or networked storage. There isn't much you can't get on the platform, regardless of which streaming services you actually subscribe to. It even has Amazon Prime TV add-ons, and any streaming box owner will know that Amazon isn't fond of having the service available on anything but its own devices (and Roku).

But for those of you who haven't ditched live TV just yet are in luck, because the more recent versions of Kodi aren't just restricted to online streams and downloaded media files. These days it also has native support for live TV broadcasts, provided you connect to a TV server that supplies the content. There's also an electronic programme guide, and DVR capabilities.

As ever you don't have to stick to the stock features, and can install multiple other TV and DVR add-ons. These features will also let you use your Kodi box as a video capture device, so really the possibilities are almost endless.

You said something about customisation?

I did, and that's probably Kodi's most attractive feature. As I briefly mentioned, Kodi is open-source, which means people can add to it or customise it as they see fit. While the average user won't go right into the code to start messing around, it does mean they can throw in a bunch of extra software to get more use out of their server.

On its own Kodi doesn't have any content built in, so if you leave it completely unchanged it's only really good for playing media from local and networked sources. That's not such a bad thing, but if you're only using Kodi to do that you're missing out on an awful lot more that it can do.

Different add-ons and plugins are created by the community, and can be downloaded on your Kodi device using the 'Addon Manager', which is no different from the app stores you'll find on other systems. Add-ons and plugins add more to Kodi's capabilities, including (but not restricted to) adding online content, changing the way Kodi behaves, and adding new features to the software's existing repertoire.

Good examples of this are add-ons that give you access to streaming and catch-up services, software that lets you browse the web via your Kodi device, P2P file-sharing clients, and even basic games. More powerful game emulators are available, but these are still relatively new and need some work. If you want to take a look at what's available before getting Kodi for yourself, there is a list of add-ons on the official website.

As for the interface itself, Kodi advertises the fact that every aspect of the UI is customisable. If you're not big on doing that yourself, there are plenty of skins you can get your hands on to change the way Kodi looks. Some of these are officially available from Kodi itself, but there are plenty more shared among users on third-party sites. Skins are all designed to be customisable as well, so you never have to settle for the way someone else created it. If you want to change it, you can.

As customisable as Kodi is, the system is designed to have a 10 foot interface for ease of use. For those of you who don't know what that means, a 10 foot interface is a graphical user interface (GUI) where all the elements are designed to be usable from 10 feet away (or just a little over three metres in metric). It's mainly designed for larger TVs, and it means text must be readable from a distance and input comes from a remote control. You know, so you don't have to get up every five minutes to read something or fiddle with the settings.

What do you control it with then? Do I need to buy a remote?

what is kodi

No media centre would be worth anything if it didn't have a remote to go with it, ideally a good one. Kodi is no different, and has an official remote available as a smartphone app (iOS and Android). While your Kodi-playing box may come a half-decent remote of its own, you can still fall back on your phone whenever it runs out of batteries or falls down the back of the sofa. If you're building your own custom box, then the app is going to be the most convenient remote control option available to you.

Like the main Kodi app, both the iOS and Android apps are free and open source, so people can modify and customise them however they see fit. That means there are a ridiculous number of different third-party Kodi remotes out there – even on Windows phones. The official remotes are probably a good place to start, but if you find they're just not doing it for you then you do have plenty of options.

If smartphone apps aren't your thing, and you simply don't like the remotes that came with your box, you're not out of luck. Kodi is compatible with hundreds of different remote controls, and you can find a list of compatible remote types on the official wiki.

That's just about all we have to say about Kodi for now. There's only so much we can talk about in general terms, given that the software is designed to be customisable and personalised to your tastes. So if you like the sound of what you've read, make sure to get playing with Kodi for yourself.

I've only gone over the basics here, so newbies will probably need some help trying to figure everything out. There are plenty of resources online to help, and Kodi's official wiki should be your first port of call. Part of what makes Kodi great is the community working behind the scenes, so there are plenty of other places you can seek help and advice if the wiki doesn't have what you need.

Be sure to check back later this week, when we'll be going through the best Kodi boxes you can get your hands on this side of the Atlantic.