How to make a Raspberry Pi media centre

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Howto, Linux, Tech on August 21st, 2013 by Andy
A man wearing a t-shirt printed with "couch potato" and juggling several remotes.

We’re doing important stuff here.

I built a media centre PC a few years back and I’ve been happy with it ever since. It’s been running XBMC, which is an awesome free media centre package. But I reckon it’s time to get some Raspberry Pi in my front room.

Why Raspberry Pi?

  • It’s cheap!
  • It’s fanless (ie: silent)
  • It can push out full-HD video
  • It’s got HDMI (including sound and CEC) so only needs one connection to my TV.
  • It’s very low-power so can run constantly. So no waiting for it to boot up.
  • Customised XBMC builds are available for it, and are well supported.
  • I keep all my media on my network, so my media centre box doesn’t need any storage
  • It’s so small I can just velcro it to the back of the TV, removing a whole box from my TV stand.

How much will it cost?

  1. Raspberry Pi Model B: £32
  2. Plastic Case: £5ish

Which is less than the parts of my old machine are worth on Ebay. Ka-ching!

You’ll also need a power supply that can put out 5V on a micro-USB (I’m using a Kindle charger) and an SD Card to install the OS onto. I had both of those knocking about, which saves money. I also plugged my old media centre’s wireless keyboard into the Raspberry Pi’s USB port, just in case. In practice we can control XBMC with a tablet or smartphone over our home network, but a keyboard and trackpad can be handy during setup. You could ditch it after that and save a bit of power. There’s always SSH from another machine if you need to do anything fiddly.

Enough waffle. How do we do it?

Pretty simple, plug your SD card into a computer (one running Linux is easiest IMO), and download Raspbmc. Raspbmc is a ready-rolled bundle containing a very minimal Linux operating system and XBMC. Once you’ve downloaded the archive, extract it and run the installer script within as root. Full instructions for your operating system are here. Other similar systems such as OpenELEC are available, but I found OpenELEC to be a bit unstable. YMMV, as lots of folks highly recommend OpenELEC.

Then just plug the prepared SD card into your Raspberry Pi and power it up. Simple.

What’s good, what’s bad?

Good:

  • XBMC for the Raspberry Pi is pretty much identical to the PC version. It’s slick and easy to use.
  • HD video playback is perfect, right up to 1080p.
  • Navigating menus in XBMC is still pretty smooth, despite the incredibly puny hardware.
  • The system updates itself. All you’ll have to do is reboot occasionally.
  • The XBMC remote app for Android allows you to browse and control all your media files.

Bad:

  • The RPi likes to fight with my Samsung Smart TV. I don’t know whether it’s the way Samsung have implemented CEC (aka Anynet+) or the way the RPi does, but I found it far easier to just turn off CEC control in my TV’s settings. After that everything worked perfectly.
  • You can’t power off the RPi with the XBMC remote (this is a hardware limitation in ARM). The easiest thing to do is just leave it running constantly, which is mildly wasteful, but only to the tune of about 3W (that’s about 26kWh per year).

 

 

 

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It’s official: Internet Explorer users are stoopid

Posted in Computers, Linux, Mac, Stupid trivia, Windows on July 29th, 2011 by Andy
A graph show IQ vs browser

IQ vs browser choice, showing trends over time

The browser you choose these days has become a bit of a fashion accessory, and poor old Internet Explorer has become like the manky brown corduroys of the net. Sure, IE users area  bit old-fashioned, but are they actually dumber than folks surfing on Opera or Chrome? Well, yes actually.

That’s the controversial result from a study (PDF) by Canadian brain-wranglers AptiQuant Psychometric Consulting. It turns out Opera users are the smartest surfers out, Chrome users are marginally smarter than Firefox users, and that you can apparently boost your IQ by a whopping 40 points just by installing Chrome Frame into IE6. Although from the numbers it looks like IE6 users would probably struggle to do up the buttons on a shirt, let alone install new software.

These results should probably be taken with a humungous pinch of salt, but they do provide a great opportunity for smugness if your choice of software marks you as one of the master race.

But what does it mean?

Well, the point of the study wasn’t really to make people feel bad about their choice of browser, it was the look at the link between resistance to change/upgrades and IQ. Browser choice was used as a proxy for that resistance to change, because people using Windows that resist change are more likely to be using the default browser, and more likely to be using an old version of it.

That’s actually an important insight. What it tells us is that defaults matter. A significant percentage of the user base won’t be changing the defaults regardless of quality. So if you care about user experience, you need to get them right. It also suggests that OSes that ship without a good set of default applications are causing a lot of stress for some users. A lot of users would be more happy to be given a Linux distro that bundled a good set of default apps for a wide range of uses (browser, word processor, IM client, email, music player) and that the absence of these apps on commercial OSes like Windows and OS X is probably a bit of a hassle for them. Moreover, these are not users that Linux traditionally targets itself at. Traditionally Linux efforts have either tried to go for (presumably) high IQ power users, or offered very minimalist experiences (eg: Xandros, Linpus) for mainstream use. This study suggests that what they low-IQ end of the PC using population really want is a good set of default apps, preinstalled and with an automated security update system that they don’t have to get involved with.

Stupid people may be an easy target for ridicule, but their money is worth the same as anyone else’s, and they’ve got just as much right to drive a computer as the rest of us. And as a casual glance over a newspaper shows, there do seem to be an awful lot of them.

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The Natty Narwhal now nears!

Posted in Computers, Linux, Ubuntu on April 10th, 2011 by Andy

The next version of Ubuntu is coming soon
The unicorn of the seas approacheth! Ubuntu’s 14th version of their free operating system for PCs is due out 28th April.

Named after the somewhat improbable Narwhal, this release sees the rollout of the new Unity interface, which is a major overhaul of the traditional Gnome look that Ubuntu has been wearing since it was first released back in 2004.

Unity is a completely new interface, written from scratch over the last few months at a breakneck pace. It’s probably going to have more bugs in it than it really should, but if you don’t like it the standard Gnome desktop is still installed, just log out and switch to “Gnome classic” at the login screen.

Apart from Unity, there’s the usual grab-bag of updated packages, and a few other changes:

  • The default music player is now Banshee
  • Libre Office has replaced Open Office (it’s pretty much exactly the same)
  • Firefox 4.0

Loads more info here:

http://www.ubuntu.com/testing/natty/beta

Jump in and help squash the last few bugs if you’re game, otherwise grab the final version when it’s released later this month.

 

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How to check TRIM is working on your SSD running Linux

Posted in Computers, Howto, Linux on November 18th, 2010 by Andy
A hairy highland cow

Does your drive need a trim?

SSDs really spank traditional disks. But due to a quirk of how they work, they can lose some speed over time. To make sure your disk stays at the same blazing speeds as when you first got it you need to have TRIM enabled. TRIM is a slight optimisation that allows the disk to do some housekeeping behind the scenes.

What you need for TRIM:

  1. An SSD with firmware that supports TRIM
  2. Linux kernel version 2.6.33 or higher. That means Ubuntu 10.10, Fedora 13 or better.
  3. The “discard” option in your /etc/fstab

If you haven’t already done this you can find out how here.

To check that TRIM is working the way it should we’ll create a small file on your SSD, inspect it, then delete it and make sure TRIM has zeroed all the data out.

Open a root terminal, or if on an Ubuntu-based system become root with:

sudo -i

Create a small file in /root (this is all one line):

dd if=/dev/urandom of=tempfile bs=1M count=3

Find the start of the file:

hdparm --fibmap tempfile

Note the address that the file starts at and then inspect that address (if you have more than one disk you should substitute sda for the disk you are checking):

hdparm --read-sector [ADDRESS] /dev/sda

You should see random data. Now delete the file, sync the filesystem, and wait a couple of minutes for the disk to do it’s thing:

rm tempfile && sync && sleep 120

Now let’s inspect that piece of the drive again to make sure the data is gone:

hdparm --read-sector [ADDRESS] /dev/sda

If TRIM is working, you should see all zeros. If you see anything except a sea of zeros then try updating the drive’s firmware. That’s pretty straightforward on recent drives. On Intel SSDs you just burn a small utility to a CD and boot up from it. Make sure you back up your data before you do that, just in case.

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Maverick Meerkat pops up its head

Posted in Computers, Linux, Ubuntu on September 21st, 2010 by Andy

 

Has it been six months already? Must be time for another Ubuntu release…

Hitting the wide world at 10:10 on 10/10/10 will be Ubuntu 10.10, known to its friends as Maverick Meerkat. There’s not a whole lot of changes coming in this version, it’s mostly little tweaks:

  • New installer, which i’m told is really nice
  • The F-Spot photo managing software is out, its replacement is called Shotwell
  • The Netbook Edition has a brand new interface called Unity
  • The Ubuntu Software Centre has been upgraded (and you can now buy software through it)
  • Kubuntu now uses the Rekonq browser, and Pulseaudio for sound.
  • Xubuntu now has a custom lightweight media player called Parole instead of Totem, and a CD burning app called  Xfburn instead of Brasero
  • Experimental support for btrfs

There’s also some good updates for apps in the repositories. I like the Gnome Nanny parental control software, and the new version of the Arista video transcoder.

You can download the beta now and help with squishing the last few bugs, or grab it when it’s released on October 10th.

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A simple video re-encoder for Linux

Posted in Computers, Linux, Ubuntu on July 30th, 2010 by Andy

Arista ripping an episode of Futurama from DVDRe-encoding video can be a bit baffling. I’ve tried a whole slew of different apps (Handbrake, Avidemux, PiTiVi) but they all seem to be far too complicated for the simple job of re-encoding a video file for a specific device. There are some older apps that are nice and simple (like Iriverter), but they’re old and getting left behind by the fast pace of change in gadgets.

That’s why I’ve really grown to  like Arista Transcoder. Instead of fiddling about with codecs, aspect ratios, and a million other obscure settings, Arista simply asks what device you want to view the video on. Some of the presets also allow you to tweak the quality, but that’s it. And when you think about it, 99% of the time that’s all you actually need.

Some of the highlights:

  • It seems to be multithreaded (or use multithreaded codecs where possible) so it’s fast
  • Integrates nicely with Gnome, including notification bubbles on Ubuntu
  • Includes presets for most common devices, with more available on the website
  • Can rip straight from DVDs
  • Queues jobs

You can get it from the Ubuntu Universe repository, Arch AUR, or you can grab the pythony tarball off their site.

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Google Chrome goes stable for Linux and Mac

Posted in Computers, Linux, Mac, Ubuntu on May 27th, 2010 by Andy
Google Chrome icon

Chrome has been doing well, gaining new users faster than any other browser

Google’s rising star Chrome is now officially out of beta on the Mac and Linux.

They’ve bundled a couple of new features in with the release, such as expanded syncing (it now syncs other personal settings in addition to bookmarks). Otherwise it’s the same polished browser that you’ve come to expect.

Ubuntu users who’ve already plugged into the Google repo can upgrade by hitting the following apturl: Chrome for Linux. Macbois and folks with a non-Debian flavoured Linux can download a standalone version (you’ll have to keep it up-to-date yourself if you do).

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A helpful script for installing Ubuntu minimal

Posted in Computers, Howto, Linux, Ubuntu on April 22nd, 2010 by Andy
Yin Yang symbol

Wishing you a harmonious minimalist experience

I’ve blogged before about how cool Ubuntu minimal is.

The one problem is that you have to know exactly what packages to install to get your system set up. So i’ve written a script that should take some of the guess work out of it and make installing a useful Ubuntu desktop from the minimal ISO as simple as answering a series of yes/no questions.

You can go from a command-line system, to a fully up-to-date and usable Ubuntu desktop in one step. Or you could use it to install a bare-bones system with a variety of desktop environments such as Gnome, KDE, XFCE, or LXDE. You can also install Myth TV. All of this from a single 13MB disk image!

How to use the script

  1. Install a command line-only system using the Minimal ISO
  2. Download the script:

    wget www.andyduffell.com/perfectminimal

  3. Make it executable:

    sudo chmod +x perfectminimal

  4. Run it:

    ./perfectminimal

  5. Profit!

Ubuntu Minimal project page, comments and suggestions welcome.

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Seamlessly integrated web apps for Ubuntu

Posted in Linux, Ubuntu on April 18th, 2010 by Andy
Blue sky and clouds

Why lug around a massive fat office suite when you can pull one down from the sky when you need it?

The soon to be released new version of Ubuntu contains some nifty new features that have been quietly snuck in. One of these is the ability to seamlessly use web-based  mail and office apps as if they were locally installed.

Simply install the packages desktop-webmail and webservice-office-zoho to get your machine all clouded up. For webmail you can choose to use Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo or Zoho. Once installed, all mailto links will open in your webmail instead of Evolution.

For office apps it will use the Zoho online office suite. Zoho was chosen over Google Docs because it doesn’t require you to log in. The integration is pretty good. Any local file will open in Zoho when clicked, and you can save new files locally or online in a range of formats.

This really shines on netbooks with small drives, where ditching 300MB of Open Office lard can make a big difference.

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All-singing and dancing Google notifier for your PC

Posted in Computers, Linux, Windows on December 12th, 2009 by Andy
Sod going to multiple=

Sod going to multiple inboxes, get it all from one place

Googsystray is a notifier gizmo for Google Voice, GMail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, and Google Wave. It sits in your system tray and notifies you by popups or sound. I particular like the way you can set a threshold of new items in Reader before it bugs you. It’s also the only decent Google Voice notifier out there. Having everything combined into one lightweight notifier is nice and tidy, too.

Available for Windows and Linux. No love for the Mactards sorry!

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