How to make a Raspberry Pi media centre

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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This page last updated 21 August 2013