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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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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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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Google confirms the rumours: a Google OS is coming

Posted in Computers, Linux, Tech, Ubuntu, Windows on July 8th, 2009 by Andy

microsoft-vs-googleThere’s been constant rumours of a Google operating system since the dawn of time. A while back they let slip that inside the Googleplex they use a customised version of Ubuntu (called Goobuntu, naturally). Lately they’ve developed their Chrome browser and the Android mobile operating system. Since they compete against the likes of Microsoft already, surely it was just a matter of time before they attacked Redmond where it hurts: the desktop OS?

Google says it’s all true

Chrome OS will be a lightweight Linux distro aimed at the netbook market. All they’ve said so far is that they aim for speed and focus on the web. Presumably that means plugging right into Google’s excellent range of cloud services, as Android does.

They’ve also said they will use a “new windowing system”, by which they probably mean this distro won’t be wearing either Gnome or KDE. Hopefully that isn’t going to break compatibility with the vast number of existing Linux apps, which would be a massive shame for users.

No word either on whether Google will be maintaining their own repo, or whether they’ll be piggybacking on one of the established distros. Also under wraps is which browser this web-centric OS will be running. Android runs Webkit and Google have strongly promoted Firefox for years, but the obvious choice would seem to be the Chrome browser.

So not a lot of detail, but tantalising news indeed. Netbooks pre-installed with Chrome OS should be available in late 2010.

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