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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Ubuntu for Android: could you use your smartphone as a PC?

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Tech, Ubuntu on March 7th, 2012 by Andy

“In every dual core phone there’s a PC trying to get out”

Or so reckons Canonical, who have been showing off their Ubuntu for Android system at Mobile World Congress. In a nutshell, a phone with Ubuntu for Android turns into a desktop PC when docked to a monitor and keyboard, and a mini media centre when docked to a TV.


It’s a pretty cool idea. There’s already starting to be quite a crossover between phones and tablets, and the latter have been eating into some of the laptop market too. The proliferation of desktop-type Android apps in the market suggest getting access to a full desktop environment when you dock your tablet would be pretty popular. I’m a bit more sceptical that even fast new quad core phones and tablets would be able to produce smooth HD video for a TV, so I think it’s best to take the media centre idea with a pinch of salt. I’ll believe it when I have an Ubuntu for Android machine in my hand and see it working.

You can’t buy a phone with Ubuntu for Android on it yet, you can’t install it like other Android apps and nobody has announced any dates. I think it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for.  This could well be the next big step in the rise of the smartphone and tablet.

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Review: Pure Sensia internet radio and streaming media player doodad

Posted in Gadgets, Tech on January 16th, 2012 by Andy
The Pure Sensia media player

It's pretty sleek

A new gadget landed in my kitchen over the festive season, an all-signing, all-dancing DAB/FM radio with network media playback and internet streaming functions, disguised as a Martian rugby ball.

Sounds like a mouthful, but it basically takes music or audio from anywhere and boshes it out. Available sources include:

  • FM radio
  • DAB radio
  • UPNP/DLNA media servers on your network
  • Internet radio stations
  • Pure’s “The Lounge” content service

It comes with a touchscreen and a small RF remote. The latter is perfectly good for adjusting volume, but not much else. Actually switching sources and browsing is done on the screen, which is adequate, but often a little sluggish. TBH we’ve got used to better touchscreens in the last few years and this one isn’t quite up to par. Changing volume is particularly fiddly, and I haven’t even got fat fingers. Overall that’s a relatively minor inconvenience, and it’s not so bad you’ll be smashing it in rage.

Setup is very easy, it will find and connect to your wifi easily, and if you’ve already got a UPNP media server sloshing out music across your network connecting to it is straightforward. Likewise “The Lounge”, which provides a web interface you can log in to from any computer and subscribe to podcasts and the like. There’s also full access to all 6 bazillion internet radio stations, and a nice search tool to cut through them to find what you want.

Overall it’s very easy to hook up to a vast amount of content, which is exactly what we wanted for a device like this. But don’t fool yourself, this machine will not replace your main hifi. Sound quality is to be honest a little disappointing. It’s perfectly good enough for some tunes to cook or wash up to, but it has neither the volume nor the quality to do your favourites full justice.

On the plus side power usage is negligible, and the screen has a nice cheerful clock on it when you turn the radio off. There’s the obligatory nod towards “apps” but beyond some basic Twitter/Facebook/Picasa integration there’s not much going on in that department, and who actually wants to stare at their radio reading tweets anyway?

In general this gadget has the right idea, too many internet/radio mashups are missing critical parts of the picture. But the Pure Sensia does include the important bits: FM/DAB radio, internet streaming, network streaming, integrated speakers, and a decent sized touchscreen. Sure, some of those features need a bit of work, and if you want them ironed out your should probably wait for the new Sensia 200 to hit the market, but I’d still recommend the current Sensia as a massive upgrade from your current kitchen tranny.

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How to enable VDPAU for smooth HD playback in XBMC

Posted in Computers, Howto, Ubuntu on July 23rd, 2010 by Andy

If you have an Nvidia 8XXX card or better, you can now use VDPAU

I’ve been using XBMC on my media centre for a while, and I’m very happy with it. One of the many cool things it can do is use the graphics card to do all the heavy lifting during video playback. That’s essential if you’re playing video at 720p or higher resolution.

The technology is called VDPAU, but it’s not switched on by default.

On Ubuntu, you’ll need to install an extra package: libvdpau1 (you need to be running Lucid or later), you’ll also need a 8XXX or later Nvidia card, and the restricted drivers for it. The Nouveau driver is no good.

Once you’ve installed that, fire up XBMC and go to Settings > Video > Player and change the render method from “auto” to “VDPAU”. You should immediately go from horrible jerky playback to nice silky smooth!

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How to build a Media Centre PC

Posted in Computers, Gadgets, Howto, Tech on November 11th, 2009 by Andy

Why watch those downloads on your PC, when you can watch them in comfort on your TV?

Why watch those downloads on your PC, when you can watch them from the comfort of the sofa?

The plan:

Watch video and photos and listen to mp3 music stored on our home network through the normal TV and stereo in the living room.

Issues:

  1. Must have low power consumption
  2. Must be quiet
  3. Must boot fast
  4. Must be stable and low-maintenance
  5. Cheap is good!

What:

Mini-ITX based PC with a decent processor and onboard graphics, squeezed into a tiny wee case.

Why:

For a while now most of us have had two cool things in our homes: a home entertainment system and a network. But how can we get all our great digital content onto that nice big TV and hifi in the living room? The answer is a media centre PC.

How:

Hardware:

  • Jetway JNC-62K Motherboard with onboard Nvidia 8200 graphics card
  • AMD Athlon X2 e4850 high efficiency CPU
  • Silverstone NT07-AM2 low-profile heatsink/fan.
  • 1GB RAM
  • 80GB SATA hard drive
  • Terratec Aureon PCI sound card with S/PDIF
  • Jou Jye NU-528i-B case with internal 73W power supply.
  • Wireless keyboard with built-in trackpad
  • TOSlink optical cable to get shiny digital sound to the hifi

Software:

How much?

Grand total was £269 (+P&P), sourced from mini-ITX.com, Advance Technologies, and dabs.com.

>>> Enough talk, show me how it’s done! >>>

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