For some time I’ve been trying to get some nice home media center setup. The conditions were simple: local storage (external hard drives), xbmc, HD output (720p) and smooth running xbmc instance.
I’ve tried three options: Jailbroken AppleTV2, full-fledged PC running Ubuntu and last but not least, Raspberry Pi with an OpenELEC image.
The AppleTV2 is a very neat device, compact, lovely remote, HDMI output, ethernet connection and low power consumption. The jailbraking procedure is a bit tricky, can fail for some times, but with properly following the instructions, you’ll get the job done. Xbmc runs quite smoothly, and the installation places it on the home menu. At first, the setup was nice, and the rendered videos seemed OK, but then the harsh truth came visible: the AppleTV2 has hardware support for decoding x264 videos, and that’s it. The performances with everything else were simply not acceptable: lags, cuts, freezes. Verdict: not for usage.
The PC option worked very as expected: dual core processor capable of processing HD videos of any kind, enough processing and networking power for smooth operation and communication, strong display card with digital output (DVI) and more than enough sockets for connecting external and internal storage. However, I struggled a lot with the fan noise, and after trying several (expensive) options, I gave up. No matter how quiet the fans are, the silent buzzing will start to get on your nerves, and will kill the experience you want. Verdict: smooth, but not neat.
The third option was very underrated at the beginning. The RaspberryPi with its very limited processing power, storage and memory seemed like very unsuitable device for the task. However, I did some research and gave it a try. The facts that made it look promising and started to change my initial impressions were:
– it has hardware support for decoding x264 and MPEG4 videos, the two most likely codecs used in today’s ripped movies and videos.
– xbmc has an option for bypassing DTS and AAC audio to the TV via HDMI. This way, the RaspberryPi won’t bother with decoding the audio, and most of the digital TVs today on the market have this feature.
– the HDMI output is CEC capable, which means that if the TV is also suitable, you can control the device via your TV remote.
– external drives can be mounted via the USB ports. Not directly at least, but with a self-powered USB hub, there’s no problem.
So I purchased a RaspberryPi (Model B, rev. 2, about 65 euros with a case) and the fun has begun. On the search for ideal OS, I rejected the Raspbian Wheezy at the start because it’s too generic, and I started looking for specialized media center OS. The wiki on xbmc.org site has some detailed explanations. The options were Raspbmc, XBian and OpenELEC. After some searching, I got to the impression that OpenELEC is the one that is most accepted by the community so I gave it a try.
OpenELEC is a small linux distro that makes your computer/device a compact media center running xbmc. The best installation procedure I could find is: download an image from here and follow the instructions here. In simple terms, you need:
– RaspberryPi Model B rev.2
– HDMI cable, Ethernet connection
– nice TV
– around 1A 5V MicroUSB power source
– self-powered USB hub
– the OS image file (.img)
– image file to SD writing software (Win32 disk imager for example)
– SD card (preferably 8 GB, just in case)
Unpack, write, insert the SD card in the RaspberryPi, connect, plugin.
The first boot as I noticed is a bit slower than usual, but successful. After some time, I got the xbmc home screen. Now, the xbmc performance in terms of navigation, processing, etc… is … well, not good. It can be slow, laggy, but eventually it will do what you have requested, so have some patience. Take some time to finalize the configuration: audio bypass, CEC settings (for the TV remote), remote control (if you wan’t to control the xbmc from other devices and software like Constellation or Yatse, media content directories (plugin the external storage, OpenELEC mounts it automatically), movies search and cache, etc …
If you finished everything fine, you’ll have a compact and well connected media center which you can control via your remote or a phone/tablet in the same network. The video performance is excellent, and so far I haven’t run into any rendering issues in neither x264, DivX or Xvid movies in 720p. Supposedly it can render 1080p without issues, but I didn’t wan’t to challenge it to this level, and also, the difference when considered my TV size is not noticeable at all.
– use proper images, don’t take night builds since they will not update correctly.
– use a remoting device if possible. It makes the browsing and searching possible and tolerable , since the built one is quite slow.
– correct the CEC settings regarding turning on and off actions. Once you ‘turn off’ the device, you have to power off/on again in order to turn it back on.
– ALWAYS use self-powered USB hub, cause if the device draws too much current, it may burn the RaspberryPi.
– don’t use the BerryBoot option with OpenELEC. It’s just not good.