Friday, 31 August 2012

Raspberry Pi - RaspBMC - my experience

Hi all,

I wanted to share that I recently received the little gem called Raspberry Pi and had time to play with it a little.

For those of you that don't know it, have a look here:

It is a small (desk of cards small!) ARM processor based computer, that is capable of running various Linux distros, play full HD movies and much much more. The best thing? It's really cheap. The model B which I got costs $35. Add to it an SD card and I have a full computer (minus the externals) for 50 bucks!

I ordered mine from Farnell - and it came very quick, in less than 2 weeks! (It used to take a lot longer before due to the high demand.)

As I said, the Pi has many uses. However one of the best uses for it - which is actually how I use it - is to turn this little computer into a fully functional media center.

What do you need for a media center setup:

  • Raspberry Pi Model B - obviously
  • An SD card. I would recommend at least 8 GB, class 10 card. I got a 16 GB class 10 Sandisk one and it is working like charm. I tested the system with a 'no name' class 4 SD card but the performance was not really acceptable.
  • A micro USB (phone) charger - best at least 1,000mA (or 1A)
  • A HDMI cable to plug it into your HD TV
  • An Ethernet cable for internet
  • A keyboard - optional
  • A USB disk - must be either externally powered or connected to an externally powered USB hub. The Pi doesn't supply enough juice to power a USB disk alone
  • An IR TV remote
  • A 3.5mm audio jack cable - if you want to connect external speakers (as opposed to the audio from the HDMI - TV).
As for the operating system, I went with the RaspBMC:
It is a complete port of the XBMC system for the Raspberry Pi and it is based on Ubuntu (CrystalBuntu if I recall well). It is still currently in a Beta version but it is very usable (although not without an occasional bug).
To install the operating system on the card, just follow the instruction on the site. It is a very easy process (if you have a card reader on your PC). The whole install takes about 15 minutes.

There's another system you can try - OpenElec. I will try it if I find some time (and another SD card to spare).

Once the system is installed, you can start navigating your new media center with the TV remote. The menu response with a TV remote is a little bit laggy so if it feels sluggish you can just plug in an external USB keyboard into the 2 USB slots on the Pi and it will feel a lot zippier.

Next I would recommend adjusting the screen settings (System menu). By default it is set on Automatic detection (or something like that). It is better to set your TV resolution manually as sometimes the system doesn't set it correctly.

Next you can change the Audio setting, in case you want to use the external sound system. By default the sound is set to HDMI.

So that's basically it. Now you can plug in your external disk and start enjoying those movies (or music, photos...).

There are also plenty of applications to extend the use of your media center. To install them, you can either download them to your PC, connect to the PI via a SSH (default user: pi, default password: raspberry), copy it there (to /home/pi) and then install them via System -> Add-ons -> Install from a zip file. Alternatively you can just stick the SD card to your PC and copy the files directly.

There is a handy tool called Repository installer which helps you install any unofficial repository (the add-ons are in various repos).

One of the best add-ons I found so far must by the Navi-X. It allows you to stream movies and series if you wish so (careful with those copy rights). I use it to stream live news TV - mainly BBC World News, since we don't get that in Switzerland.

Have fun! :)

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