What’s XBMC? What’s a Raspberry Pi?
XMBC is a free and open source media center that can be installed on numerous platforms. It will run on GNU/Linux desktops and laptops, Android devices, Windows, OSX and iOS.
Because it is so ubiquitous it has great support, and a lot of effort has been put into producing a polished UI that is easy to navigate.
XBMC can play audio, video, and is also great for showing slideshows of photos – think VLC plus iTunes plus IrfanView and you’ll get the idea.
As well as being ideal for local content, there are many add-ons for XBMC that enable streaming services, such as the BBC Iplayer add-on.
The Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer designed to make programming more accessible to young people. It has an ethernet port, audio jack, RCA video and HDMI out, 2 USB ports and an SD card slot, 512MB RAM and a 700MHz CPU… all for about £30-35.
The number of possible uses for these amazing little computers is astonishing – in fact, I’m hosting this website at home using one (see this page).
Why run XBMC on a Pi?
The Pi’s great connectivity and low power usage make it the ideal always-on device. If you run a Pi for a year it’ll only set you back a few pounds – “about a pint”, if you like. The initial outlay for hardware is low, and in many cases may make your existing hardware last longer. The Pi is capable of playing HD video at 1080p, so it’ll make good use of your high quality video files.
Many TVs support some kind of playback for digital files via USB, but the software on the TV is difficult to update – this way you can play all kinds of files and always current software without the risk of turning your TV into a very expensive shiny paperweight.
What do I need?
Raspberry Pi Model B (512MB is best, but 256MB works fine)
8GB SD Card (Class 10)
A Micro USB power supply capable of supplying 700mA at 5V (or higher)
An ethernet cable to connect to your router
A USB Hub similar to this one if you want to connect multiple drives.
If you’d like to set up WiFi, you’ll need a USB wireless network interface card.
As many self-powered USB drives as you like. If you would like to use passport-style USB HDDs then you’ll need a hub like the one mentioned above because the Pi can’t supply the necessary power on its own, and the drives won’t spin up when connected.
A USB keyboard.
Installation on Ubuntu Linux is really simple. If you use Windows, see here instead.
First, open a terminal window and download the required python installation script:
Now make the script executable:
chmod +x install.py
Now insert your blank SD card into your computer, then run the script with root privileges:
sudo python install.py
Follow the prompts on the screen and select the correct disk to install to. Be careful you get the right one (it should be easy to tell because of the size of the devices). The installer will tell you when it’s done.
At this stage, you have a bootable SD card with the Raspbmc installer on it. Take the SD card out of your computer and without plugging in the power cable insert the card into the SD card slot on your Pi.
At this stage you have an important decision to make: whether or not to install Raspbmc to a USB stick. The benefit of doing so is that USB sticks have much faster read & write speeds than SD cards, so the UI on Raspbmc when installed is much snappier. On the other hand, doing this will use up one of your valuable USB slots, although if you use a hub this isn’t a problem. Obviously, the USB stick you install to will be required full time. Unfortunately, you’ll still need the SD card plugged in too, as it points the Pi at the USB stick when it boots up.
I’d recommend that you do install to a USB stick, and that you do make use of a USB hub, but it’s up to you.
Insert the SD card and the USB stick you want to install to into one of the slots on the Pi, make sure your ethernet cable is inserted and that your HDMI cable is connected to the TV, which should be receiving on the correct channel. Now, finally, plug in the power cable.
You’ll see a message saying that the installer will install XBMC to the USB stick unless you power it off. Let it continue, and once the script has finished the Pi will boot into XBMC.
Now that XBMC is running on your Pi, you need a way to control it. Check out this post for how to set up a handy remote on your Android phone/tablet.
Tweak Raspbmc’s Settings
Raspbmc’s default settings are very good for most purposes, but it is possible to squeeze a little more performance out of your hardware, and it only takes a couple of minutes (see this tutorial).
The most notable improvement is enabling 1080p output for full HD video playback.
Easily Transfer Files To & From Raspbmc
Chances are, you’ve plugged one or more hard drives into Raspbmc already. Raspbmc is designed to be always-on, and it’s not a good idea to yank out mounted storage drives without un-mounting them first, which is tedious.
If you’d like a quick way to transfer files from your PC onto a hard drive that’s connected to Raspbmc without unplugging the drive, then this tutorial is for you.
Install a Plugin
If you’d like to know how to enable BBC iPlayer streaming from within Raspbmc, then check out this tutorial.
Of course, you can always make use of “get_iplayer” to download BBC content so that you can watch it locally instead of streaming it, which may be preferable if you have a slow internet connection. As always with GNU/Linux, there’s more than one way to do everything, and the choice is yours.