Building a Home Media Server with Raspbmc: Part Two

In part one of this series, I talked a little bit about the Raspberry Pi and Raspbmc. I described what they were and why you might want a Raspbmc device of your own. In part two, we’re going to talk hardware. We’ll get into the specifics of what I chose to use with my Pi and why. And after having read this part, hopefully you’ll walk away with a good idea of what your own shopping list might look like. You’ll also get a feeling on how this project impacts your wallet.

The following is a breakdown of all of the hardware and peripherals I purchased for my Raspbmc project.

Pi – Obviously, this is the most important item to purchase. At the time of this writing, the latest version of the Raspberry Pi is the Model B Rev 2.0. It features a 700 Mhz ARM 11 processor, 512 MB of RAM, a GPU, an Ethernet port, 2 USB ports, an SD card slot, and an HDMI port. For a media center, this device is plenty capable. It can handle 1080p video without skipping a beat. I purchased my board from element14 for $35.

SD Card – You’ll need an SD card to install the OS to. And if you’re planning on storing media on the SD card as well, you should plan on purchasing a class 10 card. Class 10 is currently the highest speed classification available for regular SD cards (Note that SDXC UHS-I is a different breed of SD card and only works with SDXC devices). Class 10 is perfectly suited for full HD recording and playback. Of course, if you’re planning on streaming your content from another device, a class 10 card probably isn’t necessary. But better safe than sorry. I picked up a 32GB card from Amazon for around $24.

Power Adapter – The Raspberry Pi doesn’t come with a power adapter, so you’ll need to either salvage an old mobile phone charger or buy one. The Pi is powered over the Micro USB port, but not any ole cell phone or tablet charger will work. You’ll need a power adapter capable of delivering at least 700mA. I didn’t have any spare chargers that could provide that. So I ended up grabbing one from Amazon for $5.

Case (Optional) – There are no real case requirements here. You can leave the Pi exposed for all the world to see. But be aware you will risk damaging your device. Play it safe and put the thing in a case. If you’re crafty, you can build your own Pi case out of everyday things. If you have a 3D printer, you can find a few case models on the Internet to print out. But if, like me, you’re neither crafty nor blessed with a 3D printer, you’ll need to buy a case. I picked up a really nice one on Amazon for $14. But you have plenty of options. Just make sure the case’s design works for your Pi. For instance, the Model A had only one USB port. So a Model A case won’t work with a Model B Pi.

HDMI Cable – For both video and audio, you’ll be doing yourself a huge disservice by using composite video. If you want HD content (and who doesn’t these days?), you can’t even do HD over composite video. Plus, there are the sound issues with the Pi. Sound over the onboard mini jack is really, really bad. Kill two birds with one stone and go straight HDMI. You can source both your video and audio over the Pi’s HDMI port. A short run (6′ or less) HDMI cable is pretty cheap. I paid $7 for a 6′ cable from Newegg.

Mouse/Keyboard (Almost optional) – A mouse and keyboard is only needed for the initial setup of Raspbmc. Once you get Raspbmc installed and configured, and assuming you have something else to control the Pi with, you can unplug the mouse and keyboard and stick them back in the closet. Something to keep in mind is that the Pi only has two USB ports. So if you’re trying to use a USB WiFi adapter at the same time as the mouse and keyboard, you’ll need to use a USB hub.

WiFi Adapter (Optional) – A WiFi adapter is optional. If you plan on streaming HD content from another computer, I actually recommend avoiding WiFi altogether and plug an Ethernet cable into your Pi. That’ll give you the best transfer speed and you’ll see less jitter or skips in your playback. But if you absolutely insist on using a WiFi adapter, consult this list of compatible adapters. Not all WiFi adapters are equal. If you already have something that’s not on the list, you’ll have to experiment with it to see if it’ll work. Mine (ENCORE ENUWI-1XN42 Wireless N150) incidentally, did NOT.

Powered USB Hub (Optional) – A powered hub is only necessary if you plan on using more than 2 USB devices or if an attached device needs to draw more than 100mA (e.g., external hard drive). They’re not terribly expensive. I picked up a D-Link for around $20. But once I installed and configured the software, I realized I had no use for it. I’ve currently got nothing plugged into the USB ports since Raspbmc is using a FreeNAS box for media storage.

IR Remote (Optional) – An IR remote is another optional component. I started off using a USB mouse to interact with Raspbmc and quickly moved to a free Android application called Yatse that runs on my Kindle Fire. I’ve been using Yatse for a while now. It’s pretty slick. But I’ve found it really inconvenient to always keep the tablet near the TV. And when I do use it for a remote, waiting the 3 or 4 seconds for it to connect to WiFi when I turn it on is kind of annoying. I ordered SANOXY remote for $14, but I haven’t received it yet. Once I get it, I’ll update this to let you know how well it works. (Update 07/30/2013 – I received my SANOXY MCE remote today. It works fantastically. The little track pad thing was an unexpected bonus. Highly recommended!) If you’re thinking about buying a remote for yourself, consult these two links [1, 2] for guidance.

And that’s about it. Here’s a total breakdown of my project’s cost. Your cost will undoubtedly vary as you determine what’s right and wrong for your own project.

Pi $35
32 GB SD Card $24
Power Adapter $5
Case $14
USB Hub $20
Remote $14
Total: $112

Up next…software!

Building a Home Media Server with Raspbmc: Part One

When the Raspberry Pi first came to market, I suffered through quite a few conversations with my geeky, gadget-loving, early-adopter friends who thought it was the greatest thing since Coke Zero. To them, it was a cheap and powerful device with potential limited only by their imaginations. To me, it was just another gadget. It looked interesting. And I was sure it was a lot of fun to hack around on. But I was also sure it was one more thing that would compete for my time and that it would ultimately lose, finding itself gathering dust on my shelf of sad, forgotten gadgets.

It was only recently that I came across the Raspbmc project and my attitude towards the Raspberry Pi changed. For years I’ve intended to build an HTPC. I’ve always wanted a device that could serve as a one-stop media center for my music, photos, television shows, movies, and video podcasts. I’d grown quite tired of the constant chore of hooking up my laptop to the television just so I could watch Hulu Plus or Netflix on a big screen. And truth be told, I really had my heart set on a MythTV box. But every time I sat down to spec out a machine, I always found a more practical project to throw money at. When I learned about Raspbmc, I realized I could still end up with a device that solved all of my media center needs, but without the cost of building a full-blown HTPC.

In this series of articles, I’m going to talk about my adventures with Raspbmc. But before I do, I’m sure there’s one or two of you out there who are completely new to the whole Raspberry Pi scene. So in this first article, I’m just going to briefly discuss what the Raspberry Pi and Raspbmc is all about. In the next few articles, we’ll get into the meat and potatoes of my Raspbmc project.

“What is a Raspberry Pi exactly?” Well, it’s a very small computer – about the size of a credit card. Model B Rev 2.0, which is the latest revision as of the time of this writing, features 512 MB of RAM, a 700Mhz ARM 11 processor, a GPU, 2 USB ports, both an HDMI port and an RCA video port, an Ethernet port, an SD card slot, and a variety of GPIO pins for the hardware experimenters out there. Considering you can get all of this for around $35 + shipping, that’s quite an offering. I’ve read that this device is comparable to an iPhone 3G, although the GPU supposedly outperforms the iPhone 4S by a factor of 2. It’s quite impressive, especially considering these things were meant as educational devices.

There are a few things lacking from the Raspberry Pi worth taking note of. First, there is no storage. No storage means no preloaded operating system. You supply the storage by way of an SD card. This means you also have to download an OS appropriate for your project’s needs and flash it to the SD card. Second, there’s no case. When you buy a Raspberry Pi, you’re purchasing a bare board. It comes in an anti-static bag inside a mostly plain white box. How you mount it, encase it, or display it is entirely up to you. Unless you need easy access to the GPIO pins, I highly recommend you invest in a cheap case. Otherwise, you risk damaging it. Third, it doesn’t come with a power adapter. Power is supplied to the Raspberry Pi through a Micro USB port. But you’ll need a Micro USB power source capable for delivering at least 700mA. When I went rifling through my collection of cell phone and tablet chargers, none of them were capable of delivering that amperage. So I had to purchase a new one from Amazon. One other thing worth noting is that the regular USB ports on the Pi are limited in how much current they can supply. If you need to use a device that requires anything more than 100mA (e.g., an unpowered external hard drive), you’ll need to use a powered USB hub. Otherwise you risk damaging your Pi.

Now, what is all this Raspbmc business? Raspbmc is a port of XBMC (formerly Xbox Media Center) for the Raspberry Pi. It’s a media center platform, similar in concept to MythTV, Windows Media Center, SageTV, etc. But out of the box is lacks PVR functionality. It’s open source and has a fairly extensive feature set, including support for playing video, music, photos, and provides facilities for extending the platform’s capabilities through plugins (accessing stream services, web browsing, screensavers, etc). Controlling the device can be accomplished using a mouse and keyboard, a web based interface, your tablet or phone, or even an IR remote control. And because Raspbmc is based off of Linux, you have the ability to easily remotely administrator the device. It’s quite flexible and whole lot of fun for those who like to tinker.

Excited? Great. Now for some discouraging words. I’m not not sure I’d recommend Raspbmc for someone who doesn’t have a whole lot of patience. Nor would I recommend it for technologically challenged folks who are just looking for a cheap alternative to the Roku or Apple TV. It’s somewhat easy to setup, but it’s not perfect. It does require some persistence to get it working optimally. It took me a month before I reached a configuration I was happy with. We’ll talk about some of the issues I faced when configuring the Pi in a later article. So just consider this a warning.

In the next article, I’ll talk briefly about hardware, including cases, power supplies, hubs, and memory. In part three, I’ll go over the software installation, mention a few of the things that caught me by surprise, and in part four I’ll mention a few tricks that made the Pi work best for me.

The Wee Lollies – Tsar Bomba

While you weren’t paying attention, my band, The Wee Lollies, released our first full length album, “Tsar Bomba“. It was officially released May 14th and has slowly trickled out to all of the online music shops (iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby, etc.)

“That was a long time ago, Shane. Why the heck are you just now getting around to blogging about it?!”

Good question. And I don’t really have a good answer for you. I’ve been distracted I suppose. Anyway, if you like guitar driven rock music, give it a spin. And let me know what you think.

Also, we’ve been rehearsing a bit as of late. Keep your eyes on for updates. We’ve got one or two shows in the works.