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.

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