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Build a $35 Media Center with Raspbmc and Raspberry Pi

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If you’ve been holding off on setting up a media center computer because they’re loud, expensive, don’t fit in your media rack, or all of the above, read on to see how you can build a $35 XBMC-based media center with plug-and-play ease.

As awesome as having a media computer attached to your HDTV is, it isn’t without short comings. Media center PCs, even those tweaked for quieter performance still have a fair amount of fan noise, they generate a lot of heat, they consume a decent amount of power, and tend to be rather expensive (especially if you’re looking for a small form factor that blends into your living room/home theater décor).

Today we’re going to walk you through turning a Raspberry Pi development board into a full-fledged media center—a media center that is dead-silent, costs pennies to operate, and still offers enough power to play HD content.

What Do I Need?

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Most of the things you’ll need for this tutorial, Raspberry Pi board aside, you likely have laying around your home or office. For this tutorial you’ll need:

While you could potentially spend upwards of $75 acquiring all the parts, we—and surely many readers—already had all the parts on hand. Furthermore, most Raspberry Pi cases are, due to the popularity of the project, backordered so we built out case out of LEGO blocks. Eventually we’ll get our $12 case in the mail but for now our Pi is stylishly (and colorfully) encased in LEGO.

If you follow the same route we did, you can keep your costs extremely low while enjoying a great media center experience.

Note: The Raspberry Pi development board is about the hottest thing in hobby electronics right now. Currently there is a wait time for purchase of around 4-5 weeks. If you wish to get your hands on one faster than that you can always search eBay (we picked up our first two boards off of eBay).

Also, a steady power supply of 700mA at 5v is critical for a stable Raspberry Pi experience. If you’re planning on plugging multiple USB devices into your Pi unit (such as a keyboard and a remote control IR dongle) we strongly recommend getting a cheap powered USB hub to ensure your USB devices don’t pull too much power via the USB port.

What Are the Downsides to Running XBMC Off the Raspberry Pi?

So far it sounds pretty awesome: an extra low-power, silent, HD-capable, micro media center that you could Velcro to the back of your TV and forget about. Surely something that awesome has to have some sort of downside, right? While we think the benefits of a Raspberry Pi-based media center build far outweigh the small number of negatives, there are a few worth highlighting.

First, the Raspberry Pi is awesome at decoding h.264/MPEG-4 content but because of hardware and/or licensing limitations it cannot play MPEG-2 format video (a rather common format). If your entire library of content is in MPEG-2 and you don’t want to go through the hassle of transcoding it, that could be a deal breaker.

Second, while the video playback of Rasbmc is quite snappy and we had no problem playing full HD content, the menus can feel sluggish if you’re used to running XBMC on a dual-core media center computer.

Finally, Raspbmc is definitely a new and largely experimental project. So far we’ve been really happy with it but if you’re looking for absolutely rock-solid dependability you’ll definitely want to start looking at small form-factor computers based on the ION 330 or similar hardware for a more powerful and stable media center experience.

If none of that puts you off, it’s time to dive in and set it up! If you have all the parts on hand the whole process is around 1 hour (although it’s almost entirely automated so you’ll actually spend less than 10 minutes doing anything).

Setting up Raspbmc

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The early releases of Raspbmc were a bit of a bear to install as you had to actually compile them and deal with all the nuances of that whole process. Now it’s an automated and simple process.

First, you need to hit up the Raspbmc website and grab the installer prep tool for your OS. We grabbed the Windows version. Download it and extract the archive. Plug your SD card into your SD and take a moment to make sure all USB storage devices besides the card you want to format are unplugged. The readout of the installer is a bit cryptic and you want to be sure the only device you can select is the one you want to format.

Fire up the installer prep tool, select your SD card from the list, and hit install. Hang on for a moment as the installer prepares your SD card (it will format the card and download a small helper app to it from the Raspbmc servers). Once you see this:

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It’s time to safely eject your card and plug it into your Raspberry Pi. If you’ve already plugged the power supply in, take a moment to unplug it and plug it back in to reboot the system once the SD card is inserted.  Make sure that your Raspberry Pi is connected via the Ethernet cable either directly to your router or via wireless bridge as you’ll need internet access to complete the installation.

On the screen of your HDTV or monitor you’ll see a Linux-style boot screen, the Raspberry Pi logo, and then the Raspbmc installer will take over like so:

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From here it will take anywhere from a 20-60 minutes depending on the speed of your internet connection and SD card for the full Raspbmc package to download. At the end of the formatting and installing process the installer will attempt to reboot the device and boot into XBMC. We found in multiple installs that the reboot process tends to stall out so if you come back into the room and the screen is either black or stuck at a text output screen, go ahead and pull the power cord out of the Raspberry Pi unit and reseat it to manually reboot the device.

After the reboot you’ll be greeted with XBMC and a slightly modified light-weight version of the Confluence skin:

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From here you can begin tweaking and adding to XBMC like you would any other installation (respecting, of course, the limitations of the Raspberry Pi’s processor and codec restrictions). Our first two test videos, Big Buck Bunny and Jon Rawlinson’s video of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan (seen below) played flawlessly—1080 video in encoded  in h.264 without so much as a stutter.

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While 99% of your configuration in Raspbmc will follow standard XBMC tweaking and installation rules, there are a few minor considerations. While things like sources, profiles, and other XBMC staples translate just fine to Raspbmc, it has a small helper program in the Programs section that assists in tweaking settings related to the Raspberry Pi hardware or Raspbmc.

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The first section of the Raspbmc Settings is devoted to the network interface, the second to the update schedule, and the third allows you to set a password for the settings. It’s the second that is most interest to us:

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Here you can toggle the updates on Raspbmc and rollback to a previous version. By default Raspbmc is rather active and updates frequently to support new developments via nightly builds. Because the release is so new, we’d suggest keeping this on so you get the best Raspbmc has to offer. If, however, you find that some of the newer updates are messing up your XBMC workflow, you can disable them and roll back to the last stable version.

Further Raspbmc and XBMC Tips and Tricks

If you’d like to learn more about Raspbmc, we strongly suggest checking out the following resources:

If you’d like to customize and tweak your XBMC experience in general, check our following guides to XBMC:


Have a cool XBMC or Raspberry Pi tip, trick, or cool tutorial to share? Sound off in the comments!

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 07/24/12

Comments (38)

  1. Two Replies

    Other downside, no Netflix streaming on Linux. :-(

  2. chris

    I have been using the Raspbmc for a few days now, and apart from the slight slowness of menus, very happy with it.

    Of course you can quickly switch the SD card a boot another os, not sure exactly how far the emulation can go but it does a very good job of emulating an Atari 2600 http://raspberry-fool.com/2012/07/atari-2600-emulation/ and many of those games are still fun!.

  3. Trent Bentley

    I’ve actually been running Raspbmc for a couple weeks now. I built my Raspberry Pi into an old gutted Original NES casing. There is some lag but once video playback starts, it looks great.

  4. Stefan W

    Farnell have yet to send my PI. So dont order from them if you want it ASAP ;) (ordered april 3′rd).

  5. dmccoll

    Ok, so it has some encoder limitations. Will rasbmc still play .iso files??? I love that XBMC will do that.

  6. SergeantFTC

    Make sure that your SD card is compatible with the Raspberry Pi here: http://elinux.org/RPi_VerifiedPeripherals#SD_cards

  7. Superevil

    Kinda disappointed in the lack of Lego case pics

  8. Dan

    Openelec actually runs far better than Raspbmc. http://openelec.tv/ Download the images here: http://sources.openelec.tv/tmp/image/openelec-rpi/ I found that the openelec build is far better handling everything. Even first boot was faster. The main screen is far more responsive and quick. Either way, they are both free, and don’t take long to install. Enjoy!

  9. Rick

    Was the Openelec version much more difficult to install? I read on their wiki that it requires compiling and a bunch of command line stuff to get it on the SD card. I use Openelec on my current machines. If I can get an easy install with Openelec, I’m all over it.

  10. Balaji

    by far this is one of the bet detailed how to article I have seen online to get the raspberry pi marry raspbmc. thanks to the author.

    xbmc doesn’t play video out of ISO, wmv, one other I can’t remember.This really doesn’t worry me. I am very happy with want I have.

  11. Psypher

    I found raspbmc way too slow to be useable, the menus are extremely laggy and skipping through videos causes quite a bit of lag. What annoys me most is when making setting changes, takes about 5 seconds before the option changes. Going to give openelec a try

  12. CoolHappyGuy

    Now if only they could come up with a similar setup for Plex!

  13. pbug56

    What does this pile of parts actually do? Couldn’t really tell that from the article.

  14. steveo

    ANother nifty trick is you can power it off a USB port on your TV if you have one, so when you turn on the TV it boots up and power off does exactly that .. and of course 1 less plug pack !

    ps: Agree with Openelec .. is quicker imo

  15. jaguilar

    What about wireless?

  16. Thabit Kotse

    The title of the HowTo should read:

    Build a Media Center with Raspbmc and $35 Raspberry Pi.

  17. Conner Bosley

    Where are the media files store. Can they load from a usb HDD?

  18. cas34

    I’m using this:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Designer-Habitat-Nano-3-0-Flashdrives/dp/B005ERNITE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1343471246&sr=8-1

    It cost me £25 including P&P. It has a USB and SD card slot. It plays nearly every file type. It has full HD with no upscaling. I personally thought it was a great deal and saves me having to convert video files to watch on my TV.

  19. SergeantFTC

    OpenELEC may be faster than RaspBMC at the moment, but IMHO, RaspBMC is the better choice long term. The (hopefully) soon to be released RC4 version will have hard floating-point support, which should significantly improve menu performance. Also, RaspBMC is based on Debian, so it is a full Linux system, and therefore provides much greater tweakability and flexibility than OpenELEC. The RC4 should also provide lots of bug fixes and new features.

  20. Danpinks

    I found that the default skin caused too much lag, I switched to the ‘Xeebo’ skin and it seems much faster, not to mention purty’er!

    By using the (free) xbmcRemote app for iOS & android, frees up at least obe USB port too.

  21. Kev

    @Conner – I was going to ask just about the same thing. Streaming media from a server, files on your SD Card, a USB stick, or a USB HDD?

  22. Insanity

    @Kev – You could do all 4 if you want. Even stream via wifi with a usb wifi dongle.

  23. Victor

    is it be possible to connect to a SONOS system (so I pick the music with RaspBMC, but use the sonos for picking which speakers work), or do they work separately?

  24. Stuckinrewind

    I loaded rasbmc on my pi and have been using it as a media centre, but it seems bit laggy

    The airplay seems to work pretty well though, made a video demo of it

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sn1gHvEkQew&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  25. Blake

    Hi guys, is there any reccomendations for the wireless dongle?

    Perferably something cheap from asia!

  26. Set271

    Maybe I’ve missed it. I don’t find audio specs anywhere. Stereo, 5.1, 7.1? Which is it that you can get out of it?

  27. the

    guys i want to stream content from my nexus 7 to my rasberry pi. Would having raspbmc on the rasberry pi and xbmc on the nexus 7 communicate with each other and allow streaming of the content to the tv and also mirroring to play games like shadow gun on the tv? please help guys …

  28. The Birdman

    Is it possible to plug in a USB HDD to carry your movies around with you as well or is this mainly intended to pull from XBMC hosted on another machine.

  29. charlie

    @the

    i really doubt it can do mirroring. that requires a fair bit of processing power on both ends. it’s laggy on the ipad/mac pro setup i have. it *might* be able to stream content.

  30. Andrew

    Has anyone had success streaming video, e.g. from Hulu or Amazon? I cannot get this to work at all with either Raspbmc or OpenElec, it just freezes before playing the video

  31. John Crumpton

    For those interested in installing OpenELEC instructions are here;
    http://wiki.openelec.tv/index.php?title=Installing_OpenELEC_on_Raspberry_Pi

  32. Solomon

    On a class 10 SD card openElec works very well. The newest versions don’t require compiling, just grab one of the pre-made nighly builds. I’d like to try raspBMC next. The install looks very easy at this point. Last time I checked it was still the compile yourself stuff. I need a few more SD cards. :)

    FYI, whatever OS you’re putting on your pi, get a class 10 SD card and it’ll be about 30% (guestimate) faster than on a slower card. Microcenter has 8Gb ones for $6.

  33. Phil Becker

    This looks like a great unit. However, I need something that goes a little(?) farther. My cable service offers set top boxes with very limited storage, so I would like to make a device that can both record HD programs from their box (HDMI or component input) to a HDD then later replay them. Any way that this unit could be extended to do that? If not, does anyone have alternative suggestions other than going to a full scale PC?

  34. Tyler

    @Andrew
    Raspberry Pi dev’s website says the Pi does not support flash. That means it will do very little in the way of internet streaming. (Youtube is a definite no-go).

  35. Marge

    @Phil Becker

    Just buy a DVR.

  36. iMarc

    played around with Raspbmc and Openelec. Openelc is mutch faster currently. BUT if you think about installing a additional Airprint Server (like me) it seems there is no way to install cups and al the dependecys on openelec.

  37. Jeff

    Anyone experience audio “warble” at beginning of files? Have seen posts on the forums at various places. My pi outputs to HDMI. For the first 7 sec or so, the sound is warbling like an old tape deck speeding and slowing. From what I have read, RaspBMC and all XBMC ports to the Pi use OMXplayer for the OpenMax standard. (no ALSA) Anyone know who originally ported the XBMC to the Pi? Who did that interface? Seems to be the likely place for bug.

    I haven’t tried older RC’s (RC2 or RC3) of RaspBMC. But RC4 and other distros using XBMC (OpenElec and XBian) have the issue

    Thanks!

    Jeff

  38. Andy

    @jeff
    Yeah, I have also experienced this. Don’t know his to fix it, but let’s hope RC5 fixes it

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