Build a $35 Media Center with Raspbmc and Raspberry Pi

By Jason Fitzpatrick on July 24th, 2012

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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 a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 07/24/12
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