My OpenELEC Media Center

How I got to a complete mini media center

After I first heard about the Raspberry Pi project, I was pretty intrigued. I talked with my brother-in-law and we both decided to buy one in order to set up Raspbian with a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) stack configured as cloud backup servers with ownCloud.

I got the inspiration from an article by John Dvorak of PC Magazine in which he opines:

“But here’s my current thinking. Everyone has a friend who could use access to a 2 TB hard drive, right? Go spend $99 for a 2TB stand alone drive and another $99 for a Pogoplug personal cloud device and install it in someone else’s place for them. You can both use it as a backup device. You will now have access to a remote backup device for a total lifetime cost of $200. You can also add capacity later, if needed.”

But instead of $99 for a Pogoplug, why not consider the Pi which, even with the power supply, enclosure, SD card and HDMI cable, would be no more than $65, including tax and shipping. Then, with the LAMP stack and ownCloud installed, we could set up each other as users on our respective machines and use them as our cloud backup solutions. After we bought our Pi’s, enclosures and power supplies, however, little came of our original idea.

But I digress!

While the original plan died out – I later put ownCloud on a LAMP server in my office, but that’s another story – I started seeing more and more operating systems and applications specifically compiled for the ARM architecture in the Pi. Again, I was intrigued. I was especially interested in the OS’s that were built to serve as media centers as many of these included Kodi – formally XBMC, (formally known as the X Box Media Center), and as I had had experience installing and configuring XBMC on Windows and Linux clients.

So, I downloaded the Raspbian image and burned it to an SD card. After initial bootup and configuration, I found Raspbian to be a fully functional Linux distribution. However, setting up XBMC on Raspbian requires quite a bit of effort and tweaking. It was then that I found Raspbmc, which was based on Raspbian, had XBMC installed and had all of the configuration and tweaking done for you! The only problem was; it was XBMC installed on top of Raspbian with all the overhead of each. That’s when I found OpenELEC.

OpenELEC has been a revelation! They define themselves as:

“…an embedded operating system built around XBMC, the open source entertainment media hub. Home Theatre PCs are known to be hard to install and configure and can take a massive amount of time to keep running. OpenELEC, on the other hand, is designed to be as lightweight as possible in terms of size and complexity. With it’s small footprint, OpenELEC is also ideal for small systems based on Atom or Fusion platforms so you won’t need a whole computer in your living room!

I downloaded the OpenELEC image and burned it to an SD card. After initialization, OpenELEC boots into the XBMC “desktop”, with its ten foot UI, and automatically updates all installed plugins (or apps, if you will). While OpenELEC comes with a sufficient number of “apps”, I had to get it to full functionality by downloading and installing additional repositories (i.e., app stores) that would allow me to fully realize the potential of OpenELEC and XBMC. These app stores provide all sorts of additional plugins that can provide all sorts of resources for viewing movies, TV shows and live sports. You can even add applications to not only listen to your local music sources, but also streaming services such as, Pandora, Grooveshark and TuneIn Radio.

Once these were downloaded, installed and configured, I had a fully functional media center. All that was left was to change my time zone and weather settings in the “Settings” section of XBMC. Upon completion, I added my login information to Pandora, Grooveshark and TuneIn so I could access my streams and favorite radio stations.

Now, if I want to watch a movie; I do! If I want to watch a TV show; I do! If I want to listen to some of my favorite music, or catch up with my talk radio stations; I do! And, because all are streamed over the internet, they are accessible 24/7. And no fiddling with a PVR or DVR. No deleting shows or movies because the DVR is filling up. The convenience factor is unreal! The only caveat is the Pi is not the most powerful computer on the planet by any stretch so it takes a while to download enough to its cache before most video streams start. With that said, however, the Pi comes with a pretty powerful GPU so, once cached, video can be delivered in – up to – true 1080p (or whatever format the source is providing).

Because of my experience, and because of my enthusiasm for the Pi and OpenELEC, I can’t endorse either enough. For those that believe it sounds like a lot of work, it is! However, the time invested can truly reap rewards for you and your family.

The Gulf Coast Geek

(Full Disclosure: For those who would rather have a “turnkey” system, I will be offering fully configured systems on thegulfcoastgeek.com by the end of this month – as soon as I have the shopping cart complete. These systems are set up to offer the best and/or most popular applications for movies, TV, music, radio and live sports.)