Raspberry Pi Media Center Rocks My World: Part 1

Raspberry Pi Technology
Raspberry Pi Media Center Rocks My World: Part 1



With over 1,000,000 Raspberry Pi’s in the wild, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are some left unused, tucked away in their boxes, waiting for a killer app. I’m here to tell you that the app is here and you can set it up in about 20 minutes. There is no coding or no command line work involved; You don’t even need a keyboard. It’s likely the most simple thing you can do with your Pi besides removing it from the box. That app is Raspbmc, a port of the classic media center program XBMC, which transforms your Raspberry Pi into a full-on media player.

Last year, a 19-year-old developer from London named Sam Nazarko started to port XBMC (Xbox Media Center) over to the Raspberry Pi, hoping to leverage the Pi’s GPU to turn it into an inexpensive HTPC. Over the course of a year, Sam built a team and slowly got things working on the Pi. On Feb. 14 this year, Sam announced the release of the “final version” of the software, making the Raspberry Pi an officially supported platform for XBMC.

I’ve been using Raspbmc for the past three months and honestly don’t know how I could get by without it. It’s now the hub for all my digital media files. Music, TV shows, movies, pictures, it’s all there playing on my TV at the click of a button. It’s so straightforward and easy to use, my wife (who isn’t exactly known for her technological abilities) figured out how to use it without any instruction.

While there are many guides floating around the internet, I put together a quick one to get you started. I also included directions on setting up wifi and activating AirPlay / AirTunes.

To follow along, you’ll need:

  • Raspberry Pi (256mb or 512mb model)
  • 4GB SD Card (minimum)
  • Windows computer
  • HDMI cable
  • TV with HDMI Input
  • USB Mouse (if your TV remote isn’t CEC compliant)
  • USB power supply (if your TV doesn’t have USB)
  • USB A to Micro cable
  • Wired internet connection (just for setup)
  • WiFi adapter (optional – I’m using this one from Monoprice)
  • Case (optional – I use this one from Thingiverse)
  • These items can all be found in Getting Started with Raspberry Pi Kit from the Maker Shed.


So far I’ve been very happy with the performance of Raspbmc on the Raspberry Pi. It has handled all content I have thrown at it, and will even play H.264 encoded 1080p video files (although there is some artifacting.) While Netflix and Hulu are not supported, Raspbmc is a great, inexpensive solution for playing archived movies, TV shows, or music from your personal collection. AirPlay support is what I consider to be “icing on the cake.” In my opinion Raspbmc is easily one of the most capable, refined, and easiest to use software packages available for the Raspberry Pi.

Look for Part 2 soon where I’ll explain how to use AirPlay, play media, and map network sources.

54 thoughts on “Raspberry Pi Media Center Rocks My World: Part 1

  1. Jonny says:

    Honestly, it disappoints me that out of all the possibility that a groundbreaking device like the Pi has, pretty much everybody just uses it as an inexpensive way to watch their anime and consume media. I feel it pretty un-‘Maker-like’, and every time I see the same article over and over again with somebody breathlessly explaining how we can hook this /tiny/ device up to watch /all/ our favorite TV shows (except for the caveats about Netflix and Hulu – edge case, who the heck would ever subscribe to that?), I can’t help think that we’ve gone about this all wrong.

    1. carelessdonkey says:

      I actually like articles like these. Although I haven’t had time to set it up yet, this is exactly what I was hoping to do with my Pi and I’m anxious to see the next part about setup (especially AirPlay). I do have Raspbmc up and running on my Pi but where I hit a wall was trying to stream content from my home computer to the Pi. I really don’t want to connect a USB drive to my Pi if I can avoid it.

      1. Michael Castor says:

        If you followed the tutorial and clicked on the AirPlay button, Airplay is already set up! With the Pi running and connected to the same network your iDevice is on, just “slide up” your airplay compatible app and choose XBMC (Raspbmc). If you’re using Pandora, the slideable part looks like a three lined “equals” sign between the thumbs up and play buttons. It also works in iTunes on your computer. Just click the icon next to the volume slider.

        Shares are pretty straightforward too. I’ll cover both of these probably next week, but if you mess with it I’m confident you can figure it out.

    2. GeekDadof4 says:

      Actually, the Pi isn’t really a “maker” friendly platform. It has no inbuilt A/D, no RTC or rtos so pwm has it’s limitations. No way to do REAL interrupts, etc, it’s a great, low cost embedded linux platform, and these are the kind of applications that a low cost embedded linux platform is meant for. Sure you can add external ADC’s, an fpga here, better i/o buffers etc. But then you might as well go with a Arudino, or pixAxe or something. You can still use it as linux controller that can do all sorts of cool things. As well as a low cost platform for classroom use.

  2. Jake Spurlock says:



    1. Michael Castor says:

      Don’t go stealing that ;)

      1. Jake Spurlock says:

        My wifi ssd is sogooditHz.

        1. Michael Castor says:

          lol – nice.

  3. Oliver says:

    The incredible slowness of the Raspberry Pi while running XBMC makes it a pretty poor experience using a media center in my opinion. Try XBMC on a reasonably power x86 machine (e.g. an Intel ION based machine with integrated Nvidia graphics) and you’ll see how much better it could be.

    Like Jonny said, it is also disappointing that the Maker ethos is being thrown away in favour of a cheap and terrible media center device that doesn’t even work very well.

    1. Michael Castor says:

      I’ve found the performance of XBMC on the Pi to be pretty good. It loads and plays my standard def H.264 encoded .MKV files from my networked hard drive (Apple Airdisk) 1-2 seconds after I hit the play button on my remote. I completely agree that an ION based system would be faster, but it’ll be a lot more expensive ($50ish vs $200ish fully outfitted). I personally haven’t felt the “need” to build a full on HTPC after using the Pi.. of course most of the content I play is SD (and my TV is 720p).

      1. ohookins says:

        Michael it’s not at all the video performance (although whenever it is not 1080p, the GPU cannot natively handle it and the CPU must do the work I believe), but the rest of the experience. Every other action in XBMC is painfully slow compared to any other machine. Menus, browsing through available videos, plug-ins that use the network etc. The network bandwidth itself is not particular fast on this device so you are also at the mercy of its capabilities there, if you are trying to watch anything at a decent bitrate over the network.

        I appreciate it is cheap for full HD capabilities, but you don’t have to spend much more to get a much better experience. Follow the Maker ethos and use the Raspberry Pi for what it is designed for – hacking.

        1. asciimation says:

          I agree, I also found XBMC terribly slow on the Pi. Once playing something it worked great but navigating and just using it was pretty awful. Having never used XBMC before I was amazed when I installed it on my PC and saw how fast it actually runs. Now I serve media up from that and use the network connection on my Bluray player to access it.

          I now need to think of something else, more deserving, to use the Pi for.


  4. Alan S. Blue says:

    If you’re making a series out of this, please cover both getting over-the-air into the box and the state-of-Netflix.

    HDHomerun and howtogeek.com/howto/43724/how-to-view-netflix-watch-instantly-in-xbmc/ as starting places.

    I’d really appreciate an open source HDHomerun actually.

    1. Michael Castor says:

      Unfortunately, Netflix uses Silverlight which is only available for Windows and Mac platforms. Unless the folks at Netflix decide to support Linux, I don’t see it happening for Raspbmc :(

      I’ll have to look more into the HDHomerun. I know there’s the option to add it as a source in XBMC but I don’t have one to test it out.

  5. Sam Freeman says:

    If you can’t find an Ethernet port close enough to an HDMI screen (or just don’t want to wait for the install), XBIAN get’s the job done pretty smoothly instead.

    1. Michael Castor says:

      Or you could just plug it into your router headless and wait like an hour to make sure everything gets installed. Then take it out to your TV, plug it in, and activate Wifi. I’ve done this a few times when I don’t feel like running a hideously long Ethernet cord from my basement ;)

  6. Wayno says:

    I run OpenELEC XBMC and I find the response satisfactory. Way faster that the built-in apps on my TV. The only thing that’s keeping me from using it as a full-time solution is the fact that it can’t decode DTS without stuttering. Hopefully there will be a solution for that at some point.

    Comparisons of this to a PC running XBMC are unfair. This is a device that you can leave plugged in all the time (not have to deal with boot times, etc) and not worry about noise and a hit on your electric bill. Again, if DTS gets solved (or I break down and buy a DTS capable receiver) then I’ll be all set with this solution. I have other RPis for hacking.

    1. JoshCube says:

      I also run OpenElec and find the performance much better. RaspBMC seems to favor pushing the feature envelop while OpenElec favors stability. As for the haters, sure XBMC runs faster on a laptop, but my Raspberry Pi runs twice as fast as my cable box ever did and like you mentioned it consumes less power.

  7. onjofilms says:

    Probably would be a great portable radio for Pandora I’m thinking.

  8. Jeff S. says:

    I’ve got my Pi set up with OpenELEC XBMC, and also find the performance to be quite acceptable for streaming video. It also works great for AirPlay. However, that’s only the case when it’s hard-wired. I’ve tried four different wifi dongles, and on all of them AirPlay is nearly unusable. It pauses and stutters noticeably no matter what I try. What’s especially odd is that video isn’t quite as bad using the same wifi connection.

    Can anyone else confirm AirPlay’s less than stellar performance over wifi?

    1. Michael Castor says:

      I’ve found AirPlay to be relatively stable using Raspbmc. The only issues I’ve had have occurred after listening to Pandora for over 60 minutes. Then I can usually transfer the audio to the phone and back to fix it.

  9. Jeff says:

    I’ve tried all three variants running on the Pi (Openelec, Raspbmc, and Xbian) and am on Xbian right now. I found Raspbmc very flexible, but not as high performing as the others. Openelec was the easiest of the three, but is more difficult (though not impossible) to customize. Xbian seems to be a nice compromise of performance, ease of use, and flexibility, though I’m still working on getting my MCE remote control fully working. I’m pulling content off a NAS using NFS and it’s working almost as well as the version I had running on an Atom; I can live with the slight dropoff in performance for the silent, low-power consumption characteristics of the Pi. For me, it is infinitely usable and quite full-featured.

  10. magicguppy says:

    I’m running OpenElec with a most satisfactory navigational experience but a bit too much buffering of MKVs from my smb share, could be latency.

    Anyway, we’re not all makers, we don’t all have the knowledge, inspiration or experience (or in my case, all three), so projects like this are more likely to raise the popularity of the pi, which in turn helps the foundation and helps the further development of open projects like this. I can honestly say I wouldn’t have bought the pi at this moment in time for anything else, but I saw an opportunity in XMBC and now they have my money and I’m a contributor to the discussion to help people get the most out of it. It might not be in within the original ethos of the pi, but projects like this will get more people involved and that’s a good thing for everyone.

  11. stlouisubntu says:

    Good article on running xbmc on the raspberry pi. I run raspbmc and it works very well. I take, issue with your assertion that “A Windows computer” is a requirement. A Linux computer (or even a Mac) are always better choices. See the documentation for raspbmc http://www.raspbmc.com/download/

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I am the Evangelist for the Maker Shed. It seems that there is no limit to my making interests. I'm a tinkerer at heart and have a passion for solving problems and figuring out how things work. When not working for Make I can be found falling off my unicycle, running in adverse weather conditions, skiing down the nearest hill, restoring vintage motorcycles, or working on my car.

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