The Raspberry Pi as a media center

The Emperor's New Clothes

Looks are not everything, but when appearance leads to clarity, it can save you time. For this purpose, you can customize the XBMC interface, even changing it drastically if so desired. By default, all three distributions available for the Raspberry Pi use the default XBMC skin called Confluence (see Figure 2). In the interface definition, an XML file specifies what the menu structure looks like and what images, fonts, and graphics the user gets to see. The XBMC community has created several other skins that are now included in the official XBMC repository, which means you can easily install them through the setup menu. Examples of skins include: PM3.HD (Figure 3), Back Row (Figure 4), Quartz (Figure 5), and Metropolis (Figure 6).

Figure 2: Confluence is the standard skin for XBMC.
Figure 3: PM3.HD (Project Mayhem III High Definition) is no longer the default skin, but it is still a popular option that is included with all recent versions of XBMC.
Figure 4: The "Back Row" cinema theme skin is visually appealing.
Figure 5: Quartz imitates the visuals of an Apple TV on the Pi.
Figure 6: If you like a futuristic scheme, try the Metropolis skin.

Live is Live

Wouldn't it be nice to watch live TV on your Raspberry Pi media center – that is, view television channels and record programs in XBMC and access them at a later date? Television recording and playback is one of the tasks that the first HTPCs assumed more than 10 years ago. For the Raspberry Pi, users need to connect an external DVB receiver unit through the USB port. Be sure you are using a DVB unit for which Linux drivers exist. LinuxTV.org [13] is a good place to look for information on supported models, appropriate drivers, and firmware files. If you are lucky and the kernel already contains drivers for your device, you only need to download the correct firmware file (xyz.fw) and copy it to /lib/firmware/.

The DVB hardware should definitely not be connected directly to the Raspberry Pi, but instead only indirectly via a powered USB hub. DVB reception units require a relatively large amount of power. Once the system detects the device, you can install the TV server software. Specific instructions online tell you how to install TV software for a specific distro [14].

Unfortunately, watching live television (and especially recording it) on the Raspberry Pi is still very, very tricky. Depending on the hardware set, users can encounter major instabilities. Although I managed to run an external DVB-S receiver on the media center without trouble, switching between channels was so slow that even a cheapo DIY satellite receiver appeared to be lightning fast. Live TV on the Raspberry Pi currently looks more like a proof of concept. Users for whom this feature is very important will want to turn to a more expensive home theater PC instead.

Conclusion

Raspberry Pi easily masters all the media center tasks explored in this article – with the exception of live TV. The small size and ultralow purchase price make the Pi an interesting option for media center scenarios, and XBMC is a trusted and well-tested interface for multimedia on Linux. The Raspberry Pi phenomenon represents a return to the spirit of experimentation and do-it-yourself adventure that are at the heart of the Linux experience. If you have been looking for a reason to take your first steps with Raspberry Pi, a pint-sized media center might be just what you need.

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