Streaming services on LibreELEC 9.0 with Kodi 18.0

Popcorn Cinema

© Lead Image © Natalia Lukiyanova, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © Natalia Lukiyanova, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 227/2019
Author(s):

Thanks to Kodi 18.0, LibreELEC 9.0 now supports the DRM encryption used by many streaming services. However, integrating Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services does involve some manual work.

One of the most common tasks for the Raspberry Pi is still deployment as a media center. In combination with the Kodi media center software, the Rasp Pi can turn every "dumb" TV into a smart TV. Content from locally connected data carriers, an intranet, or the web can then be played back. These features are now available on even the simplest of modern TVs; however, with appropriate hardware upgrades and advanced configuration, the Rasp Pi media center can also record TV shows or stream them to the network so you can watch TV on your PC or smartphone.

The LibreELEC Kodi distribution serves as the basis for many Rasp Pi media centers. Under the hood, the operating system available for the Raspberry Pi and other small-board computers (SBCs), as well as for PCs, follows the "just enough operating system" principle – that is, Linux reduced to the bare bones.

Shortly after the release of Kodi 18.0, dubbed "Leia" by its developers, the LibreELEC project also announced the latest edition of its distribution, version 9.0.0. In this article, I take a look at what has happened in both projects and investigate how well new features, such as retro games and streaming services, perform on a Raspberry Pi.

New in Kodi 18.0

The developers of Kodi 18.0 deliver the first major release since February 2017 [1]. The media center was given completely new functions: Classic video games can now be launched and played directly on Kodi. However, Kodi itself does not run the games: The gamer is expected to provide the emulators, games, and ROMs.

Kodi 18 uses the Libretro library [2] from the RetroArch project [3] (Figure 1). Many emulators such as MAME [4] now support the library directly. Additionally, typical gaming input devices such as joysticks, gamepads, and other controllers can be integrated into the system, which means nothing can get in the way of enjoying a round of a Jump-n-Run classic like Super Mario Bros. or The Great Giana Sisters – if you have the right software offerings.

Figure 1: Kodi integrates retro gaming into version 18.0. The system supports various emulators, from the Amiga and C64 to game consoles.

In addition to your own video collection, streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu deliver movies and series in digital form directly to your living room. Zattoo, Pluto TV, and other providers do the same for TV programs; thus, you can receive digital TV without cable access or satellite equipment. However, to protect against unlicensed copying, most services encrypt their content. Kodi 18 now knows how to handle these Digital Rights Management (DRM) routines, although compatibility essentially depends on the hardware and operating system you use.

The developers of Kodi 18 (Figure 2) also improved the music player and music library management. Indexed titles can now be organized more flexibly. For example, you can filter songs by source or the artist's gender. The improved API allows faster access to music collection content, which is particularly beneficial for users of a Kodi app on a smartphone or tablet.

Figure 2: The new Kodi version makes it easier to browse the music database. API access to the music collection has also been optimized.

Owners of a full-fledged media center PC will be especially pleased with the improved video player, which can process content faster and better in 4K and 8K resolution, as well as HDR. The media player now has priority over other functions when accessing the CPU and GPU, so it can play content as smoothly as possible. If the device on which you are using Kodi 18 has radio reception, it now displays station information with the help of the Radio Data System (RDS), which is standard on most car radios and hi-fi tuners today. RDS enables the transmission of additional digital information with analog FM radio.

New in LibreELEC 9.0

LibreELEC builds a fully functional system around Kodi. LibreELEC 9.0 [5], introduced in the wake of the new Kodi version, is based on the Kodi 18.x branch and integrates its new functions, such as DRM support for streaming media, as well as the RetroPlayer framework for running console games (assuming an appropriate add-on). Under the hood, the rapidly updated LibreELEC 9.0.1 MR uses the 4.19.23 kernel. (See the "Installing LibreELEC" box for instructions on getting LibreELEC on your Raspberry Pi.)

Installing LibreELEC

To install LibreELEC on an SBC like the Raspberry Pi, I recommend using the LibreELEC USB-SD Creator [6]. The program offered for Linux, macOS, and Windows prepares the required memory card in four simple steps. First, you select the desired version (usually Raspberry Pi 2 and 3) and then click Download to download the corresponding version from the web. In the third step, you specify the disk on which the wizard will install the image. Proceed with caution here, because all data on the storage medium is lost when you install. Finally, pressing Write puts the downloaded image to the SD card (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The LibreELEC USB-SD Creator makes installation on an SD card designed for the Raspberry Pi easy. The program is available for Linux, macOS, and Windows.

Now plug your SD card into the Raspberry Pi and boot the system. A setup wizard will guide you through the most important configuration steps. The best way to proceed is to plug a keyboard into the Pi, but you don't necessarily need a mouse. Start by assigning a computer name and setting up the network connection; wireless on a Rasp Pi 3 (RPi3) is supported by default. Next, enable SSH and Samba network services. In the case of SSH, the wizard automatically prompts you for a new password.

As a media center, a LibreELEC installation is in the category "install once, neglect forever"; very few users even think about security. Often, updates are not even installed, let alone default passwords changed. As a result, unprotected LibreELEC systems repeatedly end up directly on the Internet (e.g., when a user digs a tunnel into the network via a VPN).

Therefore, one of the new features of LibreELEC 9.0 that appears in the setup wizard is an interface for changing the SSH password. Alternatively, you can do this later in the gear menu under LibreELEC | Services | SSH | SSH password (Figure 4).

Figure 4: If you enable SSH access from the setup wizard, LibreELEC 9.0 immediately prompts you to change the default password, but you can also change the password from the Settings screen.

Moreover, a basic configuration of the iptables firewall provides additional security. In home mode, LibreELEC blocks incoming connections that do not come from the local network and thus protects active services such as SSH, Samba, and the Internet against unwanted access. If obsolete add-ons repeatedly cause problems when starting the system, a Safe Mode now provides a remedy. The system then starts with the basic configuration so that misbehaving add-ons and settings can be disabled.

The Games category will initially be empty. Two games can be installed quite easily for demonstration purposes. Open Add-on browser | Offline Games and set up 2048 and Mr.Boom (Bomberman), just as you would set up any other add-on. The corresponding game engines, including DOS (DOSBox), ScummVM, and Commodore-C64 (VICE C64), are automatically retrieved by the system.

If you plug a gamepad into the USB port, LibreELEC automatically registers the new device and offers to configure it. Alternatively, you can initialize the input device from the gear menu and the options System | Input | Peripherals | Configure attached controllers. Step by step, you can then hardwire the gamepad's buttons to console-specific buttons (e.g., A, B, X, and Y) (Figure 5).

Figure 5: When you connect a gamepad to the system, Kodi automatically opens a wizard to configure the new game input device.

In the RPi3 test, only the very simple 2048 game worked (Figure 6). Although the funnier and more action-packed Mr.Boom (Bomberman) is executed by the Rasp Pi, the screen remains blank. After pressing Esc, a menu appears to let you quit the game; strangely, the screen then shows the game itself in the background.

Figure 6: LibreELEC comes with two games out the box: the simple 2048 and the multiplayer Bomberman, which did not work in a test on a RPi3.

C64 Games on LibreELEC

As a practical test, I installed the Commodore-C64 (VICE C64) emulator under Add-ons | Install from repository | All repositories | Game Add-ons | Emulators. It then appears in the main level below Games as an independent extension. However, if you select the add-on directly, you will end up at the light blue prompt typical for the C64 – only insiders will know that you now have to type:

LOAD":*",8,1

It is easier to pick up a game from a collection like the GameBase64 Collection [7], transfer the downloaded ZIP file via Samba (or the Windows network environment) to the LibreELEC Rasp Pi, and unpack it there (e.g., in the Downloads/ folder). If you then select Games from the main menu, the library manager appears. Go to Add games | Browse | Root file system and select the folder with the uploaded games.

Kodi integrates the folder into the Games menu. When you select it, a file manager appears; you can use the manager to select the game as a disk image (e.g., in D64 format) or a program file (in P00 format) [8]. During the game, Vice forwards all keystrokes to the emulator. Only the Esc key still interacts with Kodi. From the menu, you can now control the game with Pause/Resume, Reset, Exit, or individual Settings.

Other innovations in Kodi 18.0 and LibreELEC 9.0 still need a little time to mature, however. The Zattoo add-on, for example, can be activated from the repositories and also accepts your login credentials. The TV section, where the Zattoo add-on adds itself as the PVR service (personal video recorder, which has a mass storage device, instead of a tape drive, and intelligent additional functions), remains empty, however. Even for Netflix, Kodi/LibreELEC does not yet offer a solution that works out of the box.

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