Turn A Raspberry Pi Into An XBMC Media Centre In Under 30 Minutes

The best home theatre PCs are small, quiet and inexpensive, so the bite-size, bargain-priced Raspberry Pi is the perfect choice. Here’s how to turn this little DIY board into a cheap, silent media centre in just half an hour.

Title image: Denise Kappa (Shutterstock), maymak (Shutterstock), Pakhnyushcha (Shutterstock), Anan Kaewkhammul (Shutterstock), and Elena Terletskaya (Shutterstock)

It’s Raspberry Pi Week at Lifehacker, and we’ll be showing you some awesome DIY projects you can put together with this miraculous device. If you haven’t acquired one yet, check out our introduction to the Pi to learn more about what it is, what you’ll need, and the cool stuff you can do with one. If you aren’t familiar with XBMC, our favourite media centre software, check out our complete guide to creating a kickass play-everything media centre for more info (then come back here).

What You’ll Need

Getting XBMC up and running on the Pi is easy, but first you need to gather up your materials. Getting the right ones can be the difference between a 30 minute media centre and a 30 hour headache, so here’s what you’ll want to pick up (or gather from your existing piles of computing stuff):

  • A Raspberry Pi: Check out our introduction to the Pi for more info.
  • An HDMI or composite video cable: You’ll need this cable to connect your Raspberry Pi to your television or monitor.
  • An 8GB Class 10 SD card (or better) and a card reader (if you don’t have one built into your computer): You can go smaller or slower, but an 8GB Class 10 card will give you the best performance, and they’re relatively cheap. Most SD cards will work, but some aren’t compatible and will therefore cause issues. You can find out which cards are compatible, or locate a place to buy a compatible card with an operating system pre-installed, on this page.
  • A USB keyboard and mouse: Any standard USB keyboard or mouse will do. Wireless (non-Bluetooth) peripherals worked for me, but I had to unplug them and plug them back in after the Raspberry Pi booted. You’ll have fewer issues with fully wired keyboards and mice.
  • An Ethernet cable: Any standard Ethernet cable will do.
  • A good quality, micro USB power supply that can provide at least
    700mA at 5V
    : Most modern smartphone chargers supply 700mA at 5V, but not all do. Check the bottom of your charger and look for a block of text. You’ll see its output values in that text which may read 0.7A instead of 700mA). If it offers at least that much power, you’re good to go. Don’t use a poor quality charger or you may run into problems.
  • A 3.5mm stereo audio cable (Optional): You only need this if you’re using analogue video and want to connect your Raspberry Pi to a set of external speakers or internal ones on your television or monitor. If you’re using HDMI, you can skip this.
  • A remote control: If you don’t want to use a mouse and keyboard to control your media centre once it is set up, you’ll need a remote. Check out Raspbmc’s list of supported remotes as well as our guide on choosing a remote for more information.
  • A USB hard drive (optional): If you don’t want to stream videos from your other computers, you’ll need a USB hard drive to hook up to the Pi to store your videos.
  • A case for your Raspberry Pi (Optional): If you don’t want your Pi’s bare board sitting out on your entertainment unit, we recommend grabbing a case like these ones from ModMyPi to put it in.
  • A 3.5mm stereo audio cable (Optional): You only need this if you’re using analogue video and want to connect your Raspberry Pi to a set of external speakers or internal ones on your television or monitor. If you’re using HDMI, you can skip this.
  • The Raspbmc Installer, which will put Raspbmc — the Raspberry Pi-optimised version of XBMC — on your SD card. You can get this for free on Raspbmc’s web site.

What You Will (And Won’t) Get

[related title=”More Raspberry Pi Week” tag=”raspberry-pi-week” items=”5″]The Raspberry Pi makes a dandy media centre, especially for the cost. When you’re done, you’ll have an XBMC box that can play 720p video from other computers on your network or from a locally connected USB drive. It will be tiny, so you can fit it anywhere, and completely silent, so you don’t have any noise competing with the sound from your movie.

However, compared to other more powerful builds, there are some things the Pi does not do. It will not stream content from the internet (such as iView), and you may experience stuttering with 1080p videos. This depends a little on what kind of audio you have on your videos, as well as where they’re stored — if you stream them over the network, they’ll be more likely to stutter than if you’re playing them directly from a USB hard drive. These issues may lessen as the software improves, but right now the system is not quite stable enough enough for us to guarantee flawless 1080p playback.

The Raspberry Pi’s menus will definitely feel a bit slower. It won’t load high-res fanart as effectively as more powerful builds, so if you’re looking to set up a particularly tricked-out XBMC skin, you might be out of luck. However, as a secondary media centre for a smaller TV, or as a media centre for simple 720p playback, it’s a force to be reckoned with.

Step One: Put Raspbmc On Your SD Card

Before you even hook up your Raspberry Pi to your TV, you’ll need to get the Raspbmc installer on your SD card. To begin, insert your SD card into your computer. If you’re using Windows, download the installer from this page and run it on your desktop to put Raspbmc on your SD card. Mac and Linux users will need to run a few terminal commands, but it’s nothing too difficult. Once you have the installer on your SD card, eject it and move onto the next step.

Step Two: Hook Up Your Raspberry Pi And Install Raspbmc

Now it’s time to hook your Raspberry Pi up to your TV. Everything should be pretty self-explanatory here: plug the HDMI cable into your TV, plug the Ethernet cable into your router, insert your SD card into your Raspberry Pi, and plug the Micro USB power cable into your wall. When you plug it into the wall, it should turn on and boot up from the SD card, beginning the installation process.

You shouldn’t have to do anything during this step. Just make sure the installer does its thing and come back in 15 to 25 minutes when it’s finished. When the process has completed, it should automatically reboot into XBMC.

Step Three: Tweak Your Settings for Optimal Playback

Surprise! You’re already most of the way there, and it barely took any work. Now that you have XBMC booted up, all you need to do is tweak a few settings to make sure everything runs smoothly. Here’s what we recommend:

  • Resolution, found under Settings > System > Video Output. If you’re only going to be watching 720p videos, you should change this to 720p. This will help the system and menus feel a little snappier.
  • Overscan, found under Settings > System > Video Output > Video Calibration. If you find that the XBMC interface stretches beyond the edges of your TV screen, you’ll want to calibrate your video using this wizard to fix it.
  • System Performance Profile, under Programs > Raspbmc Settings > System Configuration. This is a Raspberry Pi-specific setting that basically allows you to overclock the device, making everything run a little bit faster and smoother. I recommend trying the “Fast” setting, which will speed everything up without sacrificing stability. The “Super” setting will be significantly faster still, but introduces the possibility of instability. You can also perform more advanced overclocking tweaks if you’re familiar with overclocking.
  • MPEG2 Codec Licence, which you’ll need to buy from the Raspberry Pi store and enable under Programs > Raspbmc Settings > System Configuration. This allows you to play MPEG-2 videos, which the Pi cannot play out of the box. If you don’t have any MPEG-2 videos, you can skip this.

When you’re done with that, you can jump over to our complete XBMC guide to see how to add videos to your library, install add-ons and customise your setup from head to toe. If you really want to dig in your heels, check out the other XBMC builds for the Raspberry Pi, including OpenELEC and Xbian. They take a bit more work to install, but may be a bit faster in some cases, although they’re also a little less feature-filled. Give each a try and decide which you like best!


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