Something you see more and more of nowadays are hard drive based set-top media players. While these players (such as A.C. Ryan’s PlayOn! HD) are excellent and garner rave reviews from users, they are relatively expensive in comparison to stand alone players. After borrowing a projector for a weekend, something sparked in me wanting an all-in-one solution to media. Armed with a few hundred rand and some time, I decided to embark on a quest to create my own. This article is the end result (or is it?) of that quest.
Perhaps I went about this the wrong way round, but I already had the seemingly ideal piece of hardware lying around from a previous failed experiment, so I figured I would use it. There are a few Atom based hardware appliances available on the market for really small and elegant solutions, however I wanted something with more flexibility (and a DVD drive).
For these kinds of things, a great place to start for hardware is IT rental companies. Many of them sell off the old hardware that they have previously rented out for bargain prices. For the previous experiment, a router/firewall thingy, I picked up a Dell Optiplex GX620 USFF (Ultra Small Form Factor) machine for roughly R420 (around $50 at the time of writing). I call the last experiment a failure due to the fact that I wanted an SFF, considering I needed two network interfaces which is something the USFF is not capable of out of the box. This brings me to another point on buying rentals, you get what you get, first come first serve, no warranties, so make sure you do as thorough a check as you can regarding the hardware before buying.
In addition to the above’s capabilities, I wanted the box to have some sort of wireless networking. Initially, the box was going to be running BSD, so compatibility with USB wifi adapters was sparse (for the most part Atheros and Ralink chipsets). Something I read, as well as found to be true, was that some manufacturers chop and change their chips with each release of an adapter. A company that does seem to be pretty constant is TP-Link, with their WN-7200ND adapter using a Ralink chipset. I managed to pick one up from Uniterm Direct (www.dbg.co.za) for R189.
I’m including this as a section due to the versatility of this kind of box. You can hook it up to a wide array of devices, be it your current television, a computer monitor, or a projector (or a combination of them). We have a pretty small sitting area where we want the media player, and we don’t own a TV, so we opted for a 20″ monitor with a decent resolution, the LG E2060T (roughly R900). Now you may say that this is quite a small monitor for media, which I tend to agree with, however this is our ‘interim display’. After a fair amount of research, we will eventually hook up a projector to the box, but the projector with the specs we desire is obscenely expensive, and as such will come later with an accompanying post detailing the research…
This again, is up to your preference. The USFF can only take a single drive (although you can add as many as you want as externals on USB), so I opted for a 1.5TB from the last experiment for it. Friends who have similar setups have gone for the opposite, leaving a small drive in the media player but using a huge drive in another PC and accessing it over the network. Again, this is all up to you.
Of course, the biggest part of this is the software to run the media centre. I spent quite a considerable amount of time and eventually settled on, as the title suggests, XBMC. This was not for lack of trying on other software packages. XBMC was originally released as X-Box Media Centre, which as the name suggests allowed you to setup your X-Box as a media centre. It has since come a long way and is available on a multitude of platforms. Below is a list of all the candidates and the results.
Windows Media Centre
Just to give this an honourable mention, I was first exposed to Windows Media Centre at the Windows 7 South African launch. It was impressive to say the least, and is what I based my media centre expectations on. From seeing the demo of it, I must admit that it was on a 16 core machine with 24GB of RAM, hardly my USFF which is a dual core Celeron with 2GB RAM. This would have been my first choice of Media Centre after the demo I witnessed, however the licensing implications and the hardware requirements unfortunately set WMC straight out of the running.
After considering WMC, I looked at something called Boxee, which although free, requires registration, which immediately put me off. I do intend on one day looking into Boxee due to their mobile support, but at this point I’m not entirely sure when that day will be.
My initial exposure to XBMC came through GeeXbox, a live distribution customised to run XBMC. This was a great exposure, and ran off USB quite happily. Again, I’m sure you can see how convenient USB boot would be, but I was looking for something to run directly off the machine (and save customised settings).
Pinguy Linux with XBMC
A friend of mine, Thomas, suggested Pinguy OS a while back as “an interesting Linux to check out”. Sure enough, it was interesting, and I think if I was to run Linux as my desktop OS I would definitely use it. It is pretty, very functional, and completely works out of the box as they claim (even more painless than a modern Windows installation). To my surprise and joy after installing this OS, XBMC was already included as one of the native packages. This was to be shortlived however, as Pinguy is just simply too hungry for the little Celeron, with XBMC giving me a framerate of around 20-30fps just for menu navigation. So while Pinguy is an awesome desktop OS, it too was out of the running for this installation.
Windows XP with XBMC
A great thing about XBMC is its ability to run on practically any platform. I decided that I will load XP on to the machine and test it out. Unfortunately this was cut short by not a single driver being recognised by the older OS for any of the attached (and internal) media playback devices, pretty much immediately kicking it out of the running due to the complexity.
After all of the above, I went back to the drawing board. I went back to the XBMC site for some inspiration or perhaps some tips from the community. Lo and behold, the new version had been released, along with its own packaged installation called XBMCbuntu (which can also be run as a live CD as per GeeXbox above). With great enthusiasm I downloaded this, installed it with complete ease, and booted up into an incredibly lightweight, responsive and pretty OS, with the main front-end being XBMC. We have a winner!
Really, installation couldn’t be easier, with the system working beautifully out of the box. Another great thing about XBMC is how extendible it is, with a myriad of plugins available, from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube to various other streaming content providers. You can even control it over the web from a browser on another machine.
So, the only thing really left to complete the box was the remote. I was slightly disappointed at not using Boxee, as they have quite decent support for mobile devices, but on the back of that I figured that XBMC must have something at least similar. After a single search on the iTunes App store, I found a myriad of remote control apps for the iPad. The first one I settled on was XBmoteC, which although a bit clunky to set up, was lightweight and worked pretty well. A friend of mine suggested Constellation, which is an incredibly powerful remote that works like a dream, I’d highly recommend it.
In addition to the iPad apps available, there are also plugins to extend the web interface to be touch friendly, making remote control a breeze from any device connected to the network.
While I’m still waiting for my projector, this little box is already getting some air play. The only snag I’ve found is in trying to watch full HD, the little Celeron just doesn’t cut it for the trailers I was testing with; the longer the trailer, the more jumpy the video. 800×600 did seem to have a positive effect on this, so when moving over to the projector it should be fine (aside from the obvious loss of HD).
I trust this inspires some of you to set up your own media player, it really is simple with the packages and hardware described above and well worth the effort. As far as the “Or is it?” comment in the introduction goes, I have seen that you can extend the player even further to hosting NES/SNES games with a USB gamepad (among other things), so I’m dead keen to see if I can get that running successfully (and if I do, there will be another post on it).
If you would like any more information, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!