Raspberry Pi round 1

I came home last week to a Raspberry Pi waiting for me. Work, family visits and a bout of illnes means I only managed to take a peek, that is until yesterday evening. I rummaged around in the bits box for a £1.50 HDMI cable, a micro USB cable and a wireless USB keyboard. Then I set about giving it a quick go.

My initial plans for the RPi are to use it to take a look at how XBMC are doing these days, especially with respect to user experience etc. I am interested to find media streaming software with as close to a good consumer product feel as possible, with the right mix of features of course. With this in mind I chose to take a go at OpenELEC, whose devs have been hard at work porting the project to the ARM platform. I initially figured I would cross-compile it which would be easy enough, but there are frequent binary distributions so it was even easier. I partitioned the SD card and copied across the relevant files manually in less than 15 minutes, but there is actually a script to do all this automatically, assuming you're using Linux.

First boot gave me a mount error for the SD card partitions, which I figured was due to an SD card incompatibility (I knew there were compatibility issues with the RPi already). However, a quick bit of research showed this issue was introduced with an update to the kernel in r11193. I copied across the previous version's kernel manually and, well, it worked! [Later releases have since had this issue resolved as of r11312].

First impressions are that it works surprisingly well. Transitions are slow whilst the library is updating, but otherwise fine. Making selections does have some delay, but perfectly passable. Videos take a couple of seconds to start, and the HD videos I tried needed a good few seconds to catch up with the audio, but from then on are flawless. The one exception was a HD movie with a DTS soundtrack, which was jumpy. Could be that the bitrate is too much for the Pi to stream over the network, but it seems unlikely to me. Fast forward and rewind do not work, and neither do power controls from the UI. There are other issues, such as glacial media library changes (changing watched status for a film takes about 20 seconds!) but overall my impression is really quite good. XBMC itself is slick.

The one mini project I had in mind was to get HDMI-CEC working (the protocol for automatic input switching, remote control via HDMI etc). This is useful since I was looking to avoid adding another remote to the drawer in the lounge... Imagine my surprise only to discover that someone had already had this idea, and basically completed it. Not only that, but it was incorporated into the OpenELEC RPi build already, so the only thing I had to do was turn on the web service API (which the module daemon uses to communicate with XBMC) in the settings. My Sony remote worked out of the box. There are issues around input hogging and occasionaly my TV gets confused about whether it is using the amp or its internal speakers, but it's 90% there.

I now intend to take a look at offloading the media database from local SQlite to MySQL on my ReadyNAS Duo. The NAS isn't particularly powerful so not sure if this will improve performance or not, but it will at least make hacking the media library much easier! After that, I'm thinking Skype integration... this could be too big a project though, and licensing issues could prevent distribution so some investigation is in order.

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