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This is going to be a departure from my usual Wall Street stuff, but I wanted to share a project with you guys that I did over the weekend. For anyone who's read my stuff for awhile it won't come as a surprise that I'm a closet geek. I wasn't always this way, but the Internet kinda flipped a switch in my brain and now I'm an amateur programmer and all around technophile.

When I read about the Raspberry Pi in the New York Times a couple weeks ago I knew I had to have one. The notion of a fully functional computer for $35 was too much for me to resist. Well, the fact is you can't find any for $35 unless you're willing to wait six months, but you can get a top of the line model on Amazon for $50. Sold.

So what can you do with it? Turns out a lot of things. But I found one project that really stood out and solved a big problem for me. My kids have a really nice TV in their room. They've got a DVD player and a Wii hooked up to it. Which is great, but neither of those devices will play digital files. And unless I wanted to go to the trouble of hooking up a laptop to the HDMI (I didn't), they were relegated to watching the same old DVDs.

The Raspberry Pi was the cheapest solution to my problem. I found these easy to follow instructions on Lifehacker, re-purposed an old TV as an analog monitor, and a half hour later I had a full blown XBMC that fits in the palm of my hand.


Here's the unit while I was working on it.



And the old TV I used while I was installing the OS.



Finally, a close-up of the finished unit.

Believe it or not, the thing worked like a champ the first time I plugged it into my kids' TV (via HDMI cable). As an added bonus, their TV remote control worked with it as well, so there was no need to attach a mouse or some other kind of interface.

A couple things you need to be aware of if you're thinking about doing this: as a closet geek, I had everything I needed to make it work lying around the house. You might not. These items included an SD card (like in your digital camera), an HDMI cable to hook it up to the TV, a smartphone charger to use as a power supply, and a USB drive to store the digital files you want to play (music, video, etc...). Obviously if you don't have these things lying around you'll have to buy them and that increases the cost. Also, I spent an extra $14 on a protective case for the whole thing.

There are a lot of other projects you can build with these things (including setting up your own VPN server or building an AirPlay receiver), and there's even a magazine devoted to the geeks who do cool stuff with their Raspberries.

I realize this is a departure from the things I usually write about, but I figured if I needed a cheap XBMC then some of you probably do too, and if you can learn something cool while saving a buck then so much the better. I can tell you the thing works great and it was really easy to put together.

If any of you pick one of these up and do something cool with it I'd really like to hear about it. I actually sold my wife on the idea once she saw how well it worked on our kids' TV, so I've got another one on the way to use as a VPN (and finally get access to Netflix and Hulu from France). If you're interested I'll let you guys know how that works out.

If you have any questions, fire away and I'll do my best to answer them.

Comments (21)

  • Bobb's picture

    Looking good. Ive been thinking of picking up the Rasperry Pi or one of those MK808 Android Mini PC's and building out a media server. XBMC is pretty awesome and with a enough tweaking you pretty much don't need cable anymore and can have everything right through your server.

  • kraziazi's picture

    Perfect solution. I'm definitely going to do this.

    Love seeing this stuff on WSO.

    Achilles was only as strong as his heel.

  • In reply to BTbanker
    Bobb's picture

    BTbanker wrote:
    That's actually really cool if you don't care about ram. So, if I hooked up my 1TB HD and downloaded vlc to watch a movie, would it suck at that, or would I be better off streaming movies?

    Streaming 1080p may cause some hang ups and lag. You should be able to plug your HD into the USB port and play movies off the HD through XBMC

  • In reply to BTbanker
    Edmundo Braverman's picture

    BTbanker wrote:
    That's actually really cool if you don't care about ram. So, if I hooked up my 1TB HD and downloaded vlc to watch a movie, would it suck at that, or would I be better off streaming movies?

    Yes to the HD, but you won't need VLC (even though VLC kicks ass). XBMC will play just about any file format you throw at it out of the box.

    I read the complaints about 1080p stuttering, but I believe the last build fixed that. In any case, streaming is going to work better wired with a LAN cable than it will wireless at any resolution.

    RAM isn't a consideration with this particular project. The 512mb is more than enough to drive the XBMC.

  • accountingbyday's picture

    I just heard about this thing last week. As someone who wants to cancel cable, is there anything that the Pi can do that my Apple TV 3 (no jailbreak) and PS3 cant?

    I basically want to use it to watch TV and/or movies. Is there anyway to stream live TV to this thing OR to set it up as an over the air DVR?

    Eddie, I have ZERO programming capabilities, will that be an issue?

  • yeahright's picture

    Great product, personally bought an xbox for this purpose. I can stick harddrives and thumb drives right into the xbox and play my movies and tv shows. Plus the occasional video game.

    Just doesn't play .mkv but thats why I don't download mkv

    Frank Sinatra - "Alcohol may be man's worst enemy, but the bible says love your enemy."

  • In reply to accountingbyday
    Edmundo Braverman's picture

    accountingbyday wrote:
    I basically want to use it to watch TV and/or movies. Is there anyway to stream live TV to this thing OR to set it up as an over the air DVR?

    Eddie, I have ZERO programming capabilities, will that be an issue?

    I'd be really surprised if there weren't some clever hack floating around to achieve this. Just Google it. Worst case scenario you can get your shows a day later on Hulu. Also, putting one of these together doesn't require any programming skills. Basically if you know how to download and extract a zip file and then save that file to an SD card you can put this thing together.

    EDIT: Here's somebody who did just what you're asking. Here's how he did it: http://forum.stmlabs.com/showthread.php?tid=2648 and here's a video about it:

    EDIT EDIT: Ok, after further research I discovered that a Live TV app is already built into this XBMC build. It's called Twitch and here's how it works:

  • Bobb's picture

    .mkv files will work and they also work on ps3 (which I use as my media center)

    For live TV you will probably need a TV Tuner card, which I think is mentioned above. You could also set up an automatic download for any of the TV shows you want via any torrent program.