Raspberry Pi Media Center

There is currently a wave of new TV streaming solutions fighting it out for our hard earned money such as Chromecast from Google, Fire TV from Amazon, Apple TV, Roku etc. In fact, they are all very good in their own right. For example, if your household is full of Apple products, you wont go wrong with the Apple TV. If cost is a factor, then Google Chromecast is an absolute bargain for what if gives you. Today we explore some open source approaches to this problem, using a Raspberry Pi Media Center.

Raspberry Pi Media Center – What are the options?

Now I am sure there are many more options out there, but these seem to be the most popular and by nature the ones you will get the most support for (all solutions discussed here are essentially a variant of XBMC)

  • Raspbmc (runs full Linux under hood, slow)
  • OpenELEC (bare bones, fast)
  • Rasplex (on top of OpenELEC)
  • XBian (on top of Raspbian)

There is a very good article which goes into the pros and cons of each of these here – http://lifehacker.com/raspberry-pi-xbmc-solutions-compared-raspbmc-vs-openel-1394239600. What I will concentrate on is my experience with Raspbmc and Rasplex.

Raspberry Pi Media Center using Raspbmc

My first attempt was to use Raspbmc as it seems to have a very large community which offered a lot in the way of plugins. The installation process was extremely simple, with the Raspbmc installer doing all the work and you just have to supply the SD card. Once the SD is setup on your computer, plug it into your Raspberry Pi and let it boot up the first time (it takes a long time first time round).

Raspbmc starting up first time

I started out using a spare SD card I had from my camera, this was a big mistake as it was only class 4 (i.e. slow). This and the fact that Raspbmc itself is also known to be slow, meant I had a slightly sluggish experience with all the menus and overall experience wasnt great.

In terms of look and feel, it looks exactly like the full XBMC client for Windows. You can use the keyboard or mouse for navigation, with an intuitive menu control system.  The plugins (video channels) were also very easy to install and Raspbmc comes with a very large selection of recommended ones, but there are hundreds if not thousands more out there on the net you can add yourself. Below is the YouTube channel post installation.

Raspbmc youtube plugin screen

Unfortunately where Raspbmc fell short for me was in its ability to stream videos from my home computer. Now you might not have any movies stored locally and watch everything from Netflix, in which case this issue wont affect you. So lets start with a clarification, Raspbmc is able to access my home computer and movie files, but it takes a lot of effort. Firstly you have to setup folder shares on your local computer and then configure Raspbmc with the right access details to see those files. Additionally, I started reading that it might not support all codecs out of the box, this was a big issue for me given I have movies with codecs of every sort and had no desire to recode any of them.

Raspberry Pi Media Center using Resplex

After the disappointment of Raspbmc, I decided to try Rasplex. Its main selling point is that it will do video streaming automatically. Now I wanted to be fair, so I installed it on the same class 4 SD card from earlier (by this point I had purchased a much faster class 10). The speed was now acceptable, no more lags!

The Rasplex menu system was in many ways even more beautiful than Rasbpmc, it cycles its background image to that of various shows related to your current menu selection. However, the menus needs a few more clicks before offering you the same content as Raspbmc.

Rasplex main menu system

The only downside and this is quite a big one for me is the lack of mouse support – yes, Rasplex is keyboard only as far as I could work out. While I don’t mind having to purchase a wireless keyboard, it just doesn’t work very well when you are fast forwarding a movie. You can download various apps for your phone, but they are similarly poor in this regard as fundamentally they do nothing more than map onto keyboard keys. If anyone knows differently and can get the mouse to work, please let me know!!

Now let me come to Rasplex’s (and indeed PLEX’s – the media server on your computer or NAS) strongest selling point. It does video streaming better than anyone else. Install PLEX on your local network computer or NAS and Rasplex will automatically find it and sync all your TV shows and Movies. The only thing you need to do is to restrict your PLEX server to look in specific folders on your computer if you don’t want to share everything – i.e. your family videos. Everything else is done for you including syncing any future new movies or TV shows you add – it took me all of 5mins to get my TV and Movie collection shared to my TV.

Rasplex main menu movies section

If you signup for an account with PLEX, you can even stream your content remotely to any device over the internet. I downloaded the Android client (this costs a small fee) but have yet to test out the performance. PLEX apparently will look at your connection and device screen size before streaming the video in the appropriate quality for your device. You shouldnt even have to worry about codec either – although some will have better performance as PLEX doesn’t have to worry about recoding on the fly.


Lets quickly summarise the main pros and cons I encountered with each Raspbery pi media center solutions

  1. Raspbmc: Great for out of the box support for plugins, but slow
  2. Rasplex: Unbeatable streaming solution, but no mouse support

If you dont care about streaming your own content, I would give Xbian or OpenELEC a try as they should be similar to Raspbmc but faster. If you primarily want to stream stuff from your computer to the TV, go with Rasplex.

Have you tried any other solutions or just want to share your own experiences with Raspbmc or Rasplex? Please leave your comments below.