Tablet Controlled Home Media Centre for £30

During a recent bout of Flu I found myself wishing I had an easy (read cheap) way to get access to TV on demand (iPlayer, 4OD, etc) on our old bedroom TV.

Unfortunately the Nexus 7 does not have TV out so that was not an option, my old laptop struggles with HD streaming, my Nexus 4 could manage it with an additional lead but I don’t see that as a long-term solution, it would be nice to have a permanent dedicated media centre hidden round the back of the TV.

The solution needed to be a real budget option for the bedroom, so I decided to explore some of the options.  In the following post I share how to get iPlayer up and running on an old TV and how to control it via an Android tablet.

Android TV PC

One option would be the new wave of cheap Android TV dongles, if you haven’t seen these yet then essentially they are cheap Android powered computers that look a bit like a USB memory stick. It allows you to turn an old TV into a smart TV.

These devices look very promising and no doubt they will soon become the standard cheap solution to this problem. However it looks like the technology needs to go through a couple more iterations, and my own feeling is that the various TV operators need to improve their Android support.

The Android mini PC wasn’t for me, but have a look, one of these might be perfect for your needs:

Home Media Centre

After some further research I discovered that the Raspberry PI, the bare bones computer designed to be a low cost educational device, was being successfully used by many as a home media centre. Below I table a look at exactly what you need to get this up and running and how you can then use your Nexus tablet as a remote control.

What is the Raspberry PI?

The Raspberry PI is a a low cost fully functional computer created to encourage technical computer skills. To quote the website:

The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does

As a self taught IT professional who grew up tinkering with the likes of the Vic 20, ZX Spectrum and Atari home computers I can fully appreciate the goal. I am actually genuinely excited about getting my hands on one and look forward to my own kids being old enough to explore in the same way I did.

300px-RaspberryPi

What do I need to buy?

You can get the Pi for £26 from their website, however with postage this came to £31. The site also implied a two week delivery time so in the end I looked elsewhere.

Fortunately they are available via the Amazon website, so it was easy to place my order. There are a few different sellers on Amazon, go for one which offers free delivery and has good user feedback. I ordered mine on Friday night and it turned up the next Tuesday. Perfect.

You should go for the Model B with 512mb RAM, this works fine (although more powerful versions are sure to be released as the years role by!).

What you need to turn a Raspberry PI into a Media Centre

Although the Raspberry PI can be had for £30, you’ll need some other accessories to get going as you don’t get anything else in the package other than the Raspberry Pi unit itself.  We’ll go through the components below.

Fortunately I had this stuff lying around the house so there was no extra cost, but your cupboard scavenging results may vary!  It is possible to get things up and running without a keyboard, but you will need a mouse to get through the opening screens.

To get your Raspberry Pi powered media centre up and running you’ll need the following:

TV Cable: You’ll need to connect the Pi up to a TV screen or monitor.  The Pi has two outputs, an old fashioned analogue composite socket which will enable you to hook it up to an older TV.  You’ll probably have the right cable for this already.  But really you’ll want to hook it up via the HDMI port to get a decent picture.  For that you’ll need an HDMI cable or the chances are your monitor has a DVI port.  Note that HDMI cables carry audio but DVI does not, if you have the latter you’ll also need some kind of audio cable depending on your TV’s sound input socket.

Network Connection: You’ll need to get your Pi hooked up to the Internet.  A wired connection is required for initial install so you’ll need a standard network cable to connect up to your router / modem,   it is possible to run with a WiFi adapter once everything is setup.  I went for a wired connection, it seemed easier to get up and running, but my router was located in a different room so rather than use a long cable I decided to use a spare Homeplug to bring my network into the bedroom.

SD Card: You get no storage built into the Pi, but that’s OK, you can just plug in an SD card and away you go.  SD Cards are cheap these days, a 16gb card can be had for a tenner.  Do make sure you get a class 6 or higher card, this ensures the Pi will be able to read /write fast enough.  Chances are you have a few cards lying around at home, it really needs to be 4gb or bigger.

Power Supply:  There is no power supply included.  Fortunately it uses the now common micro USB standard as seen with modern mobile phones.  Therefore it is fairly likely you’ll have a phone charger that is capable of supplying enough power to the Pi, or if not, they don’t cost a lot to buy.  There are more details on their website.

Case (optional): You don’t need to have a case, I bought one because they don’t cost too much and I wanted a little extra protection from the wild toddlers that roam throughout my house!  The plastic snap together cases seem popular, just pop the board in and press the two halves together.  Easy.  Alternatively many Pi owners build their own, time to get out the Lego or dust off the wood work tools!

Setting up For Use

To run our media centre, we are going to use a handy piece of software known as XBMC (XBox Media Centre – you can read the history here).

Thankfully, a very helpful and clever chap has put together a Raspberry Pi Media Centre distribution that is a doddle to setup.

Head over to the Raspbmc site to find out more.

You can find the complete installation instructions over on the Raspbmc site, but essentially it’s just a case of popping your SD card into your PC (you’ll need a card reader) and running the install package.  One little gotcha that hindered me on the first go – you need to run the installer as an Admin in Windows so that it has permissions to format the card correctly.  But other than that, setting it up was easy enough.

I then plugged all the cables into the Pi, slotted in the SD card and fired it up.  There are a couple of setup screens to go through but you’ll quickly be into XMBC.

Once you are up and running you’ll want to install some add-ons such as iPlayer and the ITV player. There are some good instructions over on this page. At the time of writing, neither the 4OD or 5 Demand add-ons are functional due to the implementation of a new authorisation standard. Hopefully this will be fixed in the future.

Here are some links to current add on projects:

If you are reading this in the future, they may not link to the latest working add-ons so please read the pages carefully.  XMBC add-ons are non-official community projects and may cease to function if providers chose to block access.

You can of course stream your own video media files from a PC or NAS drive but this is not something I’ve ever needed to do.

Note: Getting Raspbmc up and running can be easy, but it can also prove a fiddly process if things don’t go smoothly. Fortunately there is plenty of support available via their forum and the Raspberry Pi forum. If you aren’t prepared to get your hands dirty the Raspberry Pi isn’t for you.

Android Remote Control

So this is where the Nexus 7 comes into things, using a freely available app it is possible to control the media centre remotely over your network. This ensures your RaspberryPi can be tucked safely out of sight with no need for a mouse or keyboard.

First off, the official app doesn’t actually work right now.  Apparently this is because the remote protocols changed at some point and the app wasn’t maintained!

The good news is that there is another app, Yatse, that works brilliantly.  It’s actually better than the old official app so it’s all good.  There is a free and paid for version.  The free version is fully functional and as always I would strongly recommend supporting the app if you use it.  Getting it running is very easy, just install and when you fire it up it will search out any XMBC servers on your network.

Yatse

For a full run down of features have a look at the Yatse site.

Conclusion

I’ve had my Raspberry Pi running for a week now and it is doing a perfect job of getting BBC content to my telly.

Sure, it isn’t the easiest thing to get set up but as always you get what you pay for, if things go smoothly it’s actually easy enough for IT literate folk but be prepared to get editing config files if your TV doesn’t want to play nicely with the HDMI output!

If you aren’t afraid to install software, mess with config files or learn a few Linux commands then I can’t think of a better way to add some “Smart TV” functionality to an old TV.  Sure, it’s not going to displace the V+ box from the living room, but for the price I really have no complaints.

If all this sounds a little daunting then maybe an Android TV solution might work better for you.

Comments

  1. Anyone got 4OD working on raspbmc?

What do you think?

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