Hands on with Raspbmc

Have you heard of the Raspberry Pi? Surprisingly enough, they’re starting to trickle into the hands of thousands of hackers, and we were fortunate to get our hands on one (second-hand since we didn’t jump in time for the initial preorder). We’ve longed for a tiny embedded option for running XBMC and this is one of the best opportunities we’ve seen yet. The Raspbmc project, created by [Sam Nazarko],  is tailored to getting XBMC on the Raspberry Pi just a few minutes after it arrives in the mail. And that’s exactly what we did.

If you’re familiar with writing an image to an SD card (or any device for that matter) this is a simple process. Raspbmc is distributed as a single image file which starts up the RPi hardware, then copies itself to RAM while it downloads and installs the filesystem for the distribution. Once the card is flashed just pop it in, power up, and wait about 20 minutes until XBMC shows up on the screen. After that it’s a quick boot each time.

The good news is that its works. XBMC runs pretty fast, with just a hint of lag when loading some menus. We felt at home using the confluence skin we’re familiar with, and had no trouble setting up our samba shares to the video library. The one problem is that it won’t play any of the video files we have on hand. None of them. So we downloaded the Big Buck Bunny trailer. It wouldn’t play that either. This is all a codec issue. Although the chip used on the RPi is capable of hardware decoding MPEG2 video, the foundation didn’t license that ability. So it can’t play that format, period. With the movie trailer we tried the OGG format and that’s not currently supported, but the MOV version did play, in full 1080p without trouble.

So the verdict is, if you’re looking to get an RPi just to run XBMC you should wait. So far the package is promising. But we record ATSC video, all of which is MPEG2. If you use MakeMKV to store your DVDs on a server, that also uses MPEG2. Of course there is the option of transcoding everything. But you’ll want to be careful if you have other XBMC frontends which may not be able to play alternative encodings.

Record eight 1seg stations at once

multiple_tv_mpeg2_stream_capture

[Aaron] tipped us off about a project over at mobilehackerz. They built something of a PVR for 1seg broadcast stations (Google translation). The 1seg broadcast standard is aimed at mobile video service and available in countries like Japan and Brazil. Their terrestrial TV signals (ISDB-T) are divided into 13 segments per channel but the HD broadcasts only use 12 of those segments. This allows the 1seg data to be broadcast in the 13th segment.

mobilehackerz wanted to record each station’s complete daily broadcast. So they picked up a bunch of USB tuner fobs and chained them together with two powered USB hubs. The video is delivered in a type of MPEG2 format so once pulled out of the air the stream can be dumped directly onto disk. It seems they’ve got some code available for this system but even with the translated page we can’t really figure out what it does. If you’re Japanese skills are strong, fill us in with a comment.

At 3000 yen (about $34) per tuner this is not the most economical PVR capture system we’ve seen. Add to that the 15 fps broadcast and we’re not sure this is of all that much use. But then again, if you have to ask “what is it for?” you’re missing the essence of the hack.

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