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.