The new media system

A couple of days ago, I took one of our old desktop PCs out of the storage shed, dusted it off, and for a cost of exactly zero dollars and some time, turned it into a media system for the living room.

Forget the DVD player, which has been gathering dust ever since. This is like living in the future. It’s that good.

It plays pretty much any media I have laying around – and does it across the LAN from any shared folder I want. It plays DVDs. It has plugins that let me play movie trailers from Apple, or videos straight from YouTube. I can stick a DVD into the drive and play that.

Movies, music, images – if there’s a format it doesn’t handle, I haven’t found it yet. We can share our personal media on our PCs and watch them on the TV.

I guess I need an infrared dongle for the PC, and a universal remote so that I don’t need the mouse or keyboard on the coffee-table for navigation, but that costs a few dollars. Right now, I got all of this media-playing goodness for free, just by recycling one of our old PCs that has been laying around unused for at least a couple of years.

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These aren’t complete instructions. Go to the XBMC wiki for more details. This is just a summary of what I did.

The pieces:

  • Your TV should have inputs for the video and audio output of your PC. That’s a given. Mine has a standard (S)VGA socket and a 3.5mm stereo input for just that purpose.
  • Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick) Desktop edition
  • A USB stick or a blank CD to burn the Ubuntu image to.
  • Some instructions.
  • Some PC that will give you accelerated OpenGL under Linux (in my case it had an nVidia 7200 card in it).
  • Ideally, you want a DVD reader in the PC, if you intend to use it to play DVDs.
  • Either way, you’ll want 3GB of free disk space for the complete system, plus more to store media files locally (if you even want to do that).
  • A spare mouse and keyboard for it all.
  • XBMC
  • Patience. A full Ubuntu installation takes about 15 minutes or so to install. Have coffee handy.

There’s a curious glitch in the Ubuntu startup. If you’ve got two IDE drives on the same controller, both cabled to cable-select, it’ll hate you. Unplug one from power (while the PC is off of course) or put it on another cable, or manually jumper them to master/slave. Problem goes away. Once Ubuntu is installed, it doesn’t come back again.

Get Ubuntu and use the USB stick or a CD to do the Ubuntu install. Get it fully updated in the usual fashion. Instructions here.

Make sure you install suitable hardware-accelerated drivers for OpenGL. For me, that was sudo apt-get install libvdpau1 nvidia-185-libvdpau

You’ll need the beta version of XBMC at the moment, as there isn’t yet a formal release for Ubuntu 10.10.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:team-xbmc-svn/ppa

Update apt, and install the xbmc and xbmc-standalone packages.

Wait until it’s done. Run XBMC, and it’s ready to roll.

Ideally, you want to use the desktop preferences to set XBMC as a startup program, so that it’ll just boot straight to it. That’s where you’ll be spending your time with this box anyway.

The UI is slick (though it takes a little getting used to), and highly customisable. If you prefer, you can get XBMC as a live-CD, or install it to run under Windows, Mac, Apple TV or Linux, if you just want a taste of how darn well it works. It’s hugely customisable, and completely extensible.

Seriously, XBMC is that good and easy – assuming you’ve got the hardware. Just having it feels like a media centre/home theatre from 10 years in the future has suddenly dropped into my lounge-room.

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Categories: How To.

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