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Original Goal:

The original goal I set out to achieve was to find a media center application that would keep my kids and those of my new years party guests entertained. The application need to be intuitive, stable and engaging.

In order to achieve this I set out to test the major players in this area, namely,

  • RaspBMC
  • GeeXBOX
  • OpenELEC
  • RasPlex

 

Outcome:

 

The detailed review of these OSes is contained in the previous blogs.

 

The outcome of these test was that the best candidate for my Raspberry Pi babysitter was OpenELEC.

 

Implementation:

The entire kids DVD collection (mine and others) was ripped and stored on to my NAS. This ensured the DVDs weren't going to be scratched on the night. The Raspberry Pi was hidden in the lounge room close to the TV and the wireless keyboard given to eldest child. The parents then ventures out to the back deck and left the kids alone. The Raspberry Pi babysitter did its job very well. The only issues on the night were the occasional fight to sort who's movie should be watched next.

 

Videos:

Since I didn't feel it was a good idea to further pollute YouTube with my sub-standard videos. I thought it more worthwhile instead to find some good videos that highlight the OSes tested above. So to clarify these are not my videos.

 

Before I begin

I realize that some people may feel very passionate about a certain brand of XBMC on their Raspberry Pi, and I would like to make it very clear that what is written here is my own personal experience with these Operating Systems (OSes). My experience could very easily differ from the one you have had.

 

In this comparison I have used the latest currently available version version of

  • RaspBMC (Latest as of the 1/1/2014),
  • OpenELEC (v3.2.4), and
  • GeeXBox (v3.1)

 

XBMC in General

Since the interface provided by each of these OSes is XBMC. I will begin this comparison with the features that all of the above OSes provided.

XBMC was originally an attempt to recreate the XBox Media Center, however I believe is has not only succeed, but superseded the original. XBMC is a media center (MC) application that has the ability to index your media, download associated artwork and information about your media. But most importantly, organize it in a way, that makes it easy to find, and a joy to watch.

 

Commonality Amongst OSes - Boot Screens

 

Each Os provided its own unique set of boot screens, so I guess that is not really something they had in common. But, they each had one.

RaspBMC

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Figure 1: RaspBMC boot screen. Not a very exciting boot screen and out those reviewed, it would have to be the worst.

GeeXBox

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Figure 2: The GeeXBox boot screen. This clearly shows that the grunt behind this OS is Linux.

 

OpenELEC

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Figure 3: The OpenELEC boot screen. A very nice boot screen.


Commonality Amongst OSes - The XBMC Application

Each of the Oses used the XBMC application as their primary application, each began with a similar setup application which was set out in exactly the same way. However GeeXbox incorrectly labelled the WifI  security WPA2-PSK as WPA. This added a few minutes of confusion. All of the OSes supported the AUS Pi Wifi dongle and once the network was set up the RSS feed scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

 

Next thing to do was to connect the Raspberry Pi to my NAS, and get it to index my media. Once some media was index I took the system for a spin.

 

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Figure 4: Home screen (Confluence Skin)

 

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Figure 5: The Weather screen (Confluence Skin).

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Figure 6: Movie Selection Screen (Aeon NQX Skin).

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Figure 7: Movie playing in full screen mode.

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Figure 8: Home Screen with a Movie playing in the background (AEON NQX Skin).


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Figure 9: XBMC Configuration Screen (AEON NQX Skin)

 

The ease of use of XBMC is remarkable, it is so easy to set up and most of it takes care of itself. The concept of skins is also a nice feature, the entire look and feel of XBMC can change in an instant. All of the OSes tested had the same features and add-ons and they didn't differ by much in that aspect. However, RaspBMC and GeeXbox did have limited Airplay functionality, allowing only audio connections and not video. So when you threw a video to them from an iOS device only the audio played. But the major characteristic that really set these OSes apart was their responsiveness.

 

What set them apart- Quantitative Measures

 

The first difference you notice between the Oses is there boot times.

 

OSBoot Time (From power on to XBMC Interaction)
RaspBMC50.6 seconds
OpenELEC37.8 seconds
GeeXbox38 seconds
Boxee Box (commercial comparison)25 seconds

 

All these OSes were tested using a 8Gb Class 6 SD Card, when I booted RaspBMC on the card supplied by Element14, it took 1 minute and 37 seconds to boot. So having a fast SD Card is really important, if you want to get the most out of these MC applications. In future I shall be purchasing a class 10 SD card.

 

What set them apart- Qualitative Measures

 

So once the OSes have booted, and boot times aren't really a major issue, as you can turn it on in advance of requiring it. The major impact factor is how smooth the interaction is with XBMC. I began with RaspBMC and also came back at the end to test it once more. I thought I had better confirm my experience with this OS before putting pen to paper (words to text box). RaspBMC was very disappointing, I became very frustrated using this OS. Navigating the Home Screen had responsiveness issues. At least half a second latency existed between button presses and graphical responses. This was not there in either GeeXBOX or OPENELEC. These latencies were scaled on later events. If GeeXBOX or OpenELEC had a one second delay on completing a task, then RaspBMC had a two second delay. My frustration peaked after having to type things in multiple times as RaspBMC would drop letters. Out of the three OSes this was the most disappointing. I have a feeling that RaspBMC needs some more work on its kernel, the responsiveness of the system really lets it down. However it installation is really straight forward and simple.

 

When it came to OpenELEC and GeeXBOX, there was very little between these two, there responsiveness was equally matched. The interface responded nicely to button presses and artwork loaded up very quickly when media was selected (even over a WiFi connection). However, the one thing that did disappointed me with GeeXBOX, was the seemingly out of date setup add-on and many other add-ons. It was missing many of the features of the other OSes and had improperly labelled options. Installation of this OS also required a bit of work. The SD card had to formatted, partitions made and tar balls extracted. Not the kind of thing a beginner should be doing.

 

I find it difficult to find fault with OpenELEC. Not only was this OS responsive, it appear to be running newer versions of many of the add-ons, including the setup. OpenELEC also had an installation script that could be run under Linux. This made the installation process extremely easy. My experience with OpenELEC was very pleasant.

 

Conclusion

If your going to install a media center application on to your Raspberry Pi, save yourself a lot of heart ache and tears and just install OpenELEC.

 

To Complete this four part blog head over to "New Year’s Party Pack - To entertain the masses or just babysit the kids - Concluding Remarks"

Background

The Plex project has been around almost as long as XBMC and was a fork of the original XBMC project. The focus of the Plex project was to give users a complete media center solution.

Plex is generally considered by the Plex community as a superset of XMBC, meaning it is everything that XBMC is, plus heaps more. Like XBMC, Plex indexes your media and downloads the cover art and associated text from IMDB for your movies and TV shows. It downloads the the theme music also. So while your browsing which TV show to watch next, the theme music is blaring through the speakers. I am sure the same functionality can be provided by XBMC via an add-on, but this is provided out of the box.

 

With XBMC the media server and the client exist on the same platform. This has both advantages and disadvantages. Having the server on the same platform reduces latency when browsing media. However if you have a fast network, then this is not a big issue. The biggest advantage of splitting the two systems is that you can have a centralized media server, providing media for multiple thin clients. Therefore only one media server needs to index your media and not a heap of media servers with local copies of the media index.

 

Plex Server

So in order to use RasPlex, you will required a Plex Server. The server can be downloaded for free from the Plex site (https://my.plexapp.com/). It is free and can be installed on many PC platforms (Windows, MAC, Linux, FreeBSD). It can also be downloaded to many NAS platforms also, like Synology DSM. When I firstly set up my Synology DS1813+ NAS, I installed the Plex server. It was available via the Synology DSM desktop and as simple as clicking a button. Running the Plex Server on the  NAS that houses your media frees up your network bandwidth and reduces network latency. Once the Plex server is up and running and configured (via a wed interface), you are then able to access your media via a thin Plex client. You can purchase  a Plex client for any android or iOS based platforms via Google Play or the Apple App Store respectively. I currently run the Plex app on both my Sony Xperia phone and my iPad.

 

Plex on the Raspberry Pi

The Plex client that is available for the Raspberry Pi is called RasPlex. I recommend you head over to the  website, to get hooked up with this OS (http://rasplex.com/). You need to be aware that this is a beta project so it isn't 100% complete just yet. But they are eager for beta testers, the more the merrier. The installation is fairly straight forward. Being a MAC user, I downloaded the MAC version of the installer. The installer is written in python, so I believe it is the same installer as the Linux one.

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Figure 1: Installer DMG (left) and the installer GUI including terminal in the background (right).

 

The installer will require an administrator password and the destination SD card inserted (via a USB SD reader). Clicking a few buttons on the installer gets the image written to the SD card. Even thought the installer is in its Beta version, it was very nicely polished.

After transferring the SD card to the Raspberry Pi it was time to test the systems performance. RasPlex was tested on a Model B Raspberry Pi using a WiFi link (See New Year’s Party Pack - To entertain the masses or just babysit the kids - Introduction for details).

 

Boot

Boot times -

          Version 9.9.16 (Bleeding Edge Experimental) : 1 minute to 1 minute 20 seconds.

          Version 0.3.1 (Stable) : 1 minute flat

 

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Figure 2: The boot screens: primary boot screen (visible for the first 10 seconds) (left), the main boot screen (right).

It needs to be said that the first boot is by far the longest and subsequent boots are much quicker. The boot times mentioned above represent the average boot time not including the first boot.

 

Plex Client

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Figure 3: Initial Configuration Screens: Wifi Network selection (left), MyPlex login screen (right)

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Figure 4: Home Screen: Scrolling up or down can select the various media options.

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Figure 5: Movie based screens: Movie overview (left), Movie playing (right).

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Figure 5: TV Show based screens: Hovering on the TV show link (top left), TV series selection page(top right), 

                    Season selection (bottom left) and, Episode choice screen (bottom right).

 

Conclusion

Even though version 9.9.16 is experimental and claimed to be almost polished enough to be version 0.4. It was still fairly obvious that more work need to be done before it could be considered stable. Both the experimental and stable versions tested, show great promise. However neither were at a level suitable to be used as a stable responsive media center operating system. The time between buttons presses and media center responses were a little on the large side for my liking. But I would like to make it very clear that this is a beta version that appears to be very infant. With this in mind I will be keeping an eye on this project as it shows great promise once the latency issues and minor bugs are overcome. So in the short term not my choice for the Raspberry Pi babysitter's OS, but in the future who knows. If this level of progress continues in this project, then it could very easily be the OS of choice for media centers in the future.

 

Continue this Raspberry Pi media center journey with "New Year’s Party Pack - To entertain the masses or just babysit the kids - XBMC: RaspBMC, OpenElec and GeeXBox go head to head"

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