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Raspberry Pi New Year’s Party Pack (AU / NZ ONLY) - Review

Scoring

Product Performed to Expectations: 8
Specifications were sufficient to design with: 10
Demo Software was of good quality: 10
Product was easy to use: 10
Support materials were available: 10
The price to performance ratio was good: 9
TotalScore: 57 / 60
  • RoadTest: Raspberry Pi New Year’s Party Pack (AU / NZ ONLY)
  • Buy Now
  • Evaluation Type: Independent Products
  • Was everything in the box required?: Yes - Although, it would be advisable to consider purchasing accessories to ensure you have a set-up which meets your expectations and requirements.
  • Comparable Products/Other parts you considered: DIY Home Theatre PC, dedicated media centres (e.g. Apple TV, Roku Streaming Player, GK802 Android Mini Smart TV Sticks).
  • What were the biggest problems encountered?: Long update times due to outdated Raspbmc image, slow interface and add-on performance due to Raspberry Pi performance limitations.

  • Detailed Review:

    Raspberry Pi New Year’s Party Pack RoadTest

    by Gough Lui


    Prelude

    I'd like to start off by thanking element14, once again, for selecting me to be the lucky recipient of this RoadTest. Due to some extenuating family and health circumstances (which have rendered me partially immobile) over this Christmas and New Year period, it was a bit of a challenge in preparing and I would have loved to be able to deliver even more content. Regardless, I would like to thank element14 for their support of the community and for providing the items for RoadTest in a very prompt manner and it is my hope that you find this review interesting, useful, enlightening and exciting. As usual, I will state upfront that I am reviewing these products impartially and without prejudice towards or against element14 - these are my honest opinions. Do feel free to leave comments, like the page or visit my personal blog at http://goughlui.com.

     

    Introduction

    Today's RoadTest focuses on a bundle of products comprising the following:

    • Raspberry Pi Model B
    • 1.2A USB Power Supply
    • USB A to Micro-USB B cable
    • 4Gb SD card with Raspbmc pre-loaded
    • 3m Ethernet Cable
    • 1m (actually 2m) HDMI cable
    • 2.4Ghz Mini Wireless Keyboard and Trackpad

     

    This bundle is also affectionately known as the Raspberry Pi Media Centre Bundle or XBMC Home Theatre Kit (Order Code: 2366314) which is intended as an "easy way" to getting yourself a working basic media centre installation which you can then customize and "make it your own". Interestingly, this bundle is listed as No Longer Stocked on element14's Australian website, although the latter four products are available as the XBMC Solutions Kit or XBMC Bundle (Order Code: 2310263) to which you can add the Raspberry Pi Model B, USB Power Supply and cable to your order separately. In fact, if you already have a Model B up and running and want to give Raspbmc a go, you probably should order this latter bundle.

     

    Video Summary

    If you have only ten minutes to spare and don't like reading, feel free to watch this video summary of the review. Of course, I couldn't cover everything in ten minutes, so please keep reading afterward (or skip it entirely if you prefer reading).

     

    Media Centres - lots of varying demands, lots of solutions

    I think it's pretty clear that media centres are pretty much "all the rage" nowadays. Most people have upgraded to a pretty decent, large LCD or Plasma screen, but they're probably finding broadcast TV a bit boring. Further to this, they probably have a large collection of media accrued on a hard drive, or networked storage in their house, so there is a big incentive to "free" this content from the confines of a computer so they can watch it comfortably on their big screen in the living room, possibly on a comfy couch.

     

    This demand has spawned a new generation of TV sets dubbed "Smart TVs" which incorporate an (often) ARM based CPU running Android or another embedded operating system provided by the TV manufacturer, connected to your network to be able to play videos from the internet and local DLNA servers. Some even offer video conferencing through Skype, although with additional cost accessories (e.g. a camera). Of course, this isn't the right solution for everybody even if they were looking for a new TV, and if you already have a TV, you probably don't want to buy a whole new TV just to enjoy some videos you have on a computer somewhere.

     

    The more technically advanced have been dabbling in this area for a long time - the concept of a "home theatre PC" is a strong one amongst enthusiasts. This is a purpose built PC, based around specially selected commodity parts which are compatible with their TV and resolution requirements, preferably quiet (although not always), low-power consuming (for a computer, but still considered fairly energy intensive), built inside a chassis which is aesthetically pleasing (although not mandatory). Such an approach can be quite expensive and out of reach of many ordinary people.

     

    The advantage of this set-up is a huge flexibility in the file formats and auxiliary devices (TV tuners, satellite tuners) that can be supported, and the possibility to incorporate DVR features into the system turning it into a "true" media centre. The choice of interface, set-up and reliability are very dependent on the skills and demands of the person building it, so again, it's not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

     

    Lately, a crop of dedicated media centres have popped up on the market - for example, the Apple TV, Roku Streaming Player, and a plethora of GK802 "Android Mini Stick"/Smart TV adapters to name a few popular ones. These come with a lower barrier to entry, as they are easy to install and set-up and are quite reasonably affordable. Additionally, they are mostly silent, due to the use of ARM CPUs which no active cooling and consume small amounts of power.

     

    Unfortunately, these dedicated media centres vary in many ways including their support for different formats and file types, their limits on maximum resolution and profile support, their output connectivity, and their ability to interconnect with drives, internet services and file-servers. Many of these run proprietary software which is not extensible - you get what you are given, and any updates if you are lucky. Unfortunately, this makes these solutions rather limited and a potential source of disappointment for some (e.g. it won't play MKV containered files with Dolby Digital Audio, or it won't play AVI containered files with DivX4 H.263 video) and will require working around (e.g. transcoding your files which may cause additional loss of quality and storage/time investment).

     

    Enter the Raspberry Pi and Raspbmc

    Enter Raspbmc - the "hero" of our quest for a better media centre. Raspbmc is a specially built distribution for the Raspberry Pi which is built around XBMC. Originally built for, and standing for Xbox Media Centre, it has evolved away from its roots into a fully-featured, award-winning GPL'd Open Source media centre software that runs on most OSes. It features a wide format support (codec and container wise) with out-of-the-box support for reading and streaming from networked storage sources amongst others. It is extensible as well, through the use of the add-ons interface, and easily configured from the "10-foot" user interface (so no more "messy" complicated configurations in a text editor).

    This specialized distribution has been customized in order to work with the Raspberry Pi - a £25 single board ARM based computer. The Raspberry Pi (if you haven't already heard a bucketload about it already) is a low-cost low-power educational computer built around the Broadcom BCM2835 700Mhz ARM11 SoC with (now) 512Mb RAM (Model B), SD card storage, two USB 2.0 ports, 100Mbit/s Ethernet (via SMSC LAN9512 USB to Ethernet with Hub), HDMI and CVBS/Composite output and 3.5mm Stereo Audio Output. Additionally, it also has GPIO headers for direct interfacing, CSI Camera and DSI LCD connections.

     

    The Raspberry Pi, while initially targeted at educational markets, has found a plethora of uses in stand-alone and embedded purposes, which has led to its "repurposing" as many different things of which being a media centre is only one of the many possibilities. Unfortunately, as a result, although capable, the Raspberry Pi may be slightly underpowered for a media centre.

     

    That being said, I think it's important not to lose sight of the flexibility that is afforded by running XBMC, and accept that for this given power and price budget that there must be some trade-offs. The biggest advantage of having a Raspberry Pi, in my opinion, is that you can change its role at any time simply by swapping SD cards (or even re-imaging the same card over, if you're comfortable with that). Backing up and restoring is a pinch (use dd in Linux and try Win32DiskImager under Windows).

     

    So even when you've seen the light, and decided it's time to upgrade to a more serious media-centre setup, it won't become another "useless doorstop". It can see new life as a personal NAS, HTTP server, ToR proxy, SDR radio signal decoder, supercharged Arduino etc.

     

    In light of that, I think it's prudent to think "beyond" just the media centre - even though this bundle is technically for a media centre, it's a good bundle for those looking to get started with the Raspberry Pi because you can get right into it - something that works, with virtually all the parts you need (and little chance for disappointment). It could be the investment that starts you down the track of learning how to program, to use Linux and to work within the constraints of embedded devices.

     

    The Parts to the Bundle

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    I thought it would be an interesting deviation to the regular RoadTests done by others to delve into the kit part-by-part (and where possible, tear it down) so you know exactly what you'll be getting. If you're an experienced user of the Raspberry Pi, already have some of the parts and are not afraid of imaging an SD card, you can probably already get started without the kit itself. Likewise, if you're a more advanced user, you might decide that you need other bits and pieces and that the parts provided in the kit aren't most suitable for you - I would encourage you to go ahead and choose what suits you best.

     

    Raspberry Pi Model B

    As mentioned earlier, this bundle contains the Raspberry Pi Model B computer. This is the desirable version as it has 512Mb of RAM, 2 USB connectors and Ethernet instead of 256Mb of RAM, 1 USB connector and no Ethernet in the Model A.

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    It arrived in a plain thin-walled cardboard box, wrapped inside an anti-static ESD shielding bag along with the legally-required regulatory notice leaflet.

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    The top-side of the Raspberry Pi Model B should be familiar to the vast majority of the readers - but for completeness, we'll take a tour around the ports on each side which will be applicable to media centre usage.

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    First off, we start at the bottom edge, where the HDMI port is visible. This will be used to connect the Raspberry Pi to "modern" HDTVs, and offers the possibility of conveying audio as well.

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    Along the right edge, we have the Ethernet (with integrated magnetics) jack for use with connecting to a Wired-Ethernet network at up to 100Mbit/s. Two USB connectors sit beside this.

     

    A word of warning for those who don't already know - these USB ports are powered through the Raspberry Pi itself and are only good for supplying small amounts of current. They are not enough to power USB external bus-powered hard drives, and it is unadvisable to hot-plug USB devices on the bus while the Raspberry Pi is powered on as that will likely cause the Raspberry Pi to reboot due to a momentary dip in voltage from the inrush current of attaching a USB device. You are advised to use a self-powered drive where possible, or to use a quality powered USB hub (preferably one which does not in itself back-feed power to the Raspberry Pi via the USB connector, as that may cause unusual issues as well).

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    Along the top edge, we have the 3.5mm Stereo Audio output jack which is useful if you are using the HDMI port with an adapter (e.g. PiView for VGA, or with a HDMI to DVI cable for a monitor) as they often will not pass audio. You can configure the audio to be sent via the 3.5mm jack for use with external amplified speakers, etc. There is also the CVBS/Composite video output for older TVs, although this isn't likely to be used by most.

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    Along the left edge, we get to the microUSB power socket on the top, and the SD card socket on the bottom. Please make sure that you insert the SD card carefully and securely into the slot, otherwise you may experience stability problems.

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    And for completeness, here's the underside of the Raspberry Pi.

     

    1.2A USB Power Supply

    An important part to making the whole kit run is good power. Early users of the Raspberry Pi have noted that cheap aftermarket charger supplies (even with adequate ratings) can output low quality, noisy and poorly regulated power which causes instability to the Raspberry Pi. As the Raspberry Pi is not an ordinary USB peripheral, the Model B demands a minimum of about 700mA to 1000mA of power. Powering this from an ordinary USB port (500mA) is unadvisable as that would cause stability problems.

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    The power supply provided with this bundle is an Ideal Power Solutions HK-U-050A120-CP universal voltage input USB charger, with a 5v 1.2A rated output. It is Made in China and has been plastered with a large amount of regulatory and safety marks. The pin-out connection shows that the D+ and D- pins of the supply are not-connected, not that this really matters for Raspberry Pi usage, but it's probably not going to charge some of your phones (as the USB Charging Specifications state that dedicated chargers should have D+ and D- shorted together, and Apple devices expect certain voltage levels on the D+ and D- leads to signal the type of charger they're connected to).

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    The charger itself is welded or glued together, so I can't really open it up and see what it's like inside. On the outside though, the rear power plug is removable to expose a figure 8 connector. This is great news for those who can't spare additional space on their power-strip for a wall-wart as they can just get a plug-to-figure 8 lead (or might have a spare) and spare their sockets from being blocked up.

     

    In my experience working with the Raspberry Pi hooked up to this supply, I have encountered zero stability issues with the supply, even with the Raspberry Pi overclocked, overvolted, and with a Wi-Fi adapter connected. The supply does make some coil "buzz" at a very particular load (momentarily) which settles back into silence very quickly. It happens very infrequently, and is not really noticeable unless you're looking for it - it might just be that mine got knocked around a little more in transit.

     

    4Gb SD card with Raspbmc pre-loaded

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    The supplied SD card really makes getting up and running a breeze for the newcomer. They don't have to understand how to load an image onto the card correctly, nor do they have to contend with downloading, unpacking images and having possible card compatibility problems either.

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    The card is listed on the web-site as being a Class 4 card, and the manufacturer is not clearly listed. It doesn't really sound speedy at all, but lets put it to the test.

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    I think it's clear from this result that this is one of the speediest cards I have seen. Its write speeds seem to qualify for Class 6 rating, but its read speed is unbelievable. Yes, I did back-up the card and erase it prior to the test (and then restored the original image afterwards, which defeats the purpose of having a pre-loaded card, but it was worth it just to test it out).

    HDT-Result.jpg

    We can get the opinion of another program - HD Tune Pro. Look at this card go!

     

    In order to get a handle on what the manufacturer could be, I stuck it into my Chromebook's hardware SD card slot and retrieved the Card Identification Register (CID) and Card Specific Data Register (CSD).

    The raw data (in Hex) is as follows:

    CID: 1b534d3030303030100337410200d13b

    CSD: 400e00325b5900001d697f800a40008b


    I rigged up some hacky decoders for the data, linked above, and correlated with the rest of the SD cards in my ownership, it appears likely that this is a Samsung OEM card. Quality material, and high read speeds make for a great experience - it's clear element14 put some thought into this.

     

    2.4Ghz Mini Wireless Keyboard and Trackpad

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    Arguably, this is probably the niftiest part of the bundle apart from the Raspberry Pi. Even if you don't use it with your Pi, it's a pretty stylish and practical wireless keyboard and mouse replacement. It features most of the keys on a standard keyboard, and a trackpad in place of a mouse in a package roughly the size of a game controller. It doesn't even look out of place in a living room, with its trendy black soft-touch finish.

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    It comes with a small leaflet manual, which tells us it operates in the 2.4Ghz spectrum. While the 2.4Ghz spectrum is pretty crowded, and you'd best avoid it if you want the best performance from your 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi products, use of this unit didn't seem to appreciably affect my 2.4Ghz only Wi-Fi set-up at home. The receiver is factory-coded for the keyboard and track-pad to avoid interference, so try not to get several sets mixed up.

     

    Also included in the box (but not pictured above, sorry), is a thin USB A to mini-B cable to recharge the keypad. I don't think the data pairs in the supplied cable are connected, so it's purely a charge cable.

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    On the top side of the keypad is the slide-on-off switch and the mini USB B charging port. The keypad itself has several front-illuminated LEDs - a blue one which lets you know it's on, a red one for the battery low/charging indicator, and a yellow one indicating RF transmission activity. Sometimes these LEDs can be a little bright and distracting, but a little electrical tape can easily fix that.

     

    When the keypad is left idle for about 2 minutes, the keypad will go into sleep where it is unresponsive to trackpad inputs but will wake upon pressing on any of the keyboard buttons (and actually send the command). If you wish to wake it without sending any keys, I found that pressing on the Fn button will achieve just that!

     

    The keyboard has a nice feel to it - it may look like rubber calculator keys, but it's actually got a tactile click action to each of the buttons, making it very reassuring to use with positive feedback. The trackpad is adequately sensitive - I felt no need to adjust the DPI although it can be accomplished with Fn+Space. The trackpad understands "single tap" left click, "double tap" left double-click, "tap and hold" drags as well, although, there is no multi-touch capability. Hard to fault that at all.

     

    Additional media shortcut keys are provided which make for even more convenience. It's hard to think why one would want to go back to something as clumsy as an IR remote with this type of convenience.

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    Here, we can see the rear cover being removed to expose the nano receiver unit, and the BL-4C Nokia "compatible" Li-Ion rechargeable battery which powers the unit. It appears that the unit was designed for use with either the BL-4C as a rechargeable unit or two AAA batteries. It's nice to see this one being the more "ecologically minded" solution of using a rechargeable battery. In my use, I have seen two weeks of moderate use with no need to charge the battery which is a big plus.

     

    The nano receiver performs adequately although, at times, inconsistently. The key to good operation is to ensure the receiver has a good view of the keypad - hiding the Raspberry Pi inside the cabinet or somewhere down low may obstruct the signal such that you have missed key-presses, jumpy mouse movement, stuck keys. It may be worse if you install the receiver right next to a 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi card too or you have a RF-noisy environment ...

     

    I find it best to put the nano-receiver on an extension lead with a base and stick that on top of the TV where it gets good sight to every corner of the lounge room - and it works perfectly in that configuration.

     

    One thing to note is that the keyboard itself is a UK layout. You will find strange quirks with mapping depending on your locale settings - maybe the @ key is not where you'd expect it to be if you're used to a US keyboard.

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    In order to find out a little more about this interesting device, I decided to tear it down. I don't suggest you do this - it's not particularly easy to reassemble! We find a single PCB marked RT-MWK08-V10 dated 14th June 2012. On this PCB is a single Cypress CY8C24794-24LTXI Programmable System on Chip which likely does the scanning for the keyboard and the capacitive touch-pad functions, with a chip-on-board standalone wireless module to do the RF link function.

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    The secret to its clicky nature is revealed when the PCB is unclipped from the shell (tough job). Each button is covered with a metal "snap" action cap, rather than relying on an elastomer coating on the rubberized keypad buttons. This gives the keyboard its positive click action, making it truly enjoyable to use for its size.

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    Undoing the nano-sized receiver requires the bending of the metal cage surrounding the connector which reveals a tiny PCB-trace based USB connector. As this does not have a raised profile, depending on your USB socket, you may experience intermittent connectivity if it is bumped.

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    The top side houses a crystal, with the antenna itself on the far edge of the PCB on the underside. The receiver itself is also gob-topped with a chip-on-board construction, so we can't tell much about what powers the RF-chain.

     

    3m Ethernet Cable, USB A to Micro-USB B cable, 1m (actually 2m) HDMI cable

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    Cables are cables right? Wrong. There's actually a lot of "low quality" cables out there without the right thickness, amount of shielding, twisting or other important parameters which influence signal quality and power transmission. These can really ruin your day.

     

    I'm happy to report that there's none of this going around here. The supplied 3m Ethernet cable is black in colour (a nice touch, so as not to be as unsightly as the ugly regular blue) and is marked with RW System Cable UTP CAT5E 4 Pairs 24AWG Stranded TIA/EIA568 100Mhz. The choice of stranded cable makes it rather easy to route and bend, a big plus. It seems to come from S&M Solutions HellermannTyton Data Ltd, a fairly established supplier of cabling solutions.

     

    The USB A to microUSB B cable has a good thickness to it, and the connectors mate fairly well (which cannot be said about some clone cables). It is marked with USB SHIELDED HIGH SPEED CABLE 2.0 REVISION 28AWG/1P+28AWG/2C E314459 UR AWM2725 80°C 30V VW-1. There's no sign of the manufacturer, but it works and feels substantial.

     

    Finally, we come to the 1M HDMI lead that was actually supplied as a Prosignal AV20601 2M HDMI cable. It's also black, and at 2m, gives the user some room to reposition the Raspberry Pi without encountering any issues with HDMI signal loss or corruption that may be experienced with longer or low-quality cables. It definitely works, has solid feeling connectors and a reassuringly thick cable profile. The cable is marked with E324703 UR AWM STYLE 20276 80°C 30V STANDARD HDMI®CABLE.

     

    In summary, the kit itself shows thoughtfulness throughout. It's a kit which makes the process of setting up the Raspberry Pi Raspbmc media centre easier than building IKEA furniture, and would serve as a good foundation to build and customize your own set-up. Not pictured is a four-page quick-setup guide which contains a good comprehensive number of points in customizing and setting up Raspbmc (i.e. Set Up, Adding Media, Add-Ons, Settings, Codecs, Remote Control, Nightly Builds, SSH).

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    Even if you don't choose to use it as a media centre, its parts are perfectly suited for operating with the Raspberry Pi meaning no disappointments - e.g. bad MicroUSB lead that's too thin, flakey power supply, keyboard not detected, low quality HDMI lead causing no display.

     

    Of course, the whole bundle itself is more than just the sum of its parts (despite what engineers might like to think), so let's consider the bundle as a whole in the next few sub-parts of the Road Test.

     

    Setting Up, Configuring and Customizing

    This section is a rather extensive part and I've decided to reserve it for a blog post, as it deserves one of its own. However, I will summarize some of the major points here, so readers aren't completely left in the dark.

    The initial set-up of the Raspbmc bundle is simple - following the pictorial diagram will get you far enough to boot the system and see it come alive. From this initial configuration, you can already start playing, but it's unadvisable because the build would be quite dated at this point.

     

    Setup from there entails updating Raspbmc, which requires an internet connection and is a long process involving multiple reboots over a period of about 20 minutes. Less experienced users will be alarmed by the constant rebooting, and may unplug their system mid-update causing it to be "damaged". Just be patient. That being said, if the Raspbmc distribution on the card was more updated, the update process may be easier for new users.

     

    Once updated, the media centre can be configured and customized - users should fully explore the configuration options available, especially if they have installed extra hardware (e.g. Wi-Fi card). Setting up the display resolution, network settings, overclocking (for additional performance), locale/timezone, video calibration for overscan, services enabled, add-ons and network paths are all advisable steps which would "make it your own" and ensure you receive the most benefit from your investment.

     

    Additionally, purchasing codec license keys for MPEG-2 and VC-1 from the Raspberry Pi Store is an advised option to take as it allows for your Raspberry Pi to play MPEG-2 based files from DVDs, recorded broadcast TV transport stream files, .mpg files and VC-1 will allow for playback of high definition Blu-Ray based content. Without these keys, the media will play audio only as there is no CPU decoding ability. The MPEG-2 and VC-1 license keys themselves are listed as £2.40 and £1.20 respectively, although purchasers outside UK are not required to pay VAT, so they are instead £2.00 and £1.00 respectively (prices change upon check-out). Payment by Paypal is accepted, and license keys are delivered within a day or two normally. H.264 support is already provided out of the box.

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    These decoder license keys are hardware tied to the CPU serial number. In order to determine your serial number, I found it easiest to SSH (using ssh under Linux/Cygwin or PuTTY under Windows) into your Raspberry Pi with username pi, password raspberry and run cat /proc/cpuinfo and read the results. If it is the first time you are logging on, you will have to set the locale by following the on-screen prompt, and it is advisable to run passwd to change your password as well (and stop network users from tampering with your Raspberry Pi).

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    After receiving the keys, you can key them into the appropriate fields inside the Raspbmc Settings application, whereby they will be added to your config.txt for you.

     

    Addition of additional hardware is imperative to making the media centre a complete solution for your needs. I would highly recommend protecting the rather vulnerable Raspberry Pi with a case (e.g. the Multicomp Clear or Black cases for example), probably putting some electrical tape over the LEDs (to reduce distraction).

     

    Adding a quality powered USB hub is an essential thing if you wish to use bus-powered hard drives or to hot plug/unplug USB storage devices. It will also allow you to recharge your keyboard and other accessories (e.g. TV 3D glasses) with its additional ports.

     

    For those without Ethernet handy where their TV is, investment in a USB Wireless Card that works with the Raspberry Pi is a good idea, provided you keep in mind the bandwidth limitations of Wireless Networks. For example, the WiPi can be used, although for users with dual-band Wireless N networks, purchasing a compatible 5Ghz capable wireless card would be prudent to ensure you can enjoy high-bitrate HD content (e.g. Blu-Ray may require up to 48Mbit/s of throughput, for a MAC rate close to 100Mbit/s+ required over wireless to stream successfully). Of course, there's no substitute for wired reliability as wireless is vulnerable to bandwidth congestion from competing devices and interference from other users of the ISM band. As of the present, the number of dual band adapters supported is limited, and (to my knowledge) the most promising candidates are based on Ralink chipsets.

     

    USB extension leads may also come in handy to allow you to situate the USB receiver and USB ports for external storage in a more accessible area in the case you choose to "hide" your Raspberry Pi away, although it would be good to have the power connector or power adapter within reach as you will need to power-cycle it if you choose to shut it down (as there is no power button on the Raspberry Pi itself).

     

    Once you have made these adjustments, you will finally be able to fully enjoy the XBMC experience.


    Subjective User Experience

    This is probably the most important part of using a Media Centre - how nice is it to use?

     

    I think the word that I would use to describe Raspbmc is patience. It's clear that the Raspberry Pi itself isn't a powerhouse, and it makes itself known when you are using the interface. Long lists of files over a network connection, numerous add-ons, etc can all make the Raspbmc interface a little laggy and unresponsive at times. Trying to use the player button interface while the video is playing can exhibit mouse-input lag as well. However, if you are patient, and willing to wait the 10-20 seconds it sometimes takes to get moving from the menu, you are rewarded with a flawless video performance especially when utilizing the hardware-accelerated decode features of the Broadcom CPU.

    Accelerated formats such as H.264 (say, in MP4, MKV, M2TS Blu-Ray files) perform flawlessly with no perceptible lag or jitter in presentation even at moderately high bitrates. Lower-bitrate files stream over wireless with no problems, and scaling is performed in a relatively pleasing way (no harsh edges). The addition of the MPEG-2 and VC-1 licenses confer these abilities to those file formats as well - meaning MPG, TS files will play well, as will M2TS Blu-Ray files which are encoded in VC-1.

     

    Audio formats supported are fairly wide with no trouble on the standard LPCM/MPEG/MPEG2/MP3/MP4, and MKV files with Dolby Digital audio also play (some players have trouble due to patent/license issues), although fiddling with the volume or replaying the same file sometimes results in no audio (possible Raspbmc bug?).

     

    Older video formats, such as "DivX" H.263 with MP3 audio in AVI containers in standard definition formats play well with Raspbmc, although I haven't had a chance to test how it behaves with QPEL (and other advanced encoding techniques which may cause issues for some decoders).

     

    Extremely impressive is its ability to read directly from SMB (Windows) shares so that one does not have to run a DNLA server (which, in itself, can have compatibility issues). Authentication is handled correctly, even to modern Windows 7 served shares which is a great bonus. Raspbmc will also digest ISO images of DVDs and Blu-Rays and play the main titles (or attempt to present the menus, albeit a little buggy). Users of networked tuning devices such as the HDHomeRun can also add them as sources to Raspbmc.

     

    The video output modes that are offered are pretty-much satisfactory for any user. The interface speed is a little slower when running in 1080p, although for accelerated formats, the Raspberry Pi perfectly renders 1080p even with overscan and display aspect corrections applied which is something which many dedicated media centres fail to do.

    The further you delve, the more impressed you will be - for example, the Raspbmc allows for you to operate as an Airplay receiver, allowing for audio streaming from an Apple device directly through the network to your Raspberry Pi (It doesn't seem to do video). Or the ability to bring up a remote-control via web-browser that gives you limited key accessibility to the controls from a computer, tablet or smartphone. Or a VNC server which allows you to take over the system entirely (although, it doesn't perform that well due to CPU limitations).

    Remote-Control.jpg

    I don't think you will find this variety of functionality in most commercially made dedicated media centres, and it's functionality I definitely appreciate despite the interface being a little testing at times. Sometimes, when you have been exposed to the shackles and limitations of closed source solutions which are sometimes artificially software-limited, you forget just how many possibilities exist.

     

    That being said, I am sure that you will find some files that won't play, or files with bit-rates too high for wireless transmission, and those can easily be dealt with as with any other media centre - by transcoding them to a format which is acceptable to the player. You can use tools like Handbrake or Mediacoder for this.

     

    Additionally, Raspmbc doesn't just stop there. It's also extensible through a library of add-ons which allow you to add services, broadcasters, and online-streams to your list of "playable material". Updating these add-ons and using them can, at times, be slow and the support for add-ons is rather limited (some are broken in the recent builds). Further to this, you might find some frustration with certain limitations imposed, e.g. by YouTube on the YouTube add-on, which results in failures to play (e.g. popular music clips, or 1080 resolution video) on Raspbmc but will play on a flash-enabled browser on the same internet connection. So, while add-ons provide another dimension of extensibility, users should be wary that their current and continued performance highly depends on those who have programmed the add-ons to continue supporting and refining them.

     

    RoadTest Bonus: PiFace Control and Display

    This RoadTest has a bit of a bonus - a PiFace Control and Display board was included as well. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I haven't yet fully explored this yet, but at least we can take a quick look at the product itself.

    DSC_1238.jpgDSC_1239.jpg

    The PiFace Control and Display is an add-on board which attaches to the GPIO header of your Raspberry Pi board and offers a 16x2-character style HD44780 LCD display, 3-position rocker input switch (similar to those on MP3 stick platers), 5 edge-mounted push buttons and an IR receiver for use with remote controls.

    DSC_1240.jpg

    The board comes wrapped in an anti-static bag along with regulatory compliance information. The LCD is protected from scratches in transit by a protective film. The choice of a black on green transflective backlit LCD is a great idea compared to using the white on blue backlit type which is fairly common on Arduino LCD shields as this allows the text to be readable without having the backlight (a significant consumer of energy) turned on.

     

    A small potentiometer, marked R1, just near the GPIO connector allows for adjustment of LCD contrast.

    DSC_1241.jpg

    The underside of the board doesn't have much on it at all.

    DSC_1244.jpg

    The side view of the board gives more hints of the "genius" of the board designer. Notice the socket for the IR receiver? This is a very nice thing to have as it allows for removal and repositioning of the IR sensor to a more convenient project-relevant location as IR is a strictly line-of-sight transmission method. That way, your LCD and IR receiver don't have to be in the same line, opening up possibilities for different uses.

     

    The LCD itself is soldered down to a row of header pins and supported by two plastic standoffs at one end. It's unsupported at the other end, but feels sturdy enough to handle everyday usage. Due to the shape of it, you will need to make your own or obtain a special case if you wish to house a Raspberry Pi with a PiFace Control and Display.

     

    Unlike my first experience with PiFace products (the PiFace Digital), this Control and Display comes with extensive documentation, manual and examples which makes it easier to start working with it. It doesn't seem a full schematic is provided (or maybe I have missed it), which would have been nice to have just to understand which pins are used, and how. Python libraries for generating menus are provided, and information on working with the IR receiver and lirc is documented as well. This means that you can also train your Raspberry Pi to understand any of your old "unwanted" IR remotes by using irrecord to analyze and record the signals like a learning remote would.

     

    Also, as with the PiFace Digital, a simulator is also available which fulfils the educational portion of the device, allowing you to simulate what would happen with the PiFace Control and Display even if you don't have one connected.

     

    Initially, I thought this would be quite useful for an XBMC set-up, allowing you to use a remote you had lying around for something else to control XBMC. But then, I realized that support for this is not provided out of the box (so some time will be required to code and test), and further to that, the wireless keypad is such a superior remote control compared to an ordinary IR remote (ever tried typing a song title with an IR remote?) that I ultimately didn't bother.

    Instead, I'll be saving this one up for another project (to be determined), but it stands to reason that its ideal usage would be for an independent Raspberry Pi project that is not connected to a screen, keyboard or mouse and instead is "required" to operate standalone, as a purely embedded appliance or device. By using the PiFace Control and Display, you won't have to "hack" your own hardware together and struggle getting the low-level software drivers coded.

     

    Conclusion

    The Raspberry Pi XBMC Home Theatre Kit Bundle is a well thought-out kit containing the foundations of a great media centre. It bridges the divide between the inflexible fixed-function dedicated media centre, and the flexible HTPC, bringing along benefits of both at an affordable price. The kit itself is thoughtfully laid out and made in such a way that absolute beginners to the Raspberry Pi need not fear, and can easily achieve a workable media centre within about five minutes of unpacking.

    To fully exploit and benefit from the XBMC Home Theatre Kit requires some more planning in regards to how you are going to use it, and what additional peripherals are required. This is merely the foundations, and each user will have their own needs which will need to be met by adding on accessories such as cases, wireless adapters, powered USB hubs, USB extension leads, etc. Further to this, there is much potential to be unlocked through the proper configuration and overclocking of the device which requires time to explore.

     

    Beginners will relish in the simplicity, whereas advanced users will be delighted with the flexibility and capabilities exposed by the media centre. Of course, it's not for everyone - speed, reliability, ease of use and aesthetics might be a bit below that of commercial media centres, and you must consider what your goals and accepted trade-offs are in order to come to the right solution for you. In order to taste the flexibility, it is inevitable that we introduce some complexity, although you don't have to face this right away if you don't feel comfortable doing so.

     

    The best part is that this kit is great even if you don't want a media centre as it contains all of the parts for a no-disappointment start to the Raspberry Pi, with something that works right off the bat. Throw in another SD card with NOOBS or Raspbian on it, and you can quickly chop and change between media centre and "something else" up to your imagination (and accessories, such as the PiFace Digital, PiFace Control and Display or Gertboard). Or when you retire the kit from service as a media centre, you aren't left with a useless doorstop. The bundle itself is also fairly good value - you won't save much by buying the parts separately, and you save a lot of running around.

     

    Of course, those who know what they want should probably buy whatever is most suitable for themselves, bundle or not, but this serves as a good reference for what you would need if you were starting up one of your own.

    ---

    Thanks to element14 once again for sponsoring this RoadTest and for their support of the community. It was an honour to be selected, and a great privilege to have been part of the first Australian/New Zealand only RoadTest. I hope readers have found this informative, interesting and enlightening - please leave a comment or a like (if you feel like it) or visit my personal blog for new and different technology-related postings.


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