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Raspberry Pi 3B+ Media Center Kit - Review

Scoring

Product Performed to Expectations: 10
Specifications were sufficient to design with: 10
Demo Software was of good quality: 9
Product was easy to use: 9
Support materials were available: 7
The price to performance ratio was good: 9
TotalScore: 54 / 60
  • RoadTest: Raspberry Pi 3B+ Media Center Kit
  • Buy Now
  • Evaluation Type: Development Boards & Tools
  • Was everything in the box required?: Yes
  • Comparable Products/Other parts you considered: Amazon Firestick - Just for the Media Player experience, but a Pi does so much more.
  • What were the biggest problems encountered?: Finding easy to understand instructions on how to use the KODI software.

  • Detailed Review:

    What am I expecting to be able to do?

    I want to be able to use the device to stream legal video to my TV from a variety of interesting sources including news channels. I'd like to be able to use it for catch-up TV in the UK, with programs from BBC, Sky News, ITV, All4 and FIVE.

    I do not want a pirate illegal copies of films and store them. I do not expect to have to sign up to a VPN service. I already have music on iTunes and photographs in Lightroom on my PC.

     

    Unboxing the kit

    Box Top and bottom

    Box - Top and bottom

     

    Speed

    The RPi 3B+ has been followed up with a faster version - RPi 4 B

    This has been available from 20 June 2019 with 3 levels of RAM - 1GB, 2 GB or 4GB. The smallest is the same price as a Pi3B+ but needs HDMI adaptors and a more powerful power supply adding to the cost.

     

    11+

    Suitable for 11 year olds.

    Contents

    Contents of the box:

    • Mini Wireless Keyboard with Touchpad
    • Raspberry Pi 3 B+
    • Raspberry Pi Universal Power Supply - 2.5 A - US, UK, EU and Aus adaptors
    • NOOBS Operating System SD
    • HDMI cable
    • Clear Case for Raspberry Pi 3B+
    • Getting Started with Raspberry Pi Instruction Booklet - Element 14

    You only have to supply a screen with an HDMI socket.

     

    All the delicate items were well protected and the box is strong. It provides a useful storage place for the kit when not in use.

     

    Greater detail:

     

    Keyboard

     

    This needs to be fully charged before use.

    KB1

    USB dongle

    USB Wireless Receiver and battery

     

    KB Diagram

     

    Instructions

    Instructions KB

    This keyboard has very small keys. It might be a bit frustrating if you need to enter a great deal of text. It is perfect for the media centre task here.

    It includes a Touch pad so you do not need a mouse to move about the screen or click on things. Read the instructions to see how to use the Touch pad.

     

    Power Supply

     

    Power Supply

    UK, EU, USA and Aus adaptors - correct power for this Pi. Great for travelling!

     

    Raspberry Pi 3B+

     

    Pi

    Pi Box back

     

    The Pi is a tight fit in the case and may be difficult to insert or remove.

    Make sure the SD card is removed from the Pi while putting the Pi into or out of the case. (You could break off the SD slot and kill your Pi!)

     

    NOOBS SD card with Operating Systems

    NOOBS

    This was version dated 10 OCT 2018 - this appears once you boot it up. I was a bit concerned about the date when I first saw it as it was more than a year out of date and Raspbian has moved on to Buster. More later.

     

    Instruction Booklet

    Instructions

    Looking at the back cover this booklet I saw the code (83-20280UG). It was revised 2018.02.14. At this time the current version of Raspbian was 9 (Stretch). The current version is 10 (Buster) issued 2019-06-20.

    At this time KODI would have been Kodi v17 (Krypton) and the current version is Kodi v18 (Leia).

     

    The booklet has several sections over its 48 pages

    • Unpacking
    • Hooking it All Up
    • Operating Systems
    • Installation, Logging In and Updating
    • Configuration
    • Installing Software Packages
    • Scratch
    • Python
    • Interfacing with Components - LEDs, LDR resistors
    • Building a Media Centre - Only 4 pages
    • Retro Gaming with Raspberry Pi
    • Add-Ons

     

    All the items in the kit appear to be of very good quality. The case is crystal clear giving a good view to the contents while protecting the contents from harm. It look very good and has holes for the camera and display cables of fitted.

    It is not well ventilated and access to the GPIO pins for Physical computing is very limited. Using just the base of the case will protect the Pi from short circuits with other items on a cluttered work bench/desktop.

     

    Connected

    Assembly - see pages 4 & 5 for the instructions

     

    • Make sure that the keyboard has been fully charged.
    • Separate the case into its two halves. Gently press the Pi into the bottom of the case. This is a tight fit so be careful. Replace the lid.
    • Take the back off the keyboard, extract the wireless USB dongle and push it into one of the USB ports. (Bottom left.) Replace the back cover on the keyboard.
    • Push one end of the HDMI cable into the socket at the top centre and the power lead into the socket top right.
    • Insert the small SD card into the slot under the Pi at the right edge. Connection uppermost.
    • Plug the other end of the HDMI cable into a slot on your TV/Monitor. Turn on the TV/ monitor and select the correct HDMI socket.
    • Turn on the keyboard
    • Plug in the power supply and the Pi should boot up showing a rainbow square initially. Red and Green LEDs on the Pi3B+ board will start flashing as it boots up.

     

    Operating System Installation - page 8

     

    You will need the need the SSID and WiFi password of your internet hub.

    Once the screen settles you will be offered a wide choice of operating systems. Click on the boxes beside the top two - Raspbian and LibreELEC then click on install at the top left.

    The NOOBS SD card is 16 GB and has plenty of room for dual operating systems.

    screen1

    screen 2

    You need to change the password if you are ever going to use SSD. It is currently set to "Pi".

    screen4

     

    screen 5

    screen 6

     

    As operating systems are installed you will have to sit and answer questions at various points about your location, passwords, time zone, keyboard layout etc. Raspbian installs first, followed by LibreELEC. Both installations may ask similar questions.

    Depending on the speed of your internet connection it may take in excess of 30 minutes. You will then be asked to restart the Pi.

     

    On restarting you have the opportunity to choose which OS to use. Double click to select. Let's try Raspbian first, like the instruction book. Double click to choose Raspbian.

     

    I've not used a NOOBS SD card before and I was impressed by the ease of this double installation. Both were updated to the latest versions automatically.

     

    In Raspbian you can check the OS version by typing

         cat /etc/os-release

    in the terminal ( the grey icon at top left of the screen with ">_")

    I got latest, version 10 (Buster) which had been fully updated.

     

    I clicked on the globe icon at the top of the screen to start Chromium browser and access the internet. I tried youtube and played a video. It all worked OK.

     

    At this point I found out that the keyboard had not been set up properly.

    (The (at) and (double quote) keys are reversed - wrong keyboard selected ?) I was also finding the very small keys made it difficult to type quickly. So I changed to a larger UK model and a mouse. In the menu I found Raspberry Pi Configuration, and changed the keyboard setting. All is OK now.)

    This is much easier than the method outlined in the booklet.

     

    Important: If this is your first Raspberry Pi you should always shut down properly.

         Never just pull out the plug - you could corrupt your OS card. The proper way to exit is via the menu.

         Click the Raspberry icon to drop the menu  > Shutdown > Shutdown. Wait until screen goes dark and the green LED stops flashing.

         Then unplug the power supply (Red LED goes dark) and turn off the screen.

     

    Remember to turn off the keyboard as well or the battery will run down.

     

    Installing Packages

     

    This version of the Raspbian OS has not loaded many applications to save space on the SD card. If you move down the menu from the Raspberry icon > Preferences > Recommended Software you will find a list of excellent examples which can be quickly installed from the menu by clicking the box next to an application and then clicking Install at the top of the window. LibreOffice is very like MS Office and can share files but is pretty large. Mathematica is also pretty big and has a steep learning curve.

     

    At this point you can try some of the applications: - Scratch, Python3 (Python2 is no longer recommended or supported) and some physical computing if you have access to a breadboard, LEDs, resistors, capacitors, LDRs and jump wires. This is great fun but you will need to take the top off the case to access the GPIO pins.

     

    Since the instruction book covers the introduction to Physical Computing in great detail it might have been nice to have included a small zip lock bag in the kit with a mini breadboard, a couple of LEDs with 330 Ohm resistors, a capacitor, LDR and a few Male-Female jumper leads, so that customers could try out this section before moving on to the Media Centre. The box says the kit is suitable for students 11 upwards and they normally love blinking lights.

     

    Before moving on I thought I would try to run BBC iPlayer via the Chromium Web browser. This worked  well - no problems. I moved to My5 to try that and got Error Code: 102630 - This video file cannot be played. I next tried ITV.com hub and this did not work. I followed the instruction to fix the problem with DRM controlled content but could not get it to work. All4 did not work either - it asked for Flash, which I switch on but would not work - error 3307 - Digital Rights again!

     

    I put a video from an iPhone into the Video folder, double clicked it and it played perfectly. I added photos and they also appeared correctly.

     

    We are now ready to move on the the Media Centre.

     

    Re-booting to the Media Centre OS

    As the Raspberry Pi starts up and shows the two operating system, double click on LibreELEC. KODI loads and waits for input. I have LibreELEC version 9.0.2 and KODI 18.2 Leia.

     

    To close the system down click on the I/O icon at top left of the screen and Power off system.

     

    I've owned Raspberry Pis since they first came out and have used versions 1, 2, 3 & 4 but have always used Raspbian. I've seen KODI used at a friend's house but have never used it. I am currently totally in the dark and am rather disappointed with the very short (only 4 pages) in the instructions. I have read them through and am still little the wiser.

     

    I appreciate and expect proper documentation. This does not appear to be adequate.

     

    I'm going to have to look on the Internet. This kit is flagged suitable for 11 year olds and upwards so I hope it is easy to find.

     

    The booklet suggests:

        kodi.wiki - all words, quite high level language - not young noobie friendly.

         libreelec.tv - not very useful

             "Kodi v18 also brings new features like Kodi Retroplayer and DRM support that (equipped with an appropriate add-on) allows Kodi to unofficially stream content from services like Netflix and Amazon. " Is this Legal?

         osmc.tv - not what we are using

    I will try the first two and YouTube.com

     

    Issue 87 of Magpi magazine, pages 31 - 37 has an article on setting up the Media Centre. Although they are using the latest, faster RasPi 4B, with twin 4HK HDMI ports and possibly more RAM, the software is exactly the same. You can download the magazine (FREE!) from here: https://magpi.raspberrypi.org/ 

    All previous issues are also available and provide a great resource if this is your first Pi.  See also https://www.raspberrypi.org/ for loads of Pi resources, information, Blog and help in the Forum.

     

    My internet search for videos produced a great many hits. Most of which assume a great deal of previous knowledge, expect you to have, or are willing buy into a VPN service, probably because they are telling you to do something illegal, and are quite irritating to watch.

     

    There was one gem that I came across which starts with our version of the KODI software and shows you how to begin. This is the slower version, as the author would "explain it to his mother".

    It is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oct-mNu2uN4      I recommend it.

     

    I watched this through once and then watched it again, stopping and starting, while I worked on my Pi Media centre installation. I am only doing legal things from the KODI repository and within a few minutes I was able to set up a host of video streaming add-ons such as BBC iPlayer [Great catch-up and 157 episodes of Dr Who!]  and Sky News (I live in the UK and these were live broadcasts. It is a pity that ITV, All4 and FIVE do not currently work for catchup.), British Council Film archive, National Geographic, Youtube, Canadian Broadcasting Corp, CNN and many more. I tried them on the bedroom TV, quite a distance from the Internet hub using just WiFi rather than a wired connection. The picture automatically changed aspect ratio to the wide screen format of the much newer TV rather than the almost square ratio on the old monitor I had been using at my work bench. Picture quality and sound were very good with no buffering or jitter - I am lucky to have125 Mb/s download speed. I was using just the small wireless keyboard, supplied in the kit and this was perfect. No wired connection to the Pi, which was sitting neatly, half hidden beside the TV. It was easy to control KODI.

     

     

    Sound output

     

    My TV plays sound via the HDMI link, the Pi’s default setup, but my old monitor has no speakers so I have to use an external amplifier and mini speakers driven via the earphone socket.

     

    In Raspbian you switch between analog and HDMI by right clicking the speaker icon at top right of screen and making a selection. Volume and mute are available via a left click.

     

    In LibreELEC you use System > Audio > Audio output device and can select from HDMI, Analogue, Both or Bluetooth. Volume is controlled via the V+, V- and Mute button on the top left of the keyboard.

     

    Sound quality is pretty excellent.

     

     

    Video using Raspbian to show internet access to live and catch-up TV, playing music, videos and showing still picture files.

     

    The OS behind KODI is very small so getting screen grabs via Print Screen is not possible as there is nowhere to paste them!

    I used a camera but the screen redraw may be quicker than the shutter speed. Here are some KODI screen shots:

     

    one

    Red Bull menu

    2

    YouTube menu

     

    3

    Looked good on the screen

     

    4

    Fox News menu

     

    6

    If a picture is worth a1000 words a video should be even better:

     

     

    The more you use the interface the easier it gets.

     

    This was working very well. It is much quicker and easier to navigate than my Firestick or Virgin Media Tivo box (PVR with iPlayer and other apps).

     

    The video and audio quality is very good.

     

    My Pi has been on continuously for 7 hours, in its case, with the lid on. The case is slightly warm.

     

    I thought I'd see if playing a movie and making the Pi work quite hard raised the temperature of the CPU. With KODI running with LibreELEC and no access to Python3 it's not possible to read the temperature while running a movie in a different window. My dual boot system allowed me to play a movie and then then quickly switch to the Raspbian OS and run a script to read the temperature. I saved this script:

     

         from gpiozero import CPUTemperature
         cpu
    = CPUTemperature()
         print(cpu.temperature)

     

    Immediately after playing a 17 minute movie I switched to Raspbian, ran the script and got a value of 60.148. Not a problem. (I do not believe it can read accurately to 1/1000 of a degree!)

     

    I must say that the KODI interface is a one-off. No forward or back arrow at the top of the screen and side panels appear as overlays from time to time. Clicking menu items to move on is obvious but moving backwards without the back arrow is not consistent. Sometimes there is a  back arrow and at other times to have to click on the blue diamond K to get a cross which when clicked takes you back. At other points you have to click on the text at the top left of the screen to go back. I expect I will get used to it in time.

     

    With KODI I was able to view the pictures and play the video which I had previously put into folders via Raspbian. The quality was good but the pictures app in Raspbian was much better.

     

    So what do I think of the kit?

     

    At £65 it is pretty good value, including: a good Pi (slightly dated, but with WiFi access built in), the official power supply, wireless keyboard, neat protective crystal case, HDMI cable, easy to install NOOBS OS SD, useful storage box and slightly outdated instruction booklet. Buying the parts separately and paying for multiple deliveries could cost you more.

     

    The KODI software works well on the Pi. Nothing stopped working and not one crash! (Unlike MS Edge in Windows 10 while editing this report which re-set and lost edits, video up-loads and time.) Users will need a spend a fair bit of time reading up and watching help videos to get the full functionality and understanding of the KODI application. (Think: how long did it take me to master Word or Excel?) The fields of Add-ons and sites for downloads move on rapidly. I hope the functionality of the RaspberryPi Chromium browser can be improved in the near future so that all the UK TV catch-up services will work in Raspbian. I kept the lid on the case all the time and did not suffer any over heating problems.

     

    It is up to the end-users to decide how they are going to use the software. http://kodi.tv/article/is-kodi-legal gives some ideas to think about.

     

    The legal links I found were interesting ("Videos/British Council Film/1945/How a Bicycle is Made" is a good shortish insight into manufacturing in times past) but I would like to use it for local, legal catch-up TV but only BBC iPlayer works at the moment. You can do that directly from the browser in Raspbian, without KODI.

     

    This a great Raspberry Pi starter kit, very easy to setup and works well.

    It is useful for all the things a Raspberry Pi can do - not just a Media Centre.

    • Learning to code [Scratch, Python3], Internet and Email, office tasks, homework, games and physical computing are just a few.
    • It can be a great travel computer, with small keyboard, it is small light, cheap, has wifi and plugs into the HDMI socket of the hotel room's TV.
    • The Pi 3B+ is powerful enough to run KODI properly and I was impressed with the quality of both picture and sound using an old monitor and a cheap audio amplifier.
    • The WiFi worked very well across my house and gave good results on a more modern wide screen TV.

     

    If you want 4K then use a Pi 4B.

     

    This RoadTest was an enjoyable experience and I will find the Media Centre a useful addition to my hardware collection.

     

     

    I'd like to thank Randall Scasny for the opportunity to take part in this RoadTest and hope that those who have read through my report have found it useful.

     

    Comments and feedback are welcome.

     

    Additional Investigations

    At the beginning of this RoadTest I stated that I wanted to be able to watch live broadcast TV and to be able to record TV programmes for watching at a later time. In order to be able to do this I will need to add a TV tuner to the hardware and use tvheadend to control it.

     

    I live in the UK and we have DVB-T and DVB-T2 broadcasts (Digital Video Broadcasting).

     

    RaspberryPi produce an add-on HAT which clips onto the GPIO pins of Raspberry Pi and contains a Sony CXD2880 TV tuner. (I understand that this will not work in USA.) It costs about £21. This appeared to be a good investment to add the extra features that I wanted so I ordered one.

     

    tvhat back

     

    I set up a new SD card with Raspian Buster and installed tvheadend. Following the instructions found on the internet:

         https://thepihut.com/blogs/raspberry-pi-tutorials/how-to-stream-digital-tv-with-the-raspberry-pi-tv-hat

    HAT in place

    When I carried out the scan on the local transmitter I found over 150 channels. This was looking good.

     

    I tried playing them but was very disappointed. The player window was very small and the video and sound kept freezing.

     

     

    This was a total waste of time and not what I was looking for.

     

    I tried the Raspberry Pi forum and got a quick reply that you needed to use KODI.

     

    I swapped back to my dual OS NOOBS SD card and installed tvheadend from the official KODI repository and the scan found over 150 channels which I then sorted into alphabetical order. These played perfectly without the stop/start pauses and with a full width window.

     

     

    I'm making progress. Now I need the Electronic Programme Guide. I installed one from the official repository and it worked very well. Just clicking on a named program set up the recording which was easy to replay.

     

    What I really want to do is get the recorded video file out of KODI and move it to another computer/memory stick/HardDrive. LibreELEC is so cut down that I could not find any way to transfer files.

     

    I rebooted the Pi and moved over to Raspbian Buster. I found the KODI recordings in the Video folder and it was very easy to move them to a memory stick and play them back on my Windows 10 PC and laptop.

     

    A really great result. I can now do all the operations I wanted to do. Watch live TV and record programmes to watch at a different time and on a different device without internet or network access.

     

    Conclusions:

    • Adding a TV tuner (suitable for your own country) greatly expands the possibilities of this great little kit and does not cost very much.
    • Setting up the SD card as dual bootable greatly adds to the versatility of the system.

     

     

     

     

        

        


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