Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Revisiting the idea of a Media Centre computer

If you were reading this blog four years ago, first of all, well done for sticking with me! But secondly you may remember I was contemplating using my spare Mac Mini as a media centre.

Those plans came to nothing; eventually I settled on using Boxee on my current computer, rather than having a separate media centre computer. However, I’m thinking of revisiting the idea.

Eight years is a long time

Said Mac Mini will be eight years old this summer. It was last used intensively in early 2007, and so it has spent over six years as a spare computer looking for a purpose, whilst all the while becoming more and more obsolete. It uses a PowerPC processor, which limits what it can do – I wasn’t able to upgrade it beyond OS X Leopard and nowadays almost all Mac software is for Intel-based Macs only.

Software-wise, there are a limited number of media centre applications available for it. I wrote about possible software in 2009 when I was still actively looking into making it into a media centre.  The two programs available were MediaCentral, by Equinux, and XBMC.

MediaCentral is still available (and I still have a license for it) but it looks like it hasn’t been a priority for Equinux for some time and recent updates have seen some features removed, as well as support for PowerPC processors. I’d therefore be stuck on an old version. Plus, it’s proprietary software so I’m limited to the features offered out of the box.

For XBMC, again I wouldn’t be able to use the latest and greatest version 12 (codenamed ‘Frodo’) but would be able to use last year’s version 11, called Eden. Most of the improvements in version 12 seem to be related to performance with only a handful of new features, so this may not be too much of a bad thing. However, expecting good performance – especially when considering high definition output – from an eight year old machine is probably asking too much.

And there’s the practical side of connecting it to the TV. The main output of the Mac Mini is a DVI socket; affordable DVI to HDMI cables exist but these carry video only – not sound. Add in sound and you’re looking at a very expensive proposition.

Enter the Raspberry Pi

I’ve been following the Raspberry Pi ever since it was announced a couple of years ago. For less than £30 it’s possible to buy a brand-new, fully functioning general purpose PC, albeit one without a keyboard, mouse, monitor, hard drive, power cable or even a case. Its primary raison d’être is for education – specifically to follow in the footsteps of the BBC Micro from the 1980s and teach children about programming. But its status as a very small, cheap and low-power computer means that it has been used for all sorts of other things – the Rapsberry Pi news page shows just a few of the systems that people have built around the computer.

In particular, the Raspberry Pi has been used by a number of people for media centre computers. There’s a whole page about it on the XBMC wiki with three separate standalone XBMC projects available for the device. Whilst the Raspberry Pi has a relatively basic level CPU, its GPU is actually very powerful, and it can easily handle 1080p high definition video. Plus, the device includes the necessary HDMI output – with audio as well as video – which makes connecting it to a HD-ready TV very easy.

I’m planning a more in-depth post about the Raspberry Pi later this week.

What about buying a media centre, like the Apple TV or Boxee Box?

The Apple TV is a nice, compact device that works well with other Apple products. But Apple haven’t made much of an effort to localise the services it offers outside of the US. For example, it will connect to Netflix, a relatively recent entrant to the UK market, but not to Lovefilm. And none of the catch-up services offered by UK TV broadcasters – BBC iPlayer, 4oD, ITV Player, Demand Five, Now TV and so on – are offered. Nor is there a way to add these; even though the Apple TV runs iOS, to date Apple have not allowed third-party apps on the device.

The Boxee Box has dropped in price to £99 – same as the Apple TV – but it’s no longer being developed for. In particular the Netflix app will only work in the US and Canada, and not in the UK and other countries where Netflix has recently expanded to. The company’s focus is now on the Boxee Cloud PVR which is only available in the US.

In both cases, with a bit of work, it should be possible to use a Raspberry Pi to make a media centre computer that is both cheaper than £99, and more flexible. In particular, it will (hopefully!) work with the catch-up TV services that I use.

I need to save up a bit of money before I start splashing out on new hardware (weddings are expensive things) but I’ll keep you posted.

One Comment

  1. Hi Neil, I actually remember that post from 4 years ago – yes I’ve been around here that long!

    Have you considered some of the other possibilities?

    I have a Western Digital Live box and it’s awesome. It does netflix and iPlayer, but unfortunately not LoveFilm, itvPlayer, 4oD or Demand5.

    More here:

    Seagate has a similar product: