Portable Raspberry Pi Media Center

We recently went on holiday and I took my laptop & VGA cable with me. It was my intention to hook it up to the TV and play some media on it to keep the kids happy on rainy days. However, It turned out the TV had the VGA port covered up by the wall mounting bracket, and my laptop doesn’t have HDMI.. so we ended up putting the laptop on a chair and watching videos from there; it did the job, but wasn’t ideal.

At home we have a Fire TV Stick that could run Kodi, but the problem with Fire TV is that it has to have an internet connection, otherwise it doesn’t work (you can’t even get to Kodi!). Tethering it to my phone isn’t an option, since there are poor mobile signals in a lot of the places we visit.

Next time I’m going to be more prepared, with a more compact and flexible setup consisting of a Raspberry Pi 2 running OpenElec (and Kodi) together with a set of cables allowing me to hook it up to pretty much any TV. The Pi 2 runs Kodi really well, and the OpenElec distribution boots really quickly & has good Wifi and BlueTooth support. I initially chose a compact/travel USB-based keyboard instead of Bluetooth in case OpenElec ‘forgot’ the keyboard and I’d have nothing to navigate the menus to re-pair it.

Cable-wise, I’ve got a 1m standard HDMI cable, which will be fine in most situations.. with a 2m HDMI extension lead if I can’t get the Pi near enough to the TV (some accomodation doesn’t have power sockets where you’d expect them). I’ve also got a RCA lead, with a SCART adapter as well.. so that helps if we get stuck with an older TV.

For media storage I’ve gone with a USB3 Flash Drive with a capacity of 64Gb, which gives us more to play with than the microSD card, and it’s super-fast for copying media from a PC. As soon as you plug in the flash drive, Kodi will show it in the menus.

So that’s it.. nothing groundbreaking or overly difficult to put together. The whole system is small enough to fit in a small travel bag & gives us a lot of flexibility when dealing with different hotels/accommodation. You may just find the TV accepts the USB flash drive and can play back whatever is on it.. but at least you’ll have all the gear you need if it doesn’t ;)

After I made the video, I bought a USB numeric keyboard from eBay for a paltry £2.. that’s compacted the kit even further, allowing it to fit in an old camera bag.

The keypad isn’t instantly recognised by Kodi, but an easy way to get it up and running is to use the Keymap Add-on. Attach a normal USB keyboard and the keypad at the same time.. start the add-on and use the keyboard to activate the remap process. From there, it’s dead simple to map the keypad to the different Kodi functions.

Here’s the full kit list;

1 x Raspberry Pi 2
1 x 8Gb MicroSD card
1 x 2m HDMI extension cable
1 x 1m HDMI cable
1 x USB numeric keypad
1 x RCA to SCART adapter
1 x 3.5mm plug to RCA lead
1 x 64Gb USB3 Flash Drive
1 x USB power supply + cable

Update:

Just got back from a week at Center Parcs (Woburn) and was really pleased to find a HDMI socket on the wall, and a power socket.. it made it super easy to hook up the Pi to the TV :)

Streaming video from the Humax HDR-Fox T2 to Android and Blackberry Playbook

One of the nice features of the Humax HDR-Fox T2 is that it’ll stream your standard definition recordings over your network to DLNA clients. I’ve had a it streaming video onto a PC running XBMC, but wanted something more portable for catching up with some TV whilst I’m getting ready in the morning.

As long as your Android phone is relatively recent, there are a bunch of DLNA clients.. the one I’ve had the best results with is Skifta. Then I’ve got MX Player installed which will handle video playback. The thing I like about MX Player is the gesture control for skipping through the program (swipe across), and adjusting volume (swipe up/down).

I’m running that on a Samsung Galaxy S3, and it works really well. It’s just slightly too small when it’s across the room. It would be better on a tablet, and I have a Blackberry Playbook (from their developer programme).. the only problem has been the lack of a DLNA client.. until just recently, when I found KalemSoft Media Player.

The app is currently being sold at £5, which was a bit more than I’m used to paying.. but the reviews were almost all really good, so I gave it a go. Here’s the app running with my Humax HDR-Fox T2;

As you can see, it’s really fast to browse the folders and start playing back video. It even manages HD if you’re running the auto-decode package, although I had buffering issues when trying to play it back over my network.

KalemSoft do a PC service which will share all your video from there too; I’ve found it works really well.. better than TVersity, and the built-in Windows media sharing stuff, both of which seemed to take ages to index my stuff, and then didn’t even work well after that. Apparently it can be configured to share stuff out over the Internet (password protected too), but I don’t need that feature. It can also stream live TV if you’ve got a TV card.

Blackberry Playbook: Bargain 7″ Tablet

In the last few weeks the price of the Blackberry Playbook has plummeted further, to £169 in the UK from retailers such as PC World. At that price it deserved some research into what it offers & whether it’s worth a look. The tablet itself is solidly built, with a decent amount of processing power & good multi-tasking abilities. There’s an app store that offers a fair number of apps, including the obligatory Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, and useful stuff like free VNC clients.

The 7″ screen looks crisp & vivid, and isn’t as cramped as I’d imagined it would be. I’d viewed someone’s Samsung 7″ tablet so knew what to expect. Browsing the web on it is slick & fast, plus it’ll play Flash videos, so iPlayer, 4oD and other sites all work on it without a hitch.

The OS is soon to get v2.0, and that’s where things get even more interesting; that opens the Playbook up to the Android Market, allowing it to run a majority/proportion (not sure which yet!) of Android apps. OS2.0 will also offer MKV support, but what codecs are actually covered is unclear.

Built-in storage is limited to what you initially purchase (e.g. 16Gb), and there’s no SD card expansion. However, if you root the Playbook, there’s a method to add USB-host functionality, allowing you to attach USB flash drives.

A micro-HDMI connector allows it to mirror the display to a TV without proprietary adapters & it just works!

Here’s what you need if you want to hook it up to a TV (a few different cable lengths included):

Micro HDMI to HDMI adapter = £3.56

0.5m standard HDMI lead = £1.18
1.0m standard HDMI lead = £1.14
5.0m standard HDMI lead = £3.19

And here’s what you’d need to connect a standard USB flash drive

Micro USB to USB adapter (270 angle means it doesn’t clash with HDMI output) = £3.17
USB Female to Female adapter = £1.14

For the back of the car, I’ve gone for a generic headset mount that can also mount an iPad:

Universal tablet mount

And to protect it from scratches and minor droppage in the house I bought the official faux leather convertible case, which beats the hell out of the horrible case it ships with.

Faux Leather Convertible Case

After a few hours of research I knew it was a good deal, bought one & haven’t been disappointed. It *is* a bargain for what you get :)

Custom Firmware on the Humax HDR-Fox T2

After the untimely death of my Topfield box, and less than stellar performance of the 3view box, I ended up sending that back & buying the Humax HDR-Fox T2. Since I bought it over a year ago there’s been a huge amount of progress on a custom firmware which enables you to install ‘packages‘ that add a whole bunch of new features, including;

– Web-based interface for controlling the box, searching the EPG, etc.
– Smartphone optimised web interface
– Auto-filing script for placing series linked programs in designated sub-folders
– Remote scheduling interface for setting timers on the box remotely
– Recording trimming to cut off unwanted segments of recordings
– Custom TV portal (offering Sky Player support)
– And loads more!

There are some videos on YouTube that show a lot of these features in action, together with a guide showing exactly how to install it onto your box. It’s a simple, and reversible process & the guys that have worked on it have helped improve the features on the box no end!

Harmony 600 Replacement

Due to a clash with a toddler and my Harmony 555 all-in-one remote I bought a Harmony 600 in September last year. In the last month it’s been repeatedly rebooting/restarting. A new set of batteries sorts the issue out, but only for a couple of weeks, and then it starts happening again. There’s a thread on Logitech’s support site which talks about the problem, so it’s not an isolated issue.

The good thing is, that after raising a support ticket on Sunday, it only took a couple of message exchanges before they said it was faulty & shipped a new remote. They don’t even ask for the old one back, since they can de-activate it on their servers so that it can never be updated online.. pretty much rendering it useless, because there’s no way to update it without using their online app.

Kudos to Logitech for sorting this out so quickly! Really impressive.

Building a Zotac ION-based HTPC

I’ve been looking to replace my ageing Xbox which has reliably run XBMC for over 7 years with a box that can handle HD content, as well as acting as a NAS & download server. The Zotac ION box caught my eye, since the latest media center apps now support hardware acceleration for video playback & the nVidia ION GPU is supported.

Components

I bought the kit as a bundle from Mini-ITX.com and fitted a 32Gb SSD for the operating system, and a 1TB Western Digital Essentials HDD which would be attached via USB & powers down when not in use. The shopping list looks like this;

– Zotac ION-ITX-A Motherboard with Dual Core 1.6GHz Atom N330
– 2GB or 4GB DDR2 800 RAM included
– M350 Universal Mini-ITX Enclosure
(bundle costing £233 from Mini-ITX)

– OCZ Onyx 32GB SATA II 2.5in Solid State Disk
(about £50 from Amazon)

– 1TB Western Digital Essentials
(about £45 from Amazon)

OS

For the OS I wanted to use Windows 7; that’s what I’m most comfortable writing scripts + code for. The Linux distros for XBMC Live look pretty good, but there was too much of a learning curve involved for adding in the extra features I wanted.

Installing OS From USB

Since there’s no optical drive, I opted to install Windows 7 from a USB key. I actually used a 4Gb SD card from my camera & a SD card reader, and followed these instructions to make it bootable & have the Windows 7 installation on it. Installation went without a hitch.

Media Player

After installing the OS, I updated with the latest nVidia drivers, and started installing apps like XBMC. The latest Dharma release of XBMC supports hardware acceleration using DXVA2, however I was unable to get it working with 1080p content & gave up after a couple of hours. I then tried Media Portal which worked perfectly with whatever I threw at it. There’s a brilliant guide on how to configure Windows 7 and MediaPortal by Rhys Jones, which is useful to follow if you want to optimise your HTPC setup.

Remote Control

Next up was getting the remote control working correctly. I had a cheapo CyberLink remote, plus a Harmony 600.. I used the Cyberlink IR Reciever & mapped up keys into the Harmony 600. Some of the buttons worked, some didn’t. I ended up re-mapping the numeric keys to certain MediaPortal features using one of the plugins. I also re-mapped the MCE Green Button so that it runs MediaPortal (see this guide.. scroll to the Green Button heading).

Scripts

The HTPC also acts as a NAS + handles any downloads, so I’ve written a bunch of scripts to handle certain situtations.

– Timed execution of certain download tasks using Windows Scheduler. Making sure that the tasks don’t bring the HTPC out of sleep.
– Execution of scripts when the HTPC is brought out of sleep (like making sure MediaPortal is running)

Keyboard + Mouse Control

For times when I need a keyboard, I’m running Unified Remote on the HTPC and the client on my Android phone. This allows me to control most aspects of the HTPC via my phone, without having to buy extra hardware like a wireless mouse/keyboard.

Using Wireshark and MITM to explore a STB

I’ve recently bought a new Freeview HD box from 3view. It has a whole host of features and can be considered a “connected” device. As with most high-end set-top-boxes (STB) it pulls software firmware updates from the web, and I was interested to see where it went to get these updates & how it knew they were available.

I know about using tools to sniff network traffic, but have only done this to sniff traffic coming directly out of the PC I’m running the capture software on. Buying this 3view box gave me more of an inventive to expand my knowledge & figure out how to capture the traffic from other devices.

It was actually relatively easy. I decided to do a Machine in the Middle (MITM) ‘attack’ which was documented over at the Wireshark wiki.

In my case I didn’t have 2 network cards, but did have a laptop with one network card, and a wireless card. In Windows XP I bridged the NIC to the Wireless adapter, then plugged in a cross-over cable that linked the 3view box to my laptop. Then, after a bit of messing about with IP addresses it started working.. my 3view box was accessing my wireless router via my laptop.

Now that all the traffic from the 3view box was going via my laptop, all I then needed to do was fire up Wireshark & take a look at the packets.

Intercepting the traffic allowed me to see where the box was going for it’s updates, and the User Agent. That’s been documented over at the 3viewer community website I set up for 3view owners.

http://3viewer.elementfx.com/