Raspberry Pi: RaspBMC and OpenELEC

Raspberry Pi: RaspBMC and OpenELEC

Summary: Two ways to turn the Raspberry Pi into a media player and home entertainment hub


I'm having a great time exploring and learning about my new Raspberry Pi. In the first post, Raspberry Pi and Raspbian I looked at the Debian GNU/Linux version customised for the Pi. 

This focused on using the Raspberry Pi as an educational device, to learn about the hardware, operating system and programming (by the way, for those who are interested in this aspect, there is an excellent new post on the Raspberry Pi site about Mathematica and the Wolfram Language)

In the second post, I looked at the other two general-purpose Linux ports specifically for the Pi, Arch Linux ARM and Pidora. Now I am going to move on to the other major use of the Raspberry Pi, as a multimedia player and home entertainment hub.

As I mentioned in the previous posts, the Raspberry Pi NOOBS distribution image includes a number of different operating systems. 

In addition to the three general-purpose Linux ports mentioned above, it also includes Raspbmc and OpenELEC (Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center), both of which are dedicated Linux systems specifically designed to run the XBMC Media Center package. 

I want to stress here that I am not any kind of expert or even experienced user of such multimedia systems, so I am going to concentrate on the Raspberry Pi itself. If you want more information about XBMC, please check their web site (linked above).

To start at the beginning, installing either Raspbmc or OpenELEC (or both) from the NOOBS distribution is the same as I described in the previous posts. 

When you boot the Raspberry Pi for the first time you will automatically get the operating system installer selection screen. If you already have one or more operating systems installed on the NOOBS SD card, you can hold down the Shift key while booting to get back to the installer selection screen. 

Warning: if you already have one or more operating systems installed on the NOOBS card, and you change the selections and click 'Install', it will wipe everything that is currently installed on the SD card and make a clean installation of whatever you selected. 

It will not add, change or reconfigure the existing installations, and it will not preserve anything you have on the card, even in the 'Storage' partition.  Make sure you save any data you want to keep before doing this.

At this point some people are likely to be wondering: why bother? The XBMC package can be installed on Linux, so why not just load the Raspberry Pi with Raspbian and then add XBMC to it? Well, that would almost certainly work (I haven't tried it myself, so I can't say how easy/difficult/impossible it might be), and if you really want to learn everything possible about loading and configuring your Raspberry Pi, that might be a good choice for you. 

But consider these points:

  • To get the best performance with XBMC, a considerable amount of custom configuration and tuning is required. You could do this yourself, but it would be time consuming and error prone, and this is one of the things which has arleady been done by the creators of these distributions, based on their extensive experience.
  • General purpose Linux systems include a lot of utilities and packages which are of no use or interest on a dedicated media center system, so the overall size and system load, both in terms of disk space required and CPU/memory load, can be dramatically reduced by eliminating most such packages.
  • A dedicated media center system will include more than just XBMC itself; things like Apple AirPlay and AirTunes support, GPIO (I/O bus) devices, camera support, preconfigured media sharing via local network or internet and probably a lot more that I haven't even noticed yet.

Ok, that sounds pretty convincing. But then, what are the differences between these two Media Center distributions for the Raspberry Pi?

At the user interface level, meaning what you see and do with the system, there are not many differences. But under the covers they are very different.

Raspbmc was created and is maintained by one very talented young man, Sam Nazarko. This was not his first foray into Linux-based media centers and servers, he previously created Crystalbuntu for the AppleTV 1, which basically combined a stripped-down Ubuntu distribution with XBMC and the Broadcom Crystal HD card to create a  media center. 

OpenELEC was created and is maintained by a small group of dedicated people. Raspbmc is derived from Debian GNU/Linux, and was basically created by removing a lot of stuff that is not relevant for this purpose, and then configuring, customizing and tuning it for the best performance running XBMC. 

This could be an advantage because it benefits from the ongoing development, bug fixes, new device support and so on that is constantly happening with Debian. OpenELEC is not derived from any other distributions, it is built from scratch by the development team. 

That difference in derivation is probably the single biggest and most important difference between these two operating systems, and it shows even in their installed sizes. Raspbmc takes about 750MB on the SD card, which is pretty impressive compared to the 2GB that Raspbian uses, but OpenELEC only uses about 100MB! 

Yes, you read that right, I couldn't believe it either.  In fact, while I was researching some of the details for this I decided to look at the contents of the SD card, to see where each version was installed and how much space they took. I found Raspbian and Raspbmc easily enough, but I couldn't figure out which partition was OpenELEC, because none of them seemed to be large enough!

Both of these distributions boot to the XBMC Home screen:

XBMC Home Screen Menu

 In my rather brief experience so far, both of these work quite well, and once booted and running XBMC they are visually nearly indistinguishable from each other. My impression has been that OpenELEC is a bit faster, and seems a bit more reliable. 

One small example is that I couldn't get the Weather configuration to work on Raspbmc, but had no trouble with that on OpenELEC. There were some other places where installation or configuration of Music or Video add-ons didn't work on Raspbmc but did on OpenELEC. But when it came to actually playing multimedia content, both of them performed very well.

I have tried three different monitors so far; an old Compaq (1280x1024) using an HDMI to DVI cable; a new HP (1920x1080) using a standard HDMI cable; and my TV (1920x1080) also using the standard HDMI cable.  All three of these came up at the optimal resolution without me having to make any adjustments. 

When using the TV via HDMI, both video and audio were sent over the HDMI cable: with the two computer monitors, I also connected a set of external speakers (Hercules) on the audio output jack and I went to the System Configuration screen and selected analog audio output. 

It would also be possible to connect a TV (or other display) via the RCA plug and a composite video signal, but I haven't tried that. I assume that would require some manual tweaking of the display resolution, and of course there would be no audio on that so it would also require analog audio connection.

You can check the hardware configuration and performance by going to the XBMC System menu and choosing System Info:

XBMC System Info Screen

I still feel like I have to laugh when I see that screen - 332MB of free memory, only about 10 percent of memory used, and it is running just fine, and will do an excellent job of playing multimedia content for me. Very nice.

If you need to change the system configuration, such as for adjusting video resolution or changing between digital (HDMI) and analog audio output, you also go to the 'System' menu, but then choose the 'Settings' option to get this screen:

System Settings
XBMC System Settings Screen

 For multimedia content I have used USB sticks containing digital pictures, music and HD movies, a USB CD/DVD drive to play music CDs and DVD movies, and of course various internet sites and services, connected via the built-in RJ-45 wired connection. I will probably try a USB WiFi adapter sometime soon, but I have not done that yet.

To summarize, my experience with the two dedicated XBMC Media Center versions on the Raspberry Pi has been very good. 

I have viewed my digital photos, played music from both local media and internet radio, and played video ranging from simple flash clips to 1080p HD video, again both from local media and online sources. 

Although general use such as moving between menus and setting up new media sources seems sluggish, when it is actually playing multimedia the performance is flawless, there is no hesitation, jerkiness or synchronization issues that I often see with other Linux systems.

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Topics: Linux, Hardware, Open Source, Operating Systems

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • OpenElec won for me

    I had a very similar experience with my Rasp Pi and OpenElec. I first tried RaspBMC and it got stuck in an infinite loop while trying to automatically update itself. So after an hour of waiting for it to finish, I gave up. My next attempt was OpenElec. I was amazed at how fast and easy it was to get it going. Seriously, all I had to do was plug in the cables, and choose OpenElec. It was up an running in just a few minutes.
  • RaspBMC experiences

    I've been running XBMC on Windows for several years and switched to RaspBMC when I first bought my rPI Model-B nine months ago. RaspBMC updates have often bricked my SD card install and that has been very frustrating because you then have to go back and re-enter all your YouTube, Vimeo etc. login details, reconfigure overscan, overclock & other system settings. Like an Italian sports car it's been flaky but when it works as advertised it has been amazing . . . for the price. You've done a brilliant job reviewing these media players but you didn't dive too deep and compare capabilities. I've recently become super-impressed with RaspBMCs new ability to render up to 192/24 FLAC and 96/24 FLAC in 5.1 surround. This capability, streaming from network sources, is really only reliable when the rPI is significantly over-clocked but seemed to work OK from a stick without additional overclocking in the RaspBMC default config. I know that XBMC have done a lot of work with the audio rendering engine, so that's the primary reason that the capability on rPI has improved, but I wonder if OpenElec is as capable of rendering HD audio as RaspBMC. I would certainly consider a change if OpenElec was more robust and maybe also a little more responsive.
    • OpenElec Should Also Benefit

      If the changes and improvements are primarily in XBMC, then OpenELEC should be getting the same benefits and improvements that Raspbmc has gotten. Of course, if there has been additional tuning done in Raspbmc that might be different, but my impression from what I have read and my personal experiences is that OpenELEC developers put a lot of effort into tuning and take a lot of pride in performance, so I would guess that they have done at least as well. In your position I would at least give OpenELEC a try for comparison - either taking the chance the next time you have to rebuild the SD card anyway, or by simply getting another SD card so you can easily swap between them.

      As for bricking, I also experienced Raspbmc doing that once, I assumed that it was because I had not shut down properly, but I had the feeling it was more than that.

      I really like your analogy with an Italian sports car, not only for XBMC use but for the RPi in general. Half the time you think you're going to tear your hair out for one reason or another, but the other half of the time it works so well, and it is so much fun, that you just sit there and smile.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • OpenELEC

    FWIW I've been running OpenELEC on my media centre for a year or so now (a Zotac Intel-based HTPC box, not a Pi) and have been very happy with it. My read is it's a very well-designed and maintained project. I've had zero issues with updates or customization, and the developers are knowledgeable and responsive.
  • slideshow interval problem

    I've been running Xbian on my Pi, although I consider it an experiment. As you've noted the interface can be sluggish, I find that after a while that just gets too annoying to deal with so I quit using it. It is pretty cool that it works at all though.

    Another problem I had was in slideshows - I wanted a 5 second interval but just couldn't get it. I think if I set the interval to 1 sec I would get 30-4 seconds actual, and if I set it to 2 sec I'd get like 10 seconds. That was kind of a drag.

    Sounds like you've had great luck with OpenELEC. I think I'll give that one a spin next.
    • s/30-4/3-4/

      funny, my fingers don't LOOK that fat
      • Extra time may be due to sluggishness

        First, your Unix/Linux background is showing... I like it. Second, I would guess that the inability to set much shorter intervals or very specific intervals might be due to the RPi cpu not being able to think that fast. Not the timer interval itself, but the overhead involved in accessing, processing and displaying the images. It pretty much has to be either that or something else...

        I agree, it is just amazing and pleasing (and fun!) that it works at all, even more so that it works so incredibly well! You are right, I have had the best XBMC results by far with OpenELEC. In fact the only problem I have had with OpenELEC so far is my ridiculously long WPA key. I agree with them in principle that I don't really need a key that long, but the simple fact is that for historical reasons I have it, and it works on everything else around here, including Raspbian, and it is within the WPA2 specs, so it really should work on OpenELEC. If someone would like to come by the house sometime and change the key in every WiFi device here, and in every WiFi device in my next-door neighbor's house, then I would not complain, but I'm not going to do all of that myself for no good reason.

        Another amusing note on that - you should see the look on the faces of some of the teenagers who come to visit, when they want to connect their phones, pads or whatever, and I tell them that the key is 63 random hex characters.

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Openelec just wins

    Excellent piece jw. Fully reflects my exeprience running both openelec and raspbmc. I find nothing in it when playing media, openelec perhaps just a smidgen more reliable and user friendly when it comes to configuration and installing add-ons. The only thing that slightly bugs me with openelec is that you can't get to a command prompt except via ssh from another machine. Not sure it matters - its so easy to use another sd card if you need a fully capable linux distro - but can't help feeling that one day it might! And the openelec installation process if you can mount your sdcard on another linux machine is truly a wonder in its simplicity. sh
  • Great article. I've used OpenELEC on my RPI most of last year

    With the HDMI video/audio, I would stream content from my homeserver.

    My brother just recently discovered the power of XMBC. Lots of free access to movies and live TV.

    The process is somewhat involved, but there are YouTube videos with lots of great information on how to do this.

    Just think, A Raspberry PI for $35.00 and some accessories (wireless keyboard, wifi) provide greater capability/options than a ROKU and Apple TV.

    If you use the software, remember to donate to support the developers efforts.
    • btw.

      Streamed Iron Man 3 HD just last week through Icefilms add-on.