Updated: April 2, 2014
Well, well, let us begin with a bit of drama. Some time back, I purchased a smart TV and thus opened a season of multimedia tinkering. To wit, I bought myself a Raspberry Pi and decided to convert into a media center. Using the NOOBS software bundled with the starter kit I bought online, I installed RaspBMC rather than openELEC, and was disappointed with the end result. This specific flavor of XBMC, customized for the Pi turned out to be less than perfect, with many a bug.
So I am going back to openELEC, which was advertised as being geekier, more difficult, and which made me skip it during my initial selection. This time, we will test this version, to see whether it can redeem the little board, because so far, I was kind of sad. openELEC, here we go.
Preparations and setup
Following the online guide on installing openELEC, I almost gave up. Whoever wrote it did such a convoluted job of making a simple thing difficult. Being a Linux person, I tried to use the Linux guide. The instructions are silly really. For example, the openELEC bundle comes with a special script that prepares the SD card, but then you have to manually copy the image to the device. Why? If you wrote a script, why not wget the image and then write it to the target media in one go, why complicate things with so many unneeded manual steps. Moreover, the instructions are outdated, incorrect and eventually did not work.
Ironically, I used the Windows section to get things working properly. Sad, if you think about it, that I had to restore to using a third-party operating system to obtain the right tools and the image, which would eventually work with my Raspberry Pi Model B.
To my great surprise, I learned that openELEC is much friendlier than RaspBMC. It also comes with a very friendly first-time wizard, which helps you configure your network. Unlike RaspBMC, which gave me endless trouble with the Wireless connection, here it worked without a hitch. Right away, I had a solid, stable connection with decent bandwidth despite the moderate signal strength and distance.
Furthermore, openELEC comes with better customization, more options, a more streamlined setup, and you get SSH right away, so you can log into the box and fiddle like a champ. So much faster and easier. Plus, you can backup the system configuration with a few quick commands.
System info & customization
Once again, openELEC is superior to RaspBMC with what you can do. For example, you can turn off the Wireless network if you want to, something I was not able to do very easily in the other interface. Then, all other options and settings are quick and simple, and they work right away. The one thing I did have to do was recalibrate the monitor and change the resolution, which was set to 720p rather than 1080p. Well, that's two things.
This XBMC feels faster, snappier than RaspBMC. It responds more quickly to commands, and overall, there's a fresher aura about it. The memory consumption and CPU utilization do appear to be the same on average, but openELEC runs less hot to the touch. Now, at the time I took the screenshot, the system was indexing videos, so the high percentages do not count. You will have to trust my word on the performance front.
Network utilization was okay, but inherently limited by signal strength and my own bandwidth, but it was good enough to play HD content with just an occasional stutter here and there. I also experienced the soap opera effect, but I fixed this using the TV features rather than any tweak inside openELEC.
Remember my complaint about RaspBMC not being able to install even a single add-on? No such problem here. Everything was fast and true. For instance, I configured the Youtube plugin within seconds, and was able to enjoy some online stuff right away.
Furthermore, this also allowed me to grab some extra stuff, including better media scrapers, other perky extensions and whatnot. I also started dabbling with live TV streaming and such, but this is still an early experiment, so I won't be reporting about it here this time. There ought to be a sequel, which will probably happen a few weeks from now, exploring the less obvious bits and pieces of openELEC and its XBMC manifestation. It will also give me time to get a deeper impression on the comings and goings of this media center and the Raspberry Pi integration.
One more aspect of the XBMC media center that did not work in RaspBMC but does work here. And it's pretty much the same version. XBMC 12.2 Frodo, so there ought to be little to no difference. Yet, it's huge. The weather applet work just fine. I was able to add a couple of locations within seconds.
Now, the interesting bits and pieces. Much like with RaspBMC, I asked my friend for his media collection and then started dabbling. Samba sharing worked fine, and throughput was good most of the time. I also played with additional movie and show scrapers, hoping to get somewhat better results than with RaspBMC. Metadata updates were fairly slow, but mostly because I was streaming over the network.
Once again, about 20% of titles were incorrect, some even dead silly. Most of so-called foreign movies were not detected at all. The results with TV shows were even less stellar, with lots of episodes missing from the listing. The total count was often wrong, and whole seasons were omitted. Much like RaspBMC, openELEC struggled with some of the content, which is really super annoying. This makes it very difficult to accept XBMC as the chief media solution. OK overall. Subtitles were fine, at least.
For example, take a look at this thing - Borat, identified as Birth, which is a fitting trollery for the master troll of them all. But there were many similar examples, and I can't possibly imagine why. With the TV shows, it was far worse, really.
Then, I tried a bunch of my own, home made videos, all in HD format, showing me driving nice sport cars. Here, all of the formats were properly detected and recognized, including MOV. Not bad, but the overall detection was not so stellar.
Well, since I was relatively pleased with XBMC in this version, I decided to try some additional tricks. Like for instance, using the XBMC app from a smartphone to control the appliance. It's okay, I guess, but the remote control looks ugly on a tablet with a relatively large screen. However, the rest of it is very decent, including the categories, storyline, details, and such.
I also fiddled with new skins. Now, some of these are really nice, and they spice up the media center most awesomely. You also get a different quality of media scraping for sure, including movie previews and additional information. While this is really cool, it presents a problem, because it can totally change the XBMC experience. Much like Linux desktop environments. Great but not reliable.
There's more to be tested, for sure. But I will follow up later on. We should check additional programs, possibly games, maybe music and pictures, too, and also focus on live TV streaming. But that's a sequel, somewhere in the unknown, foggy future.
Smart TV alternative?
Once again, we go back to this question. Can Raspberry Pi + openELEC be a good solution for a complete home media center, at about one fifth the price that most similar devices cost? Or push aside the smart features available on most TVs, like for instance, mine?
Well, so far, it's tricky. Sure, it's Linux, hackable, open, reliable and all that, but it's still missing that seamless, professional integration, which you expect from your hardware and its associated frontend software, whatever it be or runs on. Same here. The fact one fifth of my friend's collection was not really usable, playable or else is sort of a deal breaker.
I need to experiment with my own stuff too, but that's probably going to be even trickier, as the content is even more obscure, and I have my own special demands. You may thank me now for evaluating the product from the perspective of a normal person with their normal entertainment. So, tricky. But maybe doable in a month or two.
If you think your investment in the Pi and openELEC is worth the difference in price toward a fully featured smart TV or a home media center, then you should definitely spend more time tweaking and taming this little box. As far as XBMC goes, it surely shows a lot of potential, and I'm rather pleased with openELEC. Surprised and delighted. Except the setup, which is bollocks.
Still, despite a rather solid performance, there's still stuff missing. The overall integration could be better. There's more polish needed, more smoothing of rough edges, even more plugins and add-ons and whatnot, and more codecs, first and foremost. Yes, that's the big one. I can forgive bad metadata, but if it don't play, it don't stay. Regardless, openELEC is a much better solution than RaspBMC. Not the best, and there's more to be done, and we ought to grade now, I guess something like 7.5/10.