Click to view The best home theater PCs are small, quiet, and inexpensive—so the bite-size, $35 Raspberry Pi is the perfect choice. Here's how to turn this little DIY board into a cheap, silent media center in just a half hour.
Check out the video above for a quick demo of what the project entails, and what you'll get at the end. Music in the video by Revolution Void.
It's Raspberry Pi week at Lifehacker, and all week we'll be showing you some cool DIY projects you can put together with this little miracle of a device. If you haven't bought one yet, check out our introduction to the Pi to learn more about what it is, what you'll need, and the cool stuff you can do with one. If you aren't familiar with XBMC, our favorite media center software, check out our complete guide to creating a kickass play-everything media center for more info (then come back here).
What You'll Need
Getting XBMC up and running on the Pi is easy, but first you need to gather up your materials. Getting the right ones can be the difference between a 30 minute media center and a 30 hour headache, so here's what you'll want to pick up (though you may have most of it already):
An HDMI or composite video cable: You'll need this cable to connect your Raspberry Pi to your television or monitor. You can get these cheaply at Monoprice if you don't have one already.
An 8GB Class 10 SD card (or better) and a card reader (if you don't have one built into your computer): You can go smaller or slower, but an 8GB Class 10 card will get you the best performance, and they're pretty cheap. Most SD cards will work, but some aren't compatible and will therefore cause issues. You can find out which cards are compatible, or locate a place to buy a compatible card with an operating system pre-installed, on this page.
A USB keyboard and mouse: Any standard USB keyboard or mouse will do. Wireless (non-Bluetooth) peripherals worked for me, but I had to unplug them and plug them back in after the Raspberry Pi booted. You'll have fewer issues with fully wired keyboards and mice.
An ethernet cable: Any standard ethernet cable will do.
A good quality, micro USB power supply that can provide at least 700mA at 5V: Most modern smartphone chargers supply 700mA at 5V, but not all do. Check the bottom of your charger and look for a block of text. You'll see its output values in that text which may read 0.7A instead of 700mA). If it offers at least that much power, you're probably good to go. Just don't use a poor quality charger or you may run into problems.
A USB hard drive (Optional): If you don't want to stream videos from your other computers, you'll want a USB hard drive to hook up to the Pi to store your videos.
A case for your Raspberry Pi (Optional): If you don't want your Pi's bare board sitting out in your entertainment unit, we recommend grabbing a case like these ones from ModMyPi to put it in.
A 3.5mm stereo audio cable (Optional): You only need this if you're using analog video and want to connect your Raspberry Pi to a set of external speakers or internal ones on your television or monitor. If you're using HDMI, you can skip this.
The Raspbmc Installer, which will put Raspbmc—the Raspberry Pi-optimized version of XBMC—on your SD card. You can get this for free on Raspbmc's web site.
What You Will (and Won't) Get
The Raspberry Pi makes a dandy media center, especially for the cost. When you're done, you'll have an XBMC box that can play 720p video like a champ from other computers on your network or from a locally connected USB drive. It'll be tiny, so you can fit it anywhere, and completely silent, so you don't have any noise competing with the sound from your movie.
However, compared to other more powerful builds, there are some things the Pi does not do. It will not stream content from the internet (like Hulu), and you may experience stuttering with 1080p videos. This depends a bit on what kind of audio you have on your videos, as well as where they're stored—if you stream them over the network, they'll be more likely to stutter than if you're playing them directly from a USB hard drive. These things may improve as the software improves, but right now they're not quite there enough for us to guarantee flawless 1080p playback.
The Raspberry Pi's menus will definitely feel a bit slower as well, and it won't load high-res fanart as well as more powerful builds—so if you're looking to have a particularly tricked-out, gorgeous XBMC skin, you might be out of luck here. However, as a secondary media center for a smaller TV, or as a media center for simple 720p playback, it's a force to be reckoned with.
Step One: Put Raspbmc On Your SD Card
Before you even hook up your Raspberry Pi to your TV, you'll need to get the Raspbmc installer on your SD card. So, to start, insert your SD card into your computer. If you're using Windows, download the installer from this page and run it on your desktop to put Raspbmc on your SD card. Mac and Linux users will need to run a few terminal commands, but it's nothing too difficult. Once you've got the installer on your SD card, eject it and move onto the next step.
Step Two: Hook Up Your Raspberry Pi and Install Raspbmc
Now it's time to hook your Raspberry Pi up to your TV. Everything should be pretty self-explanatory here: plug the HDMI cable into your TV, plug the ethernet cable into your router, insert your SD card into your Raspberry Pi, and plug the Micro USB power cable into your wall. When you plug it into the wall, it should turn on and boot up from the SD card, beginning the installation process.
You shouldn't have to do anything during this step. Just make sure the installer does its thing and come back in 15 to 25 minutes when it's finished. When its done, it should automatically reboot into XBMC.
Step Three: Tweak Your Settings for Optimal Playback
Surprise! You're already most of the way there, and it barely took any work. Now that you've got XBMC booted up, all you need to do is tweak a few settings to make sure everything runs smoothly. Here's what we recommend:
Resolution, found under Settings > System > Video Output. If you're only going to be watching 720p videos, you should change this to 720p. It should help the system and menus feel a little snappier.
Overscan, found under Settings > System > Video Output > Video Calibration. If you find that the XBMC interface stretches beyond the edges of your TV screen, you'll want to calibrate your video using this wizard to fix it.
System Performance Profile, under Programs > Raspbmc Settings > System Configuration. This is a Raspberry Pi-specific setting that basically allows you to overclock the device, making everything run a little bit faster and a little bit smoother. I recommend trying the "Fast" setting, which will speed everything up without sacrificing stability. The "Super" setting will be significantly faster still, but voids your warranty and introduces the possibility of instability. You can also perform more advanced overclocking tweaks if you're familiar with overclocking.
MPEG2 Codec License, which you'll need to buy from the Raspberry Pi store and enable under Programs > Raspbmc Settings > System Configuration. This allows you to play MPEG-2 videos, which the Pi cannot play out of the box. If you don't have any MPEG-2 Videos, you can skip this.
When you're done with that, you can jump right on over to our Complete Guide to XBMC to see how to add videos to your library, install add-ons, and customize your setup from head to toe. If you really want to dig in your heels, check out the other XBMC builds for the Raspberry Pi, like OpenELEC or Xbian. They take a bit more work to install, but may be a bit faster in some cases, although they're also a little less feature-filled. Give each a try and decide which you like best!