rpik2

Getting Started with a Raspberry Pi and Kodi

For as long as I’ve been running Kodi\XBMC, I’ve always been on the look out for a way to recreate my home setup on the road; something beefy enough to handle high definition content but still fits easily in my weekend bag. I rejected the original Raspberry Pi as an under-powered “hobby” PC, but with the complete flop of the other candidates on the horizon (looking at you, Intel Compute Stick), the options were fairly limited. However, a friend asked me about running Kodi on the newer Pi 2 and after looking at the hardware specs, it seemed like the right time for a test drive.

I usually do a decent bit of research to prepare for a project, but in this case I didn’t get far beyond googling “Raspberry Pi HTPC”. I’d come across MyMediaExperience.com before, and when their “The Only Raspberry Pi 2 Kodi (XBMC) Tutorial You Will Ever Need” showed up as my first result, I figured I had this in the bag. Onward to Amazon!

Parts

Most of this is from the parts list recommended by MyMediaExperience’s guide, however there are a few deviations:

  • I originally bought the power supply they suggested, but the unit I received turned out to be DOA. While troubleshooting I started trying other power bricks I had lying around, and lo and behold the iXCC Dual USB block in my travel kit worked like a charm. This dovetails nicely with my plans to use this as a travel HTPC, however if you don’t need the flexibility and want to save $3, I did get a replacement from Kootek which worked just fine.
  • The Flirc USB Remote Receiver allows you to use a regular old IR remote to control your HTPC. I didn’t pick one up because I’m planning on using this pretty exclusively for travel, but I have two for my normal home HTPC’s and they work great.
  • I chose to buy a regular SD card; if you do as well, you’ll also need a SD card reader for your computer.
  • With the use of an adapter, the 3.5mm port will also output video, so if you have an older TV or monitor which takes RCA you’ll need one of these. Be warned though, there are apparently standards issues with some cables.

Software Prep

Now that you’ve got all of the parts, you need to set up your SD card. I am going to walk you through installing OpenELEC because it’s slightly quicker and lighter than OSMC (formerly Raspbmc).

  1. Insert your new SD card into your computer.
  2. Go to OpenELEC’s download page and download the latest disk image for “RPi2 Second-Generation quad core models”. It should be called something like “[Stable] OpenELEC 5.0.8 (arm) Disk image”. Make sure not to accidentally download the “beta” release; if you download the beta release, you’re probably going to have a bad time.
  3. Unzip the file you just downloaded. If you need help unzipping a “.gz” file, check out 7zip.
  4. Download and install Win32 Disk Imager. If you’re on a Mac, I hear good things about ApplePi Baker.
  5. Run Win32 Disk Imager with administrative rights (right-click on it, select “run as administrator”. Depending on your settings, you may be prompted to enter your Windows username and password).
  6. Check to make sure it grabbed the right drive on the right and then select the image you just downloaded by clicking on the blue folder icon. The file should be called something like “OpeneELEC-RPi2.arm-xxx.img”.
  7. Click “Write” to begin!

Assembly

I knew it would be easy, but I was still surprised by the “build” process: pull off some tape and apply the thermal pad, four screws to hold the thing together and done. Aside from some slightly sub-par screws (I mostly stripped one without even realizing it), the Flirc case is well designed and fits perfectly.

First Time Power Up

The red LED should light right up when you plug it in; if it blinks or slowly fades out, the Pi isn’t getting enough power and you should try a different PSU. If your card is formatted correctly, you should also see the green LED start to blink as the Pi boots up.

Setting Up Kodi

I’ve already written about setting up Kodi, but there are a few things you should do specifically for the Raspberry Pi:

Setting Up Some Addons

I plan on using a USB hard drive with my Pi to provide content, but I’m going to supplement that with some streaming services as backup. To get at these web-based services you need to install some addons; these are almost entirely community-developed, and mileage will definitely vary depending on developer enthusiasm and the benevolence of the ultimate content provider. Below is a list of plugins that I was able to get working; they are all available in the “video add-on” section of the immensely useful ‘SuperRepo’ repository.

  • Netflix – I’m still working on this one. I don’t have a netflix account, and I keep forgetting to sign up for a trial or borrow one so I can test. Apologies.
  • BBC iPlayer – I’m a huge fan of BBC’s nature programming (ok, and Downton Abbey) and while there was a distinct lack of Crawley’s, the add-on does bring a fair bit of British programming, if you’re into that. The one change I did have to make was to enable the “Use proxy” option, which makes sense considering iPlayer is technically available only in the UK.
  • Smithsonian Channel – 50/50 split between semi-legitimate nature documentaries and less factual “ancient aliens”-esque stuff.
  • Stream All The Sources – This add-on (usually shortened to the acronym SALTS) reminds me a lot of what IceFilms used to be. It’s got a wide selection of both TV shows and movies of respectable quality. It also worked out of the box, which was a nice bonus.
  • 1Channel – This add-on also walks the IceFilms path and has a similarly good selection. The one disappointment I found was that all of the content I tested appeared to be standard definition.
  • SouthPark.de – All South Park, all the time. When you first run it, you’ll get prompted for some settings; select “DE” for the site version and “EN” for the language.

Skins

Pretty skins are great, but their prettiness usually relies on artwork and effects, both of which consume valuable system resources. I’d recommend either the default “Confluence” skin or something similarly lightweight.

Disable Unnecessary Features

Once you’ve figured out what you’re going to be using the RPi for, you should go through and disable pretty much anything else. Here’s some of the lower-hanging fruit.

  • SSH – Provides remote access but also a theoretical security problem if your root password is the same as the combination on my luggage.
  • SMB\Samba – This is the sharing protocol used by Windows, so if you’re not sharing with Windows boxes feel free to turn it off.
  • Bluetooth – If you don’t have a bluetooth device, no reason to run this.
  • Web Services – Kodi’s HTTP-driven controls; potential to be worth or waste of time, depending on your situation.
  • Zeroconf – Used to communicate about new devices on the local network, and needed if you plan on doing much on your local network, including AirPlay or any mobile app remotes.
  • Airplay – Apple’s screen-sharing protocol. The Kodi implementation seems to work 50% of the times I try it.
  • Weather – Always seems like a good idea, but never really pans out.

Notes

Operating Systems

I ended up skipping it as part of my power supply troubleshooting efforts, but the Raspberry Pi Foundation has built a pretty nice OS install manager they call NOOBS (new out of box software). If you’re not comfortable or too lazy to set up OpenELEC, you can use NOOBS’s fancy menu-driven interface to do it for you in exchange for a wee bit slower boot time. I chose not to but they even sell SD cards with NOOBS pre-loaded, especially helpful if you don’t have access to a functioning SD card reader.

SD Cards

Regardless of where you buy your card or whether it has NOOBS pre-loaded, make sure you buy from a reputable vendor; counterfitting is a real problem with SD cards, and a bootleg card will give you no end of headaches. If you decide to get a clean card and install your own OS, you still have to worry about counterfeiters but you also need to make sure to get one that’s been confirmed to work, as the Raspberry Pi is a little picky about the cards it reads.

Caveats with Streaming Services

Because of the flakiness of third-party services, the streaming add-on side of Kodi has historically been a bit of a quagmire. On the up-side, there are plugins for most of the major streaming services nowadays, and quite a few “less than legitimate” services with wide catalogs to fill the gaps. However, both have their issues; I was able to successfully test the Prime Instant Video add-on for a single day before some changes made by Amazon pretty much killed it, a fairly common problem for these types of plugins. Less legitimate services less prone to being frozen out because their add-ons are usually developed “in-house”, but are vulnerable to law enforcement take-downs and other issues.

 

Change Log

07-20-2016 – The new Raspberry Pi 3 is out, and despite coming with on-board Bluetooth and WiFi is cheaper than the old 2. Updated RPI version and Amazon link, and removed the Wifi adapter from the parts list. However, to my sorrow some of the design changes to the new 3 make the Flirc case a bit frustrating to work with, and so it also got dropped. There are tons of cases on Amazon (and I hear they even sell them off Amazon now too), so you shouldn’t have trouble finding one highly rated that catches your eye. When in doubt, the new RPi Foundation case isn’t purple and white anymore…