Raspberry PI – the perfect project machine?

Anyone who knows me personally or follows my twitter/blog will realise I’m the eternal hardware geek. I love tinkering with stuff, hacking it to go beyond its manufacturers limitations and generally trying to squeeze every single use out of my hardware. I used to do loads of Xbox hacking on the original Xbox, experimenting with various chips and firmwares and generally making that underpowered box do much more than it should. From web servers to media players, fully fledged emulators to NAS I used my xboxs for everything. Then along came the Apple TV2. A £99 fully self contained box of joy. With a simple software mod (jailbreak) I was able to install XBMC on the atv2 and replace my 3 original xboxs from my home. These where fully reconditioned, chips removed & donated to charity as simple xboxs once again.

The real benefits of the atv2 is hardware decoding of h264 so all my 1080p MKVs play perfectly without any lag. They play over hdmi to my Hd tv so everything looks great. I now have 2 apple tvs setup to use a central MySQL database for xbmc and all my movies & TV shows are stored on a central server. This means all my machines and media centres are in sync. I can stop watching something in the living room and resume in the bedroom, or in the office, and there is no duplication.

This setup is superb, but now I see the Raspberry PI and I’m wondering if it can overcome the only limitation of my setup, the hardware limitations of 720p output from the apple tv. This isn’t a major issue as I only have a 32 inch HDTV, but I’m always curious. I won’t update Tvs until they die, it’s a waste of money and resources. 720p is more than sufficient for this screen size but there is always that what if, what if I can build a machine using a Raspberry PI for £22 with 1080p hardware decoding of MKVs.

I tried to get a couple on the release date but they sold out so quick. I’m thinking about buying 4. 2 will become media centres and the other two will become a cheap NAS & web server to put all my retired HDDs in and run php, MySQL and a backup server.

I still need to come up with an inexpensive case for these machines, and I would really like to recycle something to create the cases. I’m tempted to put the media centre in old console cases, such as a snes case for a retro feel, but I may just fabricate something to VESA mount on the back of the TVs. I also need to figure out a good remote, I might go the USB dongle route, as you can buy the dongles in the pound shop, and the remotes are cheap as chips from china or hong kong on eBay. I also need to figure out how best to build the Linux image for the media centres. It will need to be stripped right back to use as few resources as possible and run xbmc only.

I’m still wanting to see what kind of power consumption eh can manage, with the ATV2 managing 2-5 watts draw between idle and max, I’m not sure if anything will come close. The power consumption is a big issue now as I plan to run all out computers & servers, not to mention the media centres on renewable energy. I’ve already got plans to build a wind turbine from recycle parts and some fabricated parts, and I’m going to buy some solar PV panels to roof mount at our new house. This means that we can work for free, after the initial outlay for the parts and building. That means every bit of kit I buy has to be a trade off between power and power consumption. The iMac never uses more than 120watts, the MacBook peaks at 60watts and the apple tvs at 5watts each. I have a few external HDDs which use just over 10 watts each and with the TV at 240watts I’m looking at requiring a pretty constant 500 watts which is excellent. If I can produce more I may use a feed in tariff or even power what I can of e rest of the house from it. But that’s a different blog post.

Well this blog was supposed to focus on the project in hand, but as I haven’t yet been able to get any raspberry PI boards that will need to wait for the next post. I’ll keep you up to date with this project.

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John Large

John Large - Uber Techie!

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