My Raspberry Pi had arrived while I was at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, and I got finally some hours to test drive it. As far as contemporary PC hardware goes, RPi is of course seriously underpowered little plaything. On the other hand, when you compare it with to some other devices (like smartphones, embedded systems), it does not look so bad. The principal reason for its development should also be taken into account (promoting computer literacy, encouraging tinkering with hardware and software tools, helping kids learn to code). I have been looking for some time for an affordable and functional HTPC system for serving media in our living room, and thus my first test drive involved setting up RPi as a media center PC. The Raspian “wheezy” distro that they recommend on the Raspberry Pi Foundation website was too slow and unresponsive for my taste to do anything. I tried also Raspbmc version of XBMC media center, but I could not get it to install any addons at all. So finally I did find a place that instructed how to install OpenElec, an embedded operating system that has been built to run XBMC – from a Windows PC (http://www.squirrelhosting.co.uk/hosting-blog/hosting-blog-info.php?id=9). Now XBMC was getting online, updating itself and installing addons nicely. It also booted up decently in c. 20-40 seconds.
It turned out that the major issue for me finally was a network infrastructure related one: we did not have a LAN socket in the corner where our TV set is situated. I tried to learn about WiFi USB dongles that could run out of the box, plug-and-play style with the OpenElec/XBMC, but it would had been necessary to know the exact version of chipset and firmware to make sure whether the USB dongle in question would work, so I decided to stay with the wired Internet/Ethernet connection instead, and added another layer to the (rather instesting) network topology of our home by setting up a Powerline Ethernet bridge (using two Zyxel PLA4215 units). While I was at it, I also got a powered USB 2.0 hub (a basic Belkin thing) and wireless keyboard-touchpad combo for comfortable sofa-based media surfing. The latter was a Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400, which is a rattling, plastic thing, but has two important benefits for me: (a) it is cheap, (b) it has an inconspicuous power switch hidden on the side. Anyone with one or two (or, indeed, three) hyperactive toddlers in the house can witness why these are good things. I have already e.g. a broken Logitech diNovo Edge lying around somewhere. Surprisingly, everything seemed to work after a couple of system reboots.
As to the actual use of the OpenElec/XBMC/Raspberry Pi system, I have not yet much experience to share. I can say that the software is still buggy and occasionally rather slow. It is difficult to say what the system is doing when the playback or a menu does not open immediately, whether it is buffering data or whatever is going on. Attempting to stop the playback of a HD video file can suddenly jam the whole system to a complete halt. But yes, I can play music, videos and watch photos in a full HD screen from multiple sources, from both local network and from various online services in a more or less satisfactory manner. There seems to be much potential and room to explore further in this surprising little system. One can only hope that the energy of the community does not die out, but the development of software continues far beyond this early stage. It is, after all, really early in the evolution of Raspberry Pi ecosystem, as some developers have not yet even received the unit they are waiting for. Much of the OS distributions and applications are thus more at ‘alpha’ rather than even ‘beta’ stage at this point. But taken that, this is really entertaining little playground to experiment with, and to fool around.