When the Raspberry Pi group first created their undersized computer, they envisaged it as a teaching tool, empowering students to learn about computers and programming on a simple, affordable platform. But when the device was released into the wild, the hacker community found many new uses for it, and one of the most popular applications of the Raspberry Pi is as a surprisingly effective media center.
The Raspberry Pi is in fact well suited for this use. It's small, silent and cheap, which are all great attributes of a media center PC. Here is a rundown of the projects that allow the Pi to perform media center duties.
This project outlines the full set of steps required to get the Raspberry Pi up and running as a media center. As home-brew computing projects go, it is relatively straightforward. If your raspberry Pi is already up and running and connected to a TV via HDMI, you're already mostly there. The remaining steps involve adding an SD card and card reader for media streaming, and optionally adding local storage. You can also add a compatible remote control if you aren't interested in using the default keyboard and mouse. Another option is to add local storage via an external hard drive, but you can also stream from another computer.
The final step in the process is to install a Linux distribution on your Raspberry Pi that includes the media center software. The widely available versions for the Pi are all based on the very popular XBMC software. The guide above uses what is probably the most popular distribution, Raspbmc.
However, other distributions exist that also include a version of XBMC. OpenElec is another version that is growing in popularity. It is a lightweight distribution that is optimized for media center use.
XBian is another distribution. The distribution you use is really a matter of personal preference as each has its benefits and drawbacks, all of which are fairly exhaustively discussed online. The main difference from my perspective is that OpenElec provides the better balance between speed (less bloated than Raspbmc) and stability (more robust than Xbian). However, again this is really a matter of preference, and worth exploring. An article here outlines many of the details.
As mentioned, there are a few other parts that are required in addition to the Raspberry Pi for media center functionality. The SD card is required, ideally at least 8GB in size, and as always with the Raspberry Pi, the computer is sold as a bare bones unit, so a case may be required based on your tastes. Also important is the power supply used, while most USB phone chargers are adequate, some are not, and can create critical problems when using the Pi as a media center.
Drawbacks to Raspberry Pi
Once the Raspberry Pi is set up, it performs admirably, streaming 1080p video very well, especially considering this is not the use for which it is intended. While the Pi is very good at streaming local files from computers over a network, it begins to fall short with streaming video over the Internet, likely due to the increased processing overhead of decoding Flash, Silverlight or whatever video container is being used.
Also XBMC on the Pi is currently not compatible with Netflix, one of the most popular services for online streaming video, making use of the Pi as a media center a bit of a deal-breaker for some. Also, the modest price of the Pi itself can be slightly misleading as with all of the required accessories, the media center can cost up to $100, which is still quite reasonable.
Despite these shortcomings, the Raspberry Pi on the whole performs very well as a media center, and might be a good option for someone with DIY leanings looking for a cheap media center setup.