Using XBMC on an Old Computer (Specifications, Setup and Review)

This guide covers how to install XBMC on an old computer, as well as providing details of the low spec PC I’m running it on and also a review of the PC media centre system.

Warning: Like a lot of technology, XBMC can be used for illegal uses, but you shouldn’t! This media centre solution has a lot of amazing ‘legal’ benefits, and I suggest you use your common-sense when using the impressive PC media centre solution.

XBMC Main Screen

Introduction
It is easy to clutter up a bedroom, lounge or another room with technology, and one such method is to buy numerous ‘media’ boxes. This is exactly what has occurred to me, and before I knew it my lounge had a DVD player, Freeview box and a NowTV box all eating up space.

Worse yet none of my devices provided everything I wanted, and I didn’t want to start buying more ‘bespoke’ systems. To cut a long story short, this lead me to look at XBMC, a mature media system solution. It is capable of running on both small and large devices (including x86 PCs), providing a range of features and I was keen to see what it could do for me.

XBMC Nasa ISS FeedI wasn’t expect it to replace my other devices, but instead to enhance my lounge setup without costing a lot or being locked to a bespoke hardware solution.

So this is what I set out to do:

  • Get rid of my old DVD player.
  • Watch podcasts.
  • Occasionally bore people with family photos from a NAS (network attached system).
  • Learn more about XBMC.

Sure XBMC is capable of far more, but for me this was a toe dipping exercise and a chance to feed my podcast habit from the comfort of my sofa!

To keep this guide simple, I didn’t bother to look at anything that wasn’t supplied ‘out of the box’. So whilst I can easily view my photos via a NAS, watch DVDs and watch podcasts, I am unsure about Amazon Prime Instant Video, BBC iPlayer, Netflix and NowTV. Perhaps there are community workarounds, which I presume are easier (or perhaps only possible) for Windows users but I’ve not investigated.

I will probably look at add-ons in more details in the future, so please perform a search for XBMC on the blog, and perhaps you will find additional blog posts.

Read further to see how I installed XMBC, the hardware I’m using, and whether I prefer the Linux or Windows version. This guide and review are the result of the last few months of using XBMC. I hope you find the blog post useful.

 

My lounge.
I live in a flat with a massive lounge area, that is actually also my dining, study and work area. I wanted a device that could serve more than one purpose and if possible be upgradable!

Plus I didn’t know whether I would like the XBMC experience, so only wanted to invest in technology that I could easily recycle for other uses. This meant a PC was an easy decision, especially given the low specifications required.

I know others would prefer a smaller device, which is possible with a XBMC, but for me, a cheap x86 PC was an okay compromise for the time being. Others use the package on a Raspberry Pi, Shuttle PC, Android boxes and other small form factor PCs. So whilst some of the other options would of still been cheap, they were not the right solution for me, especially as I also wanted to use it for playing DVDs.

With cheap computers around, it all seemed like a great idea, until I started thinking, I don’t want to use a keyboard and mouse all the time. How easy will it be to setup? Will the boot up time be painful? Can others easily use the equipment? Doubt quickly entered my mind, and I wondered if I should I just go and buy a Roku, or a more expensive ‘smart device’? In the end, I decided to move forward and test XBMC with a tower PC.

 

My cheap computer specification for XBMC.

The hardware
Whilst many people are looking to place small computers into their lounges, I have the space for a tower computer. I brought a cheap computer on eBay, and this included a monitor that was bundled with the computer, which I didn’t need for this project, but is now a second monitor on my desk!

In another room I have an old games PC running Microsoft Vista, so in the end I tested XBMC on two computer systems just to see how it performed on linux and Windows.

Below are the specifications of the two computers I used it on. I’m not stating these are the lowest specifications to run XBMC. They just happens to be what I’ve used! I’ve only played podcasts, watched DVDs and looked at a few photos.

Hardware Specification I’ve used for Linux:

  • Pentium Dual-Core CPU E5200 @ 2.50GHz
  • 1GB RAM
  • Using motherboard onboard Mesa DRI Intel G41 x86/MMX/SSE2 graphics at 1024×768 @ 60.00Hz resolution.
  • X MB SATA hard drive.
  • Standard DVD drive.
  • Wireless PCI card.

Hardware Specification I’ve used for Microsoft Windows Vista:

  • Pentium Dual-Core CPU E5300 @ 2.60GHzXBMC Hardware Spec
  • 2GB RAM
  • ATI Radeon HD 5400 Series Graphics card at 1440×900 @ 60.00Hz resolution.XBMC Graphics Spec
  • X MB SATA hard drive.
  • Standard DVD drive.
  • Connected via ethernet using Powerline adapter.

Sorry I didn’t bother to note down the hard drive sizes, but both are probably around 80-250GB and are what came with the computers.

 

The remote control!
I brought a cheap remote control from ebay, which I’ve regretted! I don’t recommend you buy the model shown in the photo below. It is hard to configure and slow to use on my linux system. I will likely look at bluetooth and joystick options in the future.Remote Control Used with XBMC

Linux or Windows?
I tried both and all screenshots for this article were created using XBMC running via Windows Vista. However I’ve now settled on XBMCBuntu (a Linux version).

Benefits of running XBMC via Linux:

  • Quick boot up and shut down times.
  • No Microsoft Windows headaches!

 

How I installed XBMC.
I’ve opted for the low maintenance Linux route, so those are the instructions I will provide for the XBMCbuntu version. It appears that they’ve released an updated installation CD image for Frodo, since I setup my computer. If you want to run another version click here.

So the XBMCbuntu steps should ideally be:

  1. Download the right ISO image * for your computer system.
  2. Then burn the ISO to a CD using an application such as CDBurnerXP.Burn XBMC ISO Image
  3. Make sure the PC can boot from DVD and run the installation DVD.

* An ISO file is an image of a CD/DVD disc. You are then able to burn the ‘image’ to a disc.

XBMC Write Disc ImageBelow are the instructions for the earlier version of the DVD, which I’ve included as I ran into problems, and thought someone might appreciate the solution.

Originally I tried to install Frodo 12.2 via the xbmcbuntu-122Intel-AMD.iso, but it failed to install!

I received the error:
The installer encountered an error copying files to the hard disk:

[Errno 5] Input/output error
This is often due to a faulty CD/DVD disk or drive, or a faulty hard disk.

XBMC Installation FailedSo what did I do? I reburnt the installation DVD, changed the DVD drive and even changed the hard drive! Guess what… I got the same error!

Warning: You will end up with an older version of Ubuntu installed, by following the instructions below. You are not to hold anyone responsible for any issues / problems that occur!

These are the steps I took:

  1. Download the earlier version. i.e. xbmcbuntu-11.0.iso
  2. Create an installation CD by burning the ISO to a disc.
  3. Installed XBMCBuntu 11.0 Eden.
  4. Boot into XBMC and then ‘Exit’, instead of powering off.XBMC Exit
  5. Log into the Ubuntu gnome system, rather than the usually GUI.XBMCbuntu
  6. Run the ‘Synaptic Package Manager’, and search for XBMC.XBMC Synaptic Package Manager
  7. You might need to ‘reload’ the list to see the latest stable release, and when ready install the latest version of XBMC.XBMC Linux Upgrade
  8. Reboot your computer.

This means that you end up with ‘Frodo’ installed, which at the time of writing is the latest version of XBMC, but running on Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot.

 

Conclusion
I’m still not looking at my photo collection that often! Oops, but at least I can enjoy a slideshow from the comfort of my sofa if I want to.

The DVD functionality has been good, which means I got rid of my old DVD player. I don’t watch a lot of DVDs, but it is good to have the option available.

I’ve been enjoying tech and space podcasts. I’ve still have not sat down to look through all the add-ons, and explore the impressive community forum, but will do soon.

 

So what’s next?
As stated I’m not interested in watching illegal content, but for a cheap price I’ve got an okay media centre which I might upgrade. i.e. Blueray, Freeview tuner card etc. I’m looking forward to the next stable release of XBMC and perhaps one day I will install it on a smaller system. Expect some related blog posts in the future.

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