Wednesday, December 17, 2014

OpenELEC DIY - Using Raspberry Pi to make your TV smart!

This is one of those rare DIY posts. For many months, I have been hearing and reading about how cool Raspberry Pi is and how it's the bee's knees when it comes to cheap computing. Finally I decided to take Pi up on that claim. I decided to hook it up to my TV to set up an entertainment server. After some initial hiccoughs (natural considering that its a Linux distribution and requires a fair amount of know-how to install and setup), I managed to set up OpenELEC 4.2.1. With this done and with some tweaks and customizations, I now have a smart-TV since OpenELEC is a near fully functional Linux OS, a media server and the ability to hook up USB devices to said system thus giving me the option to set up a home network for all my devices. 

Requirements - 
To set up a functional OpenELEC system, here's what you need:
  • A Raspberry Pi. You can buy this from Amazon. You may also want to buy a casing for the Pi which costs approximately INR 500.00. 
  • A TV with HDMI output (most TVs nowadays have HDMI). 
  • An ethernet connection (optional)
  • A bluetooth keyboard and mouse (for input to the Pi). 
  • A micro-USB charger (a normal phone charger works adequately).
  • A micro-SD card. 
  • A laptop to set up the Pi.

The Process - 
In essence, setting up a Pi is as easy (or ought to be) as falling off a log. The broad steps are - 
  • Setting up the Pi by connecting all hardware to the Pi board
  • Setting up the micro-SD card with an operating system of your choice. 
  • First boot. 

Setting up the Pi - 
This part is quite easy. All you need to do is connect the required hardware to the right port on the Pi. The following diagram will make it clear as day  -

Setting up the Micro-SD card - 
To do this, you first need to decide which operating system to use. Raspberry offers users the choice of a very easy click-to-click installation route called NOOBS (New Out of Box Software). This is basically a menu which gives you the option to choose an operating system and install it. The Pi uses a micro-SD card as the internal storage. Since I wanted to hook up my TV to the Pi, I went for OpenELEC (Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Centre). The process to create an OpenELEC micro-SD card using a Linux machine is a tad convoluted. You can find detailed instructions here. If you've got a Windows machine, things are much easier, though I recommend using a Linux console for getting down and dirty! From Windows, it basically boils down to 

  • Format micro-SD card using FAT32. 
  • Download OpenELEC image
  • Download a disk imaging tool (you can find one here)
  • Burn the disk image onto the micro-SD card. 
  • You're good to go. 

First Boot - 
This part is quite intuitive. All you now need to do is plug in the Pi to a power source, insert the micro-SD card and boot it up. The first boot will automatically resize the card to suit its installation and throw up the following screens (in order) - 

Once you're done with the simple step-by-step installation instructions, you're good to go! 

End Game - 
Raspberry Pi has revolutionized basic computing. Though the original intent was to aid teaching and to give a low-cost solution thereto, the Pi's multi-functionality means that it is being used for a plethora of purposes right from home automation to robotics. The total cost to set up a fully functional Pi is as follows - 

In essence, that's quite a significant saving if you consider the exorbitant prices that TV manufacturers charge for smart TVs with lesser functionality. The Pi basically converts your tawdry non-smart TV into a fully functional entertainment center with leading-edge features on a scalable model.

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