Creating a hotel-friendly portable media centre with Raspberry Pi

In which I detail how I built a portable media centre that can be used in any house or hotel room, allowing me to watch HD movies, YouTube, and other video content, stream Rdio, Spotify, Soundcloud and more – all using the £25 Raspberry Pi. Read on for a walkthrough and some handy pointers…

Its been both fun and frustrating messing around with my Raspberry Pi, as I continue to find that the big wins are easy enough (e.g. installing an operating system) whilst supposedly simple tasks can become painfully frustrating. Wireless networking is one such area, and I’ve lost more time than is healthy trying to get my R-Pi up and running with wifi.

Ultimately, I’ve concluded that you’re far better off taking the path of least resistance. Where WiFi is concerned, that means using an adapter that uses the Realtek RTL8188CUS chip, because someone created a very useful script that will do all the configuring for you. I bought the MicroNet N150 adapter for this reason – plus it is tiny and runs on minimal power, which means it won’t require any powered USB hub in order to ensure consistent performance.

So why the fuss over WiFi? Well, because what I had in mind was a portable XBMC build which I could then use wherever I was – be that a hotel room, a relative’s house or whatever. The aim was to build a system that could run on WiFi easily, because this provided two big benefits: firstly, I could stream media or whatever I wanted as desired. Secondly, it meant I could also control XBMC using the official XBMC remote app for iPhone. That would mean no keyboard or mouse would be required, ensuring I could travel light.

To achieve this, I opted for the Xbian version of XBMC. For R-Pi there are two XBMC builds: RaspBMC and Xbian. The latter is quicker, but crucially also has better support for WiFi, with a script included for full configuration which – if you have a compatible adapter like mine above – makes setting up wireless access a doddle.

Installation was a cinch; I just downloaded the image and applied it to my card as per normal. Then, once XBMC had booted up (with the R-Pi connected to my home TV and wired LAN), I just went to Program > Xbian Settings and requested that it run the Wireless Config script at next boot. One restart and a few questions later, and my wireless card was up and running.

That meant I could use XBMC anywhere, with the official XBMC remote app being used to control it. However having done this, one critical thing occurred to me, namely that wherever I was I’d need 1) a wireless network, and 2) to reconfigure the XBMC wifi setup to accomodate the new network SSID and password. Even worse, I’d need a keyboard and mouse to reconfigure the wireless. The wifi element isn’t 100% necessary of course – however it ensures that if your TV is nowhere near a LAN port you can still use it easily enough. Otherwise you’d be lugging around a massive network lead too which is hardly ideal.

Then I realised something: if I set the XBMC wireless up to look for my £20 portable router, all I’d need to do is plug that router in wherever I was and I could get online even if there was no wifi, and without having to reconfigure the XBMC install each time.

So, I reconfigured the wifi to look for my portable router’s hotspot every time – and that now means I have a tiny, portable media centre which can stream (or play from local HD) 1080p movies, stream music from various services, tell me the weather and even (network allowing) stream live TV if I wanted it to. Oh, and it doubles as an Airplay receiver too!

What I also love is that the whole system can run off USB power. So, no need to carry round heavy power adapters. In terms of packing this thing to travel with, all that’s needed on top of my usual gear is the R-Pi (with my tiny wifi adapter plugged in), a USB lead and a HDMI cable.

Love it.

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