Messing with Raspberry Pi

As a terminal geek and gadget nut, it was inevitable that I’d be leaping at the chance to buy a Raspberry Pi. A £30 computer-on-a-board? What’s not to love?

Mine arrived a couple of weeks ago, and since then I’ve had fun testing various builds and services out on it. I’m not a programmer, so whilst others are customising to the Nth degree I am happy just to investigate what people are building and what’s possible with a computer that can run from any USB socket (e.g. the spare one on your TV, Xbox or whatever), uses less power than any other mains device in your home, is 100% silent and doesn’t get hot. Here’s some of the things I’ve installed and played around with:

First port of call was XBMC, the popular media centre service. There’s two variants of this: RaspBMC and Xbian. Of those, the latter is the quicker, more efficient build. Ultimately, these could prove to be an awesome replacement for an Apple TV, as both have Airplay built into them, meaning it is a cinch to play your content onto your TV, for example. Annoyingly, the Airplay support is video-only; a shame as both could have made awesome portable Airplay receivers to plug into any stereo or speaker set. Nonetheless, for £30 it is a fine solution for most. As someone who owns an jailbroken Apple TV with XBMC on it, I must confess I didn’t try streaming HD content, but I gather it can do it perfectly if your media is in H.264 format.

As the above XBMC builds wouldn’t support Airplay purely for audio, I looked into alternatives and found that someone had already worked out how to set up Shairport on a Pi. This worked great for me, and provided the “portable Airplay receiver” setup I mentioned above – super handy for those of us with old-style stereo setups that don’t have some kind of bluetooth/wireless receiver built in there yet.

As a Pogoplug owner I’ve long been an advocate of the “personal cloud” – ie storing your documents, music, photos and more at home (or indeed offsite at a friend or relative’s house) on a web-accessible, low-power server rather than on Google Drive, Dropbox or an equivalent. Sadly though, Pogoplug has really slipped as a service and frankly started irritating me no end with their constant updates that ruined your existing setup. Since then, I’ve kept an eye on OwnCloud; an open-source equivalent that also went a few steps further with features like Calendar and Contact syncing, not to mention Dropbox/gDrive integrations. Its early days still in many respects, but could yet prove to be a huge hit.

As these home cloud solutions need to be permanently on, low-power, Arm-based devices like the Pi are perfect. They can sit there drawing minimal power, and will not overheat. So, its no surprise that someone rapidly set out how to install OwnCloud to a Pi. I managed it purely by following the instructions, and it was a cinch. My only gripe now is that OwnCloud itself is still more in the dominion of developers than regular users. In time though, I’ve no doubt it could be amazing.

SqueezePlug is a media server install, all set up and ready to go – including Wifi compatibility, which has been tricky on other Pi installs. Setting it up is as simple as flashing the OS to your SD card, booting up and following instructions. It can sit as a DLNA server, and is capable of also running Twonky and other media servers too. As a simple means to host your MP3s for streaming anywhere in your house, for example, it could be perfect. Likewise it can also act as an internet radio, streaming audio directly out and into your stereo. Again, the beauty here is that the Pi uses minimal power, so can just be left on 24/7 as a full operative music server. Loving that!

On the whole, my experiences with the Pi have been fairly straightforward. If I have one overall gripe, its that setting up very basic stuff returns you to Linux as it was all those years ago – ie scrabbling around in the command line trying to configure drivers and generally wrap your head around an incredibly unfriendly interface. Perversely, installing services and apps etc on a Pi is simple enough; where I had by far the more trouble was on configuring a WiFi card and a USB soundcard to improve on audio fidelity.

That said, the Pi was always designed to be a learning device; something kids could get stuck into tinkering with, without fear of murdering their parents’ laptops. So, whilst there’s been the occasional pain point with configuration, I’ve learned a lot as I went along, and that’s no bad thing. Some would even say it is part of the fun.

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