How To: Make a Raspberry Pi Media Center in 4 Easy Steps! (Low Cost)



If you haven’t heard of the Raspberry Pi yet, it’s time to come out from under your rock. It’s better than the delicious treat with which it shares its name, and is a powerful computer for its tiny size. Programming enthusiasts, modders, and even schoolchildren are now using the Raspberry Pi all over the world. It can be used as a miniature Linux PC, power a media center, or even control a remote-controlled quad-copter.

raspberry-piThe kicker? This little bundle of components only costs around $35 USD.

Closer to the beginning of the year, I began looking for a replacement to keeping backups of my media on my PC. I tried cloud backup solutions like Dropbox and Google Drive paired with apps like AllCast and CloudCaster with varying levels of success. The real issue with cloud solutions was encoding the media. Simply put, the Chromecast just can’t stream your long-form, high-definition media without something on the back end handling the brunt of the processing power. Drive and Dropbox aren’t configured to do this, while Netflix, HBO Go, etc. are.

So, how can you watch the legal rips of your DVDs and Blu-Rays* that you’ve spent hours backing up? Why, with a Raspberry Pi, of course! Setting up a Raspberry Pi media center requires a little more of an investment, but it’s a relatively easy and fun project to do that doesn’t cost a whole lot. Don’t worry, this is dead simple, too. Follow along, and let me walk you through creating your very own Raspberry Pi media center!

What You Will Need**

Below is a list of the parts that I bought to use for my Raspberry Pi media center. Note that you may splurge and purchase a larger, more expensive CanaKit bundle if you’d like to get most of these components at once. You’ll also need a PC running Windows 7 or Windows 8 and an Ethernet cable connected to the Internet.

Step 1: Set Up NOOBS

First, we need to load the Raspberry Pi operating system (OS) onto the SD card. If you purchase one of the larger CanaKit bundles, it will come with an SD card pre-loaded with the New Out Of the Box Software (NOOBS) used to run the Raspberry Pi. Fortunately for you, I experienced issues with the pre-loaded NOOBS so that you don’t have to. Long story short, the copy of NOOBS that comes on these cards is usually outdated, which will cause problems further on down the line in your setup. Even if you purchase a new SD card that is empty, it’s a good idea to wipe it just to be safe. So, let’s wipe that card and put the latest copy of NOOBS on there, shall we?

sdformatter-screenshotDownload and install SDFormatter by clicking “Accept” at the bottom of this link. When that’s done, insert your SD card into your PC, and open SDFormatter. Select “Option” and make sure that you select “Quick Format” and turn on “Format Size Adjustment.” Allow the program to format the SD card. This will wipe out the old copy of NOOBS and leave the card blank.

Next, download the NOOBS Offline and Network Install ZIP file from the official Raspberry Pi website. Open the ZIP file using your preferred program (I use 7-Zip, though most are free or have a free trial period) and extract all of the files to a new folder on your desktop. Make things easy by naming this folder “NOOBS Files.”

Open the SD card that you formatted using Windows’ File Explorer, then open the “NOOBS Files” folder that you just extracted the NOOBS files to. Select all of the files in the “NOOBS Files” folder and drag them to the SD card. Allow the transfer to finish, then eject and remove the SD card from the PC. Congratulations, Step 1 is done!

Step 2: Prepare Your Pi & Media

Time to organize your files! Make sure that TV shows are divided into folders by show name, season number, and then episode number. Raspbmc, which will act as our media center, indexes and reads files best when they’re set up in this way. Individual TV show files should be named as such: TV Show Title S01E01, TV Show Title S01E02, etc. If you need to rename the files but don’t want to do it by hand, have FileBot do it for you automatically and easily – FileBot is free and awesome.

Here are three examples of how you can organize your folders from the XBMC Wiki:

TV Shows                  <<Source folder, Content: TV shows>>
   |----TV Show 1
   |       |----Season #
   |            |--Files
   |----TV Show 2 (year)
   |       |--Files
   |----TV Show 3
   |       |----2008
   |            |--Files

I prefer option 1. Now, create the following folders on your external hard drive:

  • Movies
  • TV Shows

Drag and drop your files to their appropriate folders on your external. Movie files go directly inside the “Movies” folder, and folders of separate TV shows go inside the “TV Shows” folder. Allow the transfer to complete.

Next, let’s get everything set up. Plug the SD card into the Raspberry Pi, connect the HDMI cable to the Pi and your TV, connect the Ethernet cable, and plug the USB adapter for the Favi mini keyboard into one of the two USB ports on the Pi.

Step 3: Set Up Raspbmc

raspberry-pi-install-1Plug in the Raspberry Pi to power and allow it to boot up. You’ll be presented with a menu from which you may select several operating systems. Scroll down to Raspbmc and select it. Raspbmc is a Raspberry Pi version of the open-source Xbox Media Center (XBMC) which will allow us to organize and watch our videos.

raspberry-pi-install-5Now, this might seem like the hardest part, but all you really need to do is be patient while the setup takes care of itself. Setup can take a little while, and the Pi will restart many times and update via the Internet. Eventually, you’ll be presented with the main screen for Raspbmc.

Step 4: Import Your Files & Enjoy!

Now that Raspbmc is set up on your Raspberry Pi, there’s only one step left. We need to get Raspbmc to recognize your files and start indexing them.

Plug your external hard drive into the powered USB hub and then plug the hub into the power outlet using the supplied power cord. The reason you want to use a powered USB hub instead of plugging the external into the Pi is because the Pi may not be able to supply a constant stream of power to the external, which will both disrupt video playback and potentially damage your equipment. Use the USB hub’s included data cable to connect the hub to the Pi’s only open USB port.

Once everything’s connected and Raspbmc is booted up and you’re on the main screen, scroll to the Videos section and select it (not either of the two options underneath it). From here, click “Add Videos…”, which will allow you to select and add your external hard drive as a source.

xbmcYou’ll notice your Movies and TV Shows folders are now visible. Scroll down to “Movies” and right click on it. Near the bottom is the “Set Content” option. Select that, then select movies as the content type and IMDB as the scaper. A scraper gathers information like ratings, background pictures, and summaries via the Internet. Hit “OK” and let Raspbmc do its thing. Follow this same step for the “TV Shows” folder, using The TVDB as the scraper in this case and allowing Raspbmc to index those files as well.

Navigate back to the main screen and you’ll notice that you now have Movies and TV Shows sections. These will contain all of the content that you have in the corresponding folders on your external hard drive.


Congratulations, you’ve just created a Raspberry Pi media center!

Pro Tips: Getting the Best Out of Your Pi

  • If your TV’s max resolution is 720p, use the Raspbmc settings to set the max video output to 720p. This will take some of the strain off the Raspberry Pi.
  • Under Settings > Video > Acceleration, turn on hardware acceleration under “Decoding method.” This will help for smoother playback of videos.
  • If you’d like to shut down your Pi, select the power icon on Raspmbc and then click “Power off System.” Once the screen is no longer receiving a signal, it’s safe to unplug your Raspberry Pi without fear of messing up Raspbmc. That’s right, there’s no “off” button, just pull the plug!
  • This works best as a media center for local content. You can add additional channels like Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu, and Amazon Video On Demand, but you may need additional software for your PC. This additional software may cost money, and the add-on channels may not work as well on your Pi as they would on a Roku Stick or a Chromecast.

That wasn’t too bad, now was it? Now it’s time to watch something good! Comment below if you have questions or need help. We’ll help out as much as we can or direct you to sources where you may get further help.


Enjoy your Raspberry Pi!


Further Resources

MakeUseOf Article

Lifehacker Article (outdated but helpful)

MyMediaExperience Article


*Disclaimer 1: Neither Techaeris nor the author of this article support gaining media via illegal means. Any media files displayed, viewed, or described in this article were obtained by ethical means via legitimate and legal rips of owned DVD and Blu-Ray discs.

**Disclaimer 2: This how-to article is in no way sponsored or endorsed by any of the manufacturers of the products listed, or by – I just prefer to shop Amazon for parts like this.

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