Using Linux and old computers to do cool stuff. Vol. 2
Before we get started I would like to clarify that the goal here it to inexpensively gain the ability to surf the net and playback audio and video content on your television. If you have money to blow on your home entertainment center then there are plenty of other solutions that would be easier to set up. All three of the current game consoles will do most of the things we are going to do here, but they also have their limitations. Having a computer with a 10 foot UI, a full-fledged browser, and access to a full desktop environment connected to your TV gives you many advantages over a game console or satellite/cable box. Another thing to consider and take some time figuring out is what your goals are by using a media center PC. For instance, if you are wanting to use this as a DVR then you would need a TV Tuner card. That would also limit your choices for distros. Also, where is the digital media that we will be watching going to be stored? Will the content only be streamed from the Internet? Differences in need could greatly affect which distro you choose and which software packages you would need to have installed.
One thing I have found to be true when trying to use Linux to solve problems and perform tasks is that half the battle is figuring out which of the different ways to solve the problem is the best for your situation. There is almost always more than one way to do something in Linux, so choosing which one best fits your needs is key to providing a reliable solution that you will be happy with in the long run. Doing a little research before hand to make sure that the software you install will in fact accomplish all of your goals could save you a lot of time and head aches. The last thing you want to do is spend hours installing and setting up your Linux Media Center box only to find out that it does not have all the features you want.
With that being said lets take a look at some of your choices for hardware combinations. If you are looking to use an older computer for this there are a couple of things to consider. Old computers can be found lying around all kinds of places these days. There are a lot of people who like to buy new ones even when there isn't much wrong with the old one other than the fact that is was running windows. So find one that is at least a Pentium 4 or better and make sure it's not a Celeron, add some RAM if you can, and you should be good to go. Here is the system requirements for Mythbuntu, a popular Ubuntu based media center distro. I would recommend more in almost every area, but that can be used as a good rule of thumb. Next we need to make sure that we can make the proper connection between the computer and the TV. Of course there is more than one way to do this, and we also need to think about sound quality. Most TV's don't have very good built-in speakers, and if you are going to use an existing surround sound speaker system then you will need to make sure you have the proper cables and adapters to get the sound from the Linux box to the amplifier if that's what you are going to be using. Would it be naïve of me to assume that if you are geek enough to build your own Linux Media Center that you can handle getting the sound working on your own? I hope not because I don't want this tutorial to be too long and drawn out.
Now let's talk about some of your options for distros and software packages. There are a few distros that are specifically made to act as media centers. I have tried a few of them out and there really was not one that sticks out as the overall champ. Some are better at one thing but lack the ability to do other things. If you are wanting to use this as a DVR and record TV shows then Mythbuntu is the clear choice for you. It is pretty solid all around being based on Ubuntu. In my situation I don't have a TV service since I don't watch TV, so that settles that. I only wanted to stream movies from my Linux Media Server to my TV and be able to surf the net. For those reasons I went with Element. It does those two things great and also boots and shuts down pretty quick which is important for a media center. People are used to their entertainment center turning on quickly when they are ready to sit down in front of the TV. I have tried a few of the others, actually most of them are applications which can be run from nearly any distro. Element is one of the few distros that comes out of the box with the Ten Foot UI. Another one is GeexBox. It seemed pretty functional when I tried it and also comes ready for your living room out of the box. My choice of Element was simple personal preference. I am sure that once later releases of each come out I will try them and see where I want to go. I love to distro hop and try different flavors of Linux out on a regular basis.
Among the software packages that give a media center experience and can be run from any distro but aren't a full-blown distro themselves, a few stand out. Boxee is a decent one. It looked like it would have everything you need and would be pretty easy to set up. Unfortunately I don't think worked well with my video card and my patience was thin the day I tried it, so I gave up on it. The others I tried were Moovida, XBMC, and Enna. LinuxMCE also looked promising, but is still in development. Of those three the one I liked the best was Moovida. It seemed the most mature and functional but of course all three are still very young projects that need work to really be killer apps. At any rate, the choice is yours and I would recommend trying more than one setup. You never know which one will work best with your particular hardware configuration.
Finally you will need a way to control this from your couch or recliner. The best way I found to do this was with one of these. They do have infrared remotes and adapters to use them with your Linux box, but this seemed so much simpler to me. It's USB, looks like a remote, and is very functional. I love mine, but the choice is up to you.
So there you have it! I didn't want to get terribly technical and bore people with details, I simply wanted to give an overview of things to consider since I just recently tackled this project myself and finished with great success. I now have a setup that I am very happy with. If you found this tutorial helpful then stayed tuned! Using Linux and old computers to do cool stuff. Vol. 3 will be How to set up your own Linux Media Server. I use mine to keep all my digital data in a central location and stream it to all the other devices in my house.