A slice of Pi

It’s been awhile – but I’ve always loved to tinker with systems that could be considered a little unusual – or “geeky”. Eight or ten years ago, installing Debian GNU Linux on my old, spare x86 PC satisfied my hobbyist urges. (I used it as a home Internet gateway, performing network address translation; I was one of the first people I knew with multiple, Internet-connected computers at home.) Recently, the Raspberry Pi computer-on-a-card has cropped up, intriguingly, in a non-IT context: its ability to run XBMC – a home-theatre media system.

The idea of setting up a Pi as a “media box” incubated in my brain for a month or so. Finally, a post I read on a hockey blog I frequent (I’m a big sports fan) convinced me that XBMC on Raspberry Pi is likely a viable means of watching the Montreal Canadiens games I will otherwise miss, due to a change in availability of a lot of those games in my cable TV broadcast region. So I came to a decision – and ordered a Raspberry Pi B+ from Allied Electronics’ online store.

My (somewhat hasty) research led me to believe I had everything I needed, besides the Pi, itself. I own a USB keyboard, a TV with an HDMI port and cable, a couple of different USB power sources and USB-to-micro-USB cables, and a 4 MB SD card.

When the Pi arrived, and I unpacked it, I was struck by two things: first, how truly tiny it is – its footprint is about that of a poker-size playing card – and second, that it (the Model B+) accepts a micro-SD card – not an SD card, as was shown in pictures and video I’d seen of the (original, two-year-old) Model B.

Raspberry Pi Model B+ box with MacBook Air (for scale). (The actual Pi card is quite a bit smaller, yet!)
Raspberry Pi Model B+ box with MacBook Air (for scale). (The actual Pi card is quite a bit smaller, yet!)

A day – and ten bucks – later, I was ready to set up my media centre system. I had decided, based on reviews and tests – especially those on Anand Subramanian’s excellent blog – to go with the Raspbmc customization of Debian Linux. Preparation of the micro-SD card with a Raspbmc image was much faster than expected; I had read that the writing of the nearly-2 MB image to the card could take “a long time”. I made this part very easy by using Apple Pi-Baker for Mac OS.

I plugged in the Ethernet cable, the keyboard, and the HDMI cable, and turned on the TV, before plugging in the USB power source (thus powering-up the Pi, as it has no On/Off switch). Raspbmc’s auto-update scripts kicked in, automatically updating the OS, itself, and then XBMC. Impressive!

Pi B+ at moment of first power up. I added: USB keyboard (white), ethernet (dark grey), HDMI (light grey), 5V micro USB power (black), 8 GB micro SD card w/ Raspbmc Installer image (on underside, not shown).
Pi B+ at moment of first power up. I added: USB keyboard (white), Ethernet (dark grey), HDMI (light grey), 5V micro-USB power (black), 8 GB micro-SD card w/ Raspbmc Installer image (on underside, not shown).

My elation quickly turned to dismay, however, when the system kept rebooting itself, displaying the falsely-reassuring message, “Relax; XBMC will restart shortly,” over and over again. I was afraid this behaviour was power-related; the most stressed variable in the troubleshooting advice on the Raspbmc support forum is power: Connect a steady, sufficient power supply. I had initially used my iPad 4’s power source, rated at 5.2 volts and 2.4 amperes; the Pi requires only 5.0V and will draw a maximum of perhaps 1.5A, depending on connected peripherals – and the advice on various Pi-related sites seemed to be to make sure the Pi is not underpowered. But I was suddenly afraid I had overloaded my Pi and “fried” one of its components. The message I got when I escaped to the Linux shell command line and typed “xbmc” was, “Install an appropriate graphics driver.” Yikes. I tried connecting the Pi to my other power supply – my Samsung smartphone charger – which, by all accounts, is barely sufficient to run the Pi with little or nothing connected; however, the continuous rebooting continued.

After poking around for while on the forums, reading about others’ experiences with the Raspbmc “relax loop” (heh!), I came upon a post mentioning a “corrupted SD image”. I decided to reinstall – and to use an alternate method: the “Network Installer” image, which Raspbmc.com cites as “recommended”. (My first go-round used the Raspbmc full distribution image download link on RaspberryPi.org.)

Success! Once more, impressive, automatic download-and-install scripts kicked in, the moment the Pi booted up. And this time, the automation came to an end – with the glorious, 1080p graphical user interface of XBMC version 13.2 (Gotham). (By the way, I am no longer worried about using my iPad power supply with the Pi; it has been operating beautifully, giving no sign of overheating.)

XBMC System Info (screen photo of Toshiba 46XF550U)
XBMC System Info (screen photo of Toshiba 46XF550U)

XBMC is a sophisticated platform that will require some exploring; perhaps, once I have it somewhat under my belt, I’ll write more about it, here. For now, let me conclude by saying that the Raspberry Pi is a boon to learners, tinkerers, and makers, everywhere! I know I’ll do a lot more with it than watch hockey.