XBMC: hardware selection

I recently put together an XBMC system to replace an aging Apple TV (first gen). It was my interest in the Raspberry Pi that brought me to the idea of using XBMC, although ultimately, I did not end up going with a Raspberry Pi based system (I use one for other things around the house, but not the home theater).

I thought I’d share some of the decisions I made so others could benefit.

Here’s what I went with:

(all prices in USD, circa late September 2013)

Total cost: $397

I selected the NUC after looking at a lot of options. After reading lots about XBMC on the Raspberry Pi, I got the distinct impression that the experience is tolerable. Not good, but tolerable. I was building this system for my family, so it had to pass the wife test. She’d already seen what was possible with our first-gen Apple TV. I couldn’t go backwards in performance. I considered systems like The Little Black Box, but their forums didn’t inspire confidence. I thought about Ouya, but at the end of the day, I came back around to a more standard PC platform like the NUC. That seemed a much safer bet.

I wanted small, quiet, and low heat for my system. In the SFF category the NUC was cheaper than a lot of its competitors. If there was one drawback, it was that you have to use an mSATA drive as the primary storage on the device. Being more of a server guy, I wasn’t familiar with mSATA, and there was a bit of sticker shock when I saw how much I was going to have to pay. I bought the smallest size available on the market at that time, knowing that my media was going to be stored on an external USB-connected drive.

I put 4GB of RAM in the system, which is probably more than required. I didn’t know if 2GB was going to be enough, and I don’t even know if you could really get any significant cost savings by going with 2.

I bought the StarTech docking station, which might be overkill, but it’s a really nifty box. I can drop a drive in the second bay to run backups. In general, it’s just a good device to have around the house.

In the name of quiet and low heat output, I went with a laptop drive at 5400 RPM. I’m mostly using my XBMC for music playback, so the speed of the drive is not critical. And honestly, I think that even this speed is enough for most streaming video applications.

Finally, I went with the Sanoxy remote based on what I’d read in reviews. There are
definitely a lot of opinions, good and bad, on this device. But the bottom line for me was that it
worked, and it was cheap. I don’t even use the remote; I use the USB IR dongle and a Logitech Harmony
remote (I set up the device in the Harmony software as “Computer >> Media Center PC >> Chinavasion >> CVSB-983”). I had to do some further tweaking of the key mappings, but it wasn’t too bad. I’ll write about that in a future installment.

I should mention that I’m using OpenElec to run XBMC. It was ridiculously easy to get the software installed and running. There are some limitations to OpenElec, but so far, nothing I can’t live with.

So what do I think of the system? It performs very well. I can stream music, navigate the menus, and run visualizers with no lag at all in the UI (and I consider myself pretty picky when it comes to stuff like that). There are a couple of little things that bug me:

  • Sometimes, I seem to lose the HDMI out; I usually have to reboot the system when that happens. I haven’t established a pattern yet, but it might have something to do with coming out of a sleep state
  • No wake on USB: the system goes to sleep almost every night; the only way to wake it back up is to push the power button. I don’t want to waste electricity, but it would be nice if I could wake it up via the remote.

All in all, I’ve been very pleased with the new system, and I’m happy to be out of the walled garden of the AppleTV. I look forward to many years of being able to update the software, install add-ons, and even
build my own UI for the system.

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