The two XBMC Raspberry Pi variants go head-to-head
Although the Raspberry Pi was originally envisaged as an education tool, few could argue that it’s having major success as a DIY media center solution.
Early on, people saw the opportunity to develop the pint-sized computer into a fully functional XBMC client, after all; all the hardware was there.
Team XBMC had shown that the software could run on ARM based devices by releasing the iOS app on the Cydia store, and the hardware video decoding capabilities of the Pi had been a major talk point early on.
Over the past year we’ve seen a whole bunch of development for XBMC on the Pi, from two distinct groups: Openelec and Raspbmc.
Both builds are essentially cut down Linux environments which run XBMC as their primary graphical interface. What that means is that they essentially both look the same when running, but they have very different backgrounds.
Openelec kind of had a head start; those guys had been building stripped down XBMC builds for PCs for ages. In fact, if you head over to the Openelec website you can download images for all kinds of hardware.
Raspbmc was a different story; it was initially conceived by one guy: Sam Nazarko, a student in London. That’s impressive enough on its own, but when you consider that the project is only a year old, and Sam himself is only 19, it’s pretty incredible.
So, how do these two products stack up? well, there’s a side by side video comparison later in this article, but first lets compare them on paper.
Both versions of the software have well documented installation processes, no matter if you’re a Windows, Mac or Linux user.
That being said, Raspbmc definitely has the edge when it comes to simplicity. It comes with an actual installer application that will allow you to prepare any SD card for use with your Raspberry Pi. Although, it doesn’t actually write the full OS to the card, it just installs a loader which will connect to the Raspbmc server on first boot and download the latest version of the software.
By comparison, Openelec requires you to download a disk image and then load that on to your SD card using the Terminal program on a Mac or Linux machine. Windows users have no official way to get Openelec on an SD card, which is a major downer.
Neither method caused me any problems, but I do prefer the simplistic approach that Raspbmc takes, and Windows support is a major bonus.
One thing to note here is that Raspbmc seems to also check for updates to the software during start up, and installs them. Openelec will also check for updates and give you an on-screen notification if one is available, but it’s up to you to then conduct the update yourself.
It’s worth noting that Openelec and Raspbmc don’t both use the same version of XBMC.
The current release of Openelec uses XBMC 12 release candidate 3, whereas Raspbmc makes uses of XBMC 12 final release.
This might not seem that important at first glance, as both versions of XBMC have exactly the same features. But the final release includes several last minute bug fixes when compared to RC2.
That being said, by the time you read this, Openelec could have possibly been updated to the final version, but as of this moment, they’re still using an unfinished version of XBMC.
This is where it gets interesting. Both versions of the software are using the exact same hardware, so in reality we shouldn’t see that much of a difference in terms of performance.
However, the two packages both come with their own specific features which are tailored to make XBMC on the Pi the best user experience possible.
With Raspbmc, you get CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) which allows you to navigate the XBMC interface using your HD TV’s remote (when connected over HDMI). This feature seems to be missing from Openelec (at least, out of the box), which is a real shame because it’s an incredibly useful feature.
On the other hand, Openelec features a tailored system options menu which allows you to change things like the system name and wireless networking settings without having to resort to using a terminal program from another machine.
Both features are extremely useful, and I would expect each to replicate the additions of the other in later releases.
When it comes to the actual user experience, Openelec tends to run a bit smoother, as the video below shows:
That being said, both versions seem to be rock solid by this point, which isn’t a claim that could have been made six months ago.
Playback and Streaming
XBMC has always offered excellent file support, and version 12 builds on this to include a better implementation of HD audio.
That being said, the Raspberry Pi is only able to make use of hardware decoding for specific types of video file. Most files will play, but some will rely on the main ARM processor and software decoding, which can result in some strange behavior.
That being said, for files that do make use of the hardware, playback in 1080p is flawless. You might experience the odd dropped frame, depending on whether you’re playing back from a USB hard disk or over a network connection, but this is more down to the speed at which data can be transferred rather than any fault with either OS.
When it comes to video and audio streaming, XBMC 12 offers much improved Airplay support, which makes it incredibly easy to share content stored on your Apple device.
In testing I played streaming video and audio from my iPhone to the Pi. I never experienced more than a second or two delay before playback began, and it was generally very stable.
Occasionally I did find that the Pi would not recognise the request from the device, but the experience was the same for both versions of the software, so this is something that users will just have to live with for now, as it looks to be an issue with XBMC12 rather than with Raspbmc or Openelec.
Having played around with both versions of the software, I’d have to say I’d go with Openelec for now.
It seems to have a slight edge when it comes to the fluidity of the interface and with boot times.
That being said, Sam’s accomplishment with Raspbmc is nothing short of remarkable for what has essentially been a one-man effort. I wouldn’t be surprised if future releases of Raspbmc improve upon the user experience to the point where it’s the same or better as Openelec.
When that happens, the excellent installation procedure of Raspbmc will make it the premier choice for XBMC on the Raspberry Pi.
To summarise: Go with Openelec for now, but definitely keep and eye on Raspbmc.