There is no such thing as a "typical media center" any more than there
is a "typical computer" or a "typical user." What people expect out of a
set-top box — particularly one they have built themselves —
varies wildly. Some users are primarily gamers, some are DVD and Blu-Ray
nuts; some obsessed with high-end audio output and some with tacking on as
many video capture cards as humanly possible. You can't please everyone.
The GeeXboX project just released
version 2.0 of its XBMC-based set-top distribution, and it seems to have
settled on a target form factor: small, low-power devices with minimal
storage. The decision has its advantages, but it may limit the
If the name GeeXboX does not ring a bell, that could be because it has
been more than two full years since the project made its last release
— a lifetime in "chip years." The team went through several shifts
in strategic direction in the intervening time, not the least of which was
the decision to write a custom media center front end (named "Enna") and
then later to drop it in favor of XBMC,
which is rapidly becoming the de facto front-end of choice for
set-top box distributions. XBMC is a natural fit, because GeeXboX
originated as a distribution for Microsoft Xbox hardware (hence the name, though the jury is still out on the justification for the capitalization).
In the same time frame, GeeXboX also spawned a number of side-projects
that have fared better than Enna. The most notable is OpenBricks, an embedded Linux
framework designed for building custom distributions on a variety of
hardware platforms. GeeXboX 2.0 is built on OpenBricks, and indeed
supports 32-bit and 64-bit Intel processors as well as ARM chips —
specifically targeting the OMAP 4-based PandaBoard and the NVIDIA Tegra2. OpenGL and OpenGL ES graphics are supported for most of the platforms (a complete matrix is available on the site), and hardware accelerated video playback is supported using VA-API, VDPAU, or Broadcom CrystalHD, with Mesa as a fallback for other hardware (e.g., ATI video cards).
OpenBricks is an interesting development framework in its own right,
even though GeeXboX only uses a subset of it, because it provides only the
minimal environment required for running XBMC and its helper applications.
Some of the other GeeXboX side-projects also live on, including libnfo (a parser for the XML-based NFO metadata format popularized by XBMC), libvalhalla (a SQLite-backed metadata scanner that fetches images and scrapes information from an assortment of web sites like IMDB), and libplayer (a high-level video playback abstraction layer providing a unified API for Mplayer, Xine, VLC, and GStreamer).
The GeeXboX 2.0 release is available as an ISO image
— a lithe 72MB in size — which can run from either CD/DVD or
flash-based media, with persistent storage available when using flash. The
distribution boots rapidly, directly into XBMC if left unattended, although
a two-second GRUB 2 menu is available to boot into single-user mode for maintenance when necessary. The XBMC build shipped is the newest, version 10.1, and although GeeXboX does not pre-load many of the skins or media-specific extensions available, it provides optical disc support and automatic discovery of SMB, NFS, HTTP, FTP, ZeroConf, and UPnP shares on the local network. A healthy selection of plug-ins are installable through the interface, although they focus mostly on web video and on metadata (such as show information) meant to supplement a media library.
Maintaining a low profile
The focus on network-delivered video reveals the direction that GeeXboX appears to be heading, even though it is not explicitly addressed in the release notes. What the project has in mind as the primary use case for GeeXboX is a small, low-power set-top box — namely, one that can hardware accelerate video playback in exchange for having a slower CPU, and probably without a hard disk for local storage.
For example, with 2.0 it is no longer possible to install GeeXboX directly to a hard disk — the "preferred" option is to run it in live USB mode with persistent storage for customizations and installed plug-ins. There is certainly nothing wrong with running a live USB front-end, but by tailoring the distribution only for that usage, the user is forced into other decisions.
It is assumed, for instance, that another system will be present on the
network to serve as the main repository for audio and video content (using
one of the network sharing protocols mentioned earlier). Even if a USB
hard disk is attached to the set-top front-end box to make files locally
accessible, such embedded devices typically do not have the CPU power to transcode video (or perhaps even audio). So a low-power front-end necessitates a second desktop or server machine somewhere, whether the content comes through Bittorrent, optical disc rips, or any other source.
The same goes for DVR functionality; previous versions of GeeXboX used the Freevo DVR application, which was later dropped in favor of Enna. But 2.0 also deprecates support for video capture cards. It is possible to use XBMC as the front-end interface to MythTV (the most common open source DVR) with a plug-in, but with GeeXboX 2.0 the MythTV back-end process will have to run on a separate machine.
This adds quite a bit of complexity — MythTV is simplest to manage when run on a combined front-and-back-end — and despite the popularity of online video delivery, the majority of video is still sent over cable, broadcast, or satellite downlinks requiring a DVR to schedule and record to disk. I am not sure exactly what approach the retro-gaming crowd takes, but GeeXboX does support several console emulator plug-ins for XBMC. Presumably flash storage is not the preferred option for retaining a library of video game ROMs, and again it is assumed that other PCs will be on the network.
Within those restrictions, there is also the issue of package updates to
consider. The XBMC core is not updated frequently, although user-installed
plug-ins can be updated manually through the GUI. But it appears as though
subsequent ISO releases are the only update mechanism available to users,
even for bug-fixes. Several users reported
on the forum that their LIRC-based remote controls did not function
with 2.0, and were told to "wait for [the] next release" as the only recourse.
GeeXboX uses the opkg package manager, so if the project were to start providing individual package updates installing them locally would not be difficult. However, there is no real security model in place suitable for volatile media. GeeXboX runs with one user, root, with an easily-guessable password — nay, extremely-guessable — and runs a Telnet service by default. That is not critical for anyone running from a live DVD, but considering that DVD playback is one of the key features, live USB users are more probable.
The emphasis on slim devices as video playback front-ends may be a good
one from a numbers perspective; most of the media-center distributions put
their effort into supporting MythTV, which is a sizable undertaking, and
"over-the-top" Internet-delivered video is drastically on the rise. But it
is still kind of a shame to see options disappear for users. The 2.0 announcement
notes that the "GeeXboX philosophy remains the same and we
still aim at targeting the most PCs and devices as possible, in an as
lightweight as possible way." In practice that is a little bit
because what GeeXboX really expects is that users will use a separate
machine to download, record, transcode, and store the media that they watch
and listen to on the lightweight playback device. But the announcement does
point out the low-end device target as well: "These devices just make
the perfect fanless, energy-efficient HTPC [Home Theater PC] and GeeXboX just [makes] the perfect MediaCenter distribution for those."
Aside from the configuration assumptions and LIRC issues, GeeXboX 2.0 is
a solid effort. It boots remarkably fast, and if the reports on the forums
and mailing lists are anything to go by, the hardware video acceleration is
robust on the lion's share of the GPU hardware typical users will choose
for their own homes. Prices have dropped enough in recent years that a
fully-accelerated VDPAU-capable card from NVIDIA can be had for under US $40, and the Intel GPU support for VA-API covers most of the other common set-top options.
The LIRC trouble is disconcerting, particularly because most set-top-style cases come bundled with IR receivers and remote controls over which the buyer has very little choice. But it is a pleasant surprise to see that 2.0 supports the Boxee Box remote from D-Link, an RF device with a small footprint and a full (in key-count, not in size) QWERTY keyboard.
XBMC itself has come a long way in recent releases, straightening out unnecessary complexity and confusing navigation quirks in the UI. The main competition for a distribution like GeeXboX is the fact that you can run XBMC on a desktop Linux machine with little to no effort. That said, when you visit the XBMC downloads page, you will not find any ARM builds, and you will have to worry about hardware acceleration and HDMI output on your own.
If you are prepared to build your own lower-power box to sit on top of
the television, and manage your media collection from somewhere else, then
GeeXboX 2.0 may be just what you are looking for. But if you want to run a self-contained media server or DVR, it is not. However, where the project goes next may surprise everyone. This release is the first salvo fired by the new "project renewal" effort launched in July. The possibility of package updates could make the project more useful for hard disk users, and some of the side-projects (such as libplayer) are interesting enough that they could attract a following of their own.
Lastly, as lightweight as version 2.0 is, the project still apologizes for its heft in comparison to the early, 3MB releases. Employing that level of fastidious byte-counting, there is still a lot of room for new functionality before the distribution has to start worrying about bloat.
Comments (4 posted)
One of the questions I get the most  these days is "How can I help make
the Fedora kernel better?" Obviously the first answer is of course to make
the upstream kernel better as that will naturally filter down to Fedora and
cause us less work in the long run. However, some of us just aren't kernel
developers but they still want to help out.
 Actually, I never get this question. I hardly get any questions at
all. I do, however, see a lot of bugs filed and a lot of complaints they
aren't getting fixed fast enough. I choose to interpret this as a crying
out from the masses on how they can participate. Any other interpretation
just doesn't seem as appealing.
-- Josh Boyer
Comments (1 posted)
The openSUSE project has announced
the beta of openSUSE 12.1. "If you've been following us, you know this release was originally called Milestone 6. However, the release team and its testers agreed this round of testing showed Milestone 6 to be so stable and ready for general testing, they decided to call it Beta. And that means that if you've been thinking about taking a pre-release of 12.1 for a spin before our final release in November, there's no time like the present.
Comments (1 posted)
Some developers in the MeeGo community have decided to try to carry the
code base forward as an independent, open project. To that end, they have
announced the rebirth of the Mer project
they are looking for collaborators. "Some history - many of us in MeeGo originated from a project called
Mer, short for Maemo Reconstructed - where we approached doing a open
mobile platform through reconstruction of the Maemo platform into a
open platform. We were big on open governance, open development and
For a few months a group of us have been working on various scenarios
of change in MeeGo and now that the Tizen news is out in the open,
it's time to talk about what we as a community can make happen next.
Full Story (comments: 18)
IPFire is a server/firewall distribution focusing on flexibility and
security. The project has announced the availability of a beta for IPFire
2.11 on ARM architecture.
Full Story (comments: none)
The Fedora project has announced the release of the Fedora 16 Beta.
"The Beta release is the last important milestone of Fedora 16. Only
critical bug fixes will be pushed as updates leading to the general release
of Fedora 16 in early November. We invite you to join us in making Fedora
16 a solid release by downloading, testing, and providing your valuable
Full Story (comments: none)
The Debian Administrator's Handbook has been available in French for some
time. Several editions have been published, the latest edition covers
Debian Squeeze (6.0). The authors, Raphaël Hertzog and Roland Mas,
are working on an English
and are raising funds to get it published. "We would
really like to see the book integrated into Debian, and therefore to see it
published under a license that complies with the "Debian Free Software
Guidelines". But like everybody, we need to live and feed our family, and
we believe that we are entitled to have a decent payment for the work that
" Any excess funds that are collected will be used by the
authors to contribute more of their time to Debian and free software in
Comments (none posted)
Hackweek is a SUSE tradition in which any engineer can work on any Free
Software project for a week. This year's Hackweek included a team
of four SUSE employees
who worked with the openSUSE community on an
openSUSE ARM port. "Currently, openSUSE Factory for ARM is build for armv5tel (soft floating point with thumbs) and for armv7l (hard floating point with aapcs-linux ABI). These are widely used architectures and seem to be becoming a cross-distribution standard as well. Right now, almost 2500 packages are building successfully and tests on real hardware have shown these to work. As low-level dependencies are being fixed many more packages are expected to come in over the next couple of days.
Comments (none posted)
The openSUSE project has formed
an election committee
. "In the coming days and weeks, this committee will act independently to implement a formal plan for the oversight and election of a new Board for the 2012 term. Currently, three board seats will be up for election. These seats are currently held by Rupert Horstkotter, Pavol Rusnak, and Bryen Yunashko (whose seat is vacated due to term limits.)
Comments (none posted)
Curious readers can follow along as Mark Shuttleworth figures out
what to call the Ubuntu 12.04 release. "I also like punchy and perky (the Perky Penguin is a nice nostalgic option) and persistent (better than permanent, peerless or penultimate) and playful and plucky and poised. Others like prescient and peaceable and pervasive (!) and pivotal. Pukka rings a nice old-world bell, but its possibly pejorative.
As you can see, its been something of a challenge to get this right.
" We'll not ruin the suspense by putting a spoiler here.
Comments (36 posted)
The results of a
of Ubuntu developers are out. The people on the Ubuntu
Technical Board for 2011-2013 are Stéphane Graber, Kees Cook, Martin
Pitt, Matt Zimmerman, Colin Watson, and Soren Hansen. "We had several
candidates with no historic link to Canonical, which was very encouraging
in terms of the diversity of engagement in the project. For the first time,
I felt we had too many candidates and so I whittled down the final list of
nominations - as it happens, all of the non-Canonical nominees made the
shortlist, though that was not a criteria for my support. Welcome aboard,
Comments (none posted)
Newsletters and articles of interest
Comments (none posted)
InfoWorld has posted a
lengthy introduction to DD-WRT
. "In the past I've bought a
router, upgraded it faithfully as new revisions to the router firmware come
out, then ground my teeth in disgust when I discover, 18 months to two
years later, it's suddenly no longer supported. This is dismaying, given
the number of security flaws that have been found in consumer-level
routers, not all of which are due to user misconfiguration. The only thing
worse than no protection at all is a false sense of security, so I like the
idea of using something that has at least a modicum of third-party
" (Here's the printable version
those who don't appreciate the convenience of an article split over six pages).
Comments (17 posted)
Page editor: Rebecca Sobol
Next page: Development>>