Review: Raspberry Pi 3 Kodi/XBMC Media Player

September 22, 2016 | 00:00
Review: Raspberry Pi 3 Kodi/XBMC Media Player
Review: Raspberry Pi 3 Kodi/XBMC Media Player
For a change this review is not about test equipment or a development board, but instead a practical test of a Kodi media player, based on the Raspberry Pi 3, which has been a popular item in the Elector Store for a good while already. Does this kit really provide value for money, and is the Kodi media player actually as convenient and good as everyone claims?

The kit contains a Raspberry Pi 3, a sturdy case, a 2 A AC power adapter, a fairly short HDMI cable, and a fast microSD card (class 10) with a pre-installed version of OpenElec along with lots of add-ons and other extras.

What is OpenElec? To answer that question we first have to go back to Kodi, which was originally known as XBMC. Kodi is a universal open-source media player and is available for various operating systems, including Windows, Linux, iOS and Android. Kodi can play virtually all commonly used audio and video formats without any problem, and it has nearly unlimited configuration options for users. You can customise almost everything. One of the strong features of Kodi/XBMC is the add-on capability, which lets you expand the functionality or get access to external media sources over the Internet (both legal and illegal). OpenElec was developed to allow Kodi to be used on platforms with relatively modest processing power. It is version of Kodi that runs under Linux, with all unnecessary parts of Linus stripped out to let Kodi run as fast as possible. That was particularly necessary with the early versions of the Raspberry Pi, which were not very fast. That would not be much of an issue now with the current version 3 of the Raspberry Pi, but with OpenElec you do not have any extra ballast and it runs very fast on an RPi 3.

Getting started
Connection and start-up are very straightforward. Insert the SD card (and preferably leave it there, because handling the card is pretty tricky once the RPi is fitted in the case), connect the HDMI cable between the RPi board and the TV or surround-sound receiver, connect the AC power adapter, and OpenElec starts up right away – impressively fast on an RPi 3. The software on the included card is fully preconfigured, so you only have to enter the details of your wireless network (OpenElec has a separate configuration screen for that). Then the media player is ready to use. You can use an app on your smartphone to control the player, but I find it easier to use the remote control of the television set. If your TV supports CEC, then it will forward all the received IR commands to the RPi once OpenElec is up and running. This function is normally enabled, but if you wish you can adjust it in the settings.

Operating the player is very smooth, and now the mouse moves quickly over the screen. With the original RPi and to lesser degree with the RPi 2, I found the mouse motion irritatingly slow.
I’ve become addicted to the programmable skip function of Kodi/OpenElec. With a single press of the right or left cursor key on the remote control, you can jump forward or backward by a configurable time interval, and with multiple key presses you can jump by a second configurable time. That’s very convenient for skipping over some inane dialog in a film or a commercial break.
The video quality is excellent, and aside from the occasional exotic WMV format I have not encountered anything that OpenElec cannot play. As far as I know, the video core is the same as in previous RPi versions, and the processing power is more than adequate for full HD. I usually have an external 2.5-inch 2 GB hard disk connected to the player, with all my favorite videos and music, but the player can also work with a NAS device on your LAN. In addition, the pre-installed add-ons give you access to a broad selection of material available on the Internet, including YouTube, all sorts of rebroadcast services and lots of attractive websites.

This OpenElec media player is a great device that works very well and is attractively priced. I could only find two points of criticism, both fairly minor. The first is that the settings are rather confusing, especially at first, and the explanations of some of the functions are not especially clear – there are so many that you can easily loose track of where you are. However, thanks to the pre-installed version of OpenElec included in the kit there’s very little need to alter any of the settings. The second is that I miss a real on/off button. As it is, you have to shut down the player from the menu and then unplug the power. Of course, you can simply leave it plugged in because it consumes so little power, but I like to be able to properly switch off my devices at home.
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