OpenELEC – The XBMC Distro

XBMC is one of the most popular open source media center systems, due in part to the fact that it’s been available on platforms ranging from PC’s to game consoles to mobile devices. One of the other advantage of XBMC (which speaks to its open source license as much as its architecture) is its ability to be customized. Recent examples of projects that started with XBMC code include Plex, a cross-platform software package for streaming media, and Boxee, which sells the Boxee Box set-top device.

OpenELEC, which stands for “Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center“, is another example of how XBMC can be customized. OpenELEC combines a pre-configured XBMC install with a lean, optimized Linux distribution. While XBMC exists for Linux distributions already (it’s available in the repositories for Ubuntu Precise), there are some distinct advantages to using a distribution like OpenELEC:

  • OpenELEC is built to work with particular hardware, so there’s less effort involved in configuring drivers. If you have a supported device (such as certain models of Apple TV), you can simply download and run the OpenELEC build that targets it. All the necessary drivers will be configured to work out-of-the-box.
  • Rather than using an existing Linux distro such as Ubuntu, OpenELEC is built from scratch to contain only what it needs. This results in a very slim install profile (a maximum of 125MB for the base system, according to the project’s website).
  • Lastly, OpenELEC is designed to work like an appliance, meaning updates and add-on’s are developed to install smoothly, since there are far fewer software components for them to conflict with.

Let’s take a look at what OpenELEC has to offer.

Installing OpenELEC is a bit different from other distributions, which will typically provide an ISO for you to burn to a CD or USB stick. When you download and extract one of the OpenELEC build from the downloads page, you’ll need to run an included script called “create_installstick”, and point it at a USB flash device. Once this is complete, you can boot from this device as you would with other distros, and follow the installation instructions on the OpenELEC wiki.

Note: If you just want to try out OpenELEC before you install, try the “create_virtualimage” script to create a VDI you can use with VirtualBox.

Once you boot into OpenELEC, you’ll land directly on the home screen, as shown in the figure below. From here, it’s a standard XBMC installation, with the following main menu items:

  • Weather
  • Pictures
  • Music
  • Videos
  • Programs
  • System

openelec-homescreen

If you’ve used XBMC before (and Make Tech Easier has some articles on the subject if you haven’t), this should all look familiar.

So why would you want to choose OpenELEC when XBMC is so readily available in most major repositories? Well, here are a couple of scenarios to get some ideas flowing on how to use this cool little distro:

  • Or for that matter, the work the project does tailoring it to specific hardware means you can use it with some of the DIY hardware out there. Raspberry Pi anyone? (In fact, the latest version of OpenELEC, v3.0 Beta 5, has a Raspberry Pi build already)
  • If you select one of these devices, and you’re worried about where to store all your media, relax. Just stream it from another network resource.
  • Lastly, in addition to all the great add-on’s you can get from the XBMC community, OpenELEC offers some great ones to help you get hooked up to a satellite receiver, grab BitTorrents right from within XBMC, or use your WiiMote.

There you have it: OpenELEC is a Linux distro that’s all about media. Now don’t you wish your Raspberry Pi was here?