For today's how-to, we'll be building a quick and dirty media player that you can set up on a typical laptop or
mini-itx box. If you have a PC with S-Video or RCA composite output (as most laptops do nowdays), you can
download some free software that will turn it into a media center in no time flat. Mine is hiding on the bottom
left in the above image.
The 20 minute media player is for the occasional video viewer. This quick solution requires a minimal download,
piece-of-cake setup, and you don't have to devote your machine to media use. A full-fledged, dedicated PVR will
be the subject of a different article.
Here's what you should have on hand:
- a laptop with S-Video or RCA TV out, a mini-itx box, or other PC with video out
- RCA or S-Video cable
- mini stereo plug to RCA adapter
- ability to burn CDs
- something good to watch
Both of my laptop's cd-rom drives stopped working long ago, so I decided to try this out on my mini-itx
machine. If you don't have one of these, you should consider getting one. You can buy a mini-itx box new
for about $200 and it's a hacker's best friend with built-in ethernet, S-Video, and 5.1 digital audio out — all in a
very tiny, low power, low noise package.
I typically use my mini-itx box for other things, so I wanted to find a media player that wasn't invasive, didn't
require a hard drive reformat, and could be easily set up whenever I have the need to watch downloaded video on
TV. I ended up choosing GeeXboX for the media player
GeeXboX is a bootable Linux CD that contains everything necessary to play most types of video and audio
media. It has a dirt-simple, adorably dorky interface, is pre-configured to work with most vesa compatible video
cards, can easily be built to use the popular compression codecs, and it's a 7MB download. GeeXboX, you had me
at 'adorably dorky interface'.
First, you'll want to download the GeeXboX ISO
generator. This contains the pre-compiled GeeXboX binaries, CD directory structure, and Windows and Unix scripts
for turning it all into an ISO which you can then burn to a CD. The download is in tar.gz format. You can
decompress that with WinZip if you are a Windows user.
If you want to be able to play Windows Media 9 and RealMedia files, you'll need to download some
additional codecs. Just
extract these and place them in iso/GEEXBOX/codecs. You can also tweak the default settings by modifying
iso/GEEXBOX/etc/mplayer/mplayer.conf. I found the default settings to be reasonable, but you can read more about
the various options in the documentation.
Alternatively, you can just download the stock ISO, burn it to a CD and skip the next section. You won't be able
to install the extra codecs or adjust any settings, but this might be all you need.
Making the CD
Windows users just run generator.exe. Run generator.sh if you are a Linux user. It will output an ISO image
that you can then burn to a CD with your favorite CD authoring tool. It's really that simple.
If you are an OSX user, you'll need to install cdrtools and
zisofs-tools before generator.sh will run. Download
and untar both packages and then follow these quick steps (note: I just install the zisofs binaries to the cdrtools
- cd to the cdrtools directory
- # mv INSTALL INSTALL.txt
- # make install
- cd to the zisofs-tools directory
- # ./configure -prefix=/opt/schily/bin
- # make install
Then, go back to your geexbox directory and run:
- # export PATH=$PATH:/opt/schily/bin
- # . ./generator.sh
Connect your computer's video and audio out to your TV, stick in the cdrom you just made, and start it
up. After a few seconds, you should be presented with the main menu.
You can now eject the boot cd and replace it with a cd containing your favorite video. Your new media player
will start playing the file(s) on the disk immediately, but you can get back to the menu by pressing the enter key at
any time. From here you can browse to select a file from the cdrom or hard disk. While a movie is playing,
use the left/right or up/down arrows to rewind/fast-forward slow or fast, respectively.
A Better Interface
For those of you that haven't seen this episode, the blue man above is about to be grilled to a crisp because of a
bad keyboard interface. The moral of the story is: ditch the bummer keyboard interface.
Somewhere down the line, you are going to want a remote. Thankfully, GeeXboX supports
LIRC compatible remotes, and it's pre-configured for use with the ATI Remote
If you aren't satisfied with the super-simple media player and you want to look at a more complete PVR-style media
solution, you should check out MythTV. With the addition of a tuner card,
and a dedicated machine, you'll be able to put together a full-fledged media center. We'll definately be
investigating this one in more detail for a future how-to.
Until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy some hotdogs, burgers, and great British sci-fi with your friends.