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How-To: Build A Cheap Media Player In 20 Minutes

Jason Striegel

Like it or not, being a gadget geek implies certain responsibilities.  Removing adware from your relatives' PCs, hooking your friends up with wireless access, creating robot life - you never seem to get a break. So when a buddy calls and invites you over for an impromptu bar-b-q, the thought of a Saturday afternoon doing nothing but eating free food and discussing the intricacies of the nice weather cannot be dismissed.

"Oh, I forgot to ask," your friend says. You begin to register that, yes, tasty burger happiness is going to come at a cost. "Is there a way we can watch the new Doctor Who over here?" You are compelled to respond, "sure thing, I'll figure something out," because deep down you know that yesterday you leeched the first two episodes off of your friend Jake, the file trading addict, torrent-master, hell's angel, network administrator. The fact that he is a dirty biker does not diminish your 'pay-it-forward' debt.

Huddling around a 15-inch laptop screen is definitely going to be a bummer, so you need to get these AVIs to display on a TV. What you need is a media player, and fast. You've got 20 minutes, an empty wallet, and nothing in your stomach. What do you do?

GeeXboX Media Player

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.

Mini-ITX Video Output
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.

GeeXboX Menu Interface
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 OS.

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 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 will run. Download and untar both packages and then follow these quick steps (note: I just install the zisofs binaries to the cdrtools directory):

  • 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
  • # . ./

Movie Time!

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
Doctor Who - Episode 2
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 Wonder.

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.

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