Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Freedom of rasbmc on Pi

I have a Samsung Blue-Ray DVD player that supports 3-D playback. The Samsung player supports a wide range of apps, notably, Pandora and Netflix, both of which have a dedicated button on the remote control. If I bought a DVD player that plays DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, why is there no DVD button? Why do I need to navigate a series of menus just to play a DVD?

Who knows? Maybe Samsung could only get the rights to the content at Netflix and Pandora if they committed to dedicating a button on the remote control. This could be the technological equivalent of a quid pro quo.

I noticed something else about the Samsung DVD player. No support for the Linux Ext4 file system. Seems odd considering that a) Samsung is a huge supporter of Linux and is a Platinum member of the Linux foundation and; b) Samsung uses the Linux kernel in this particular DVD player. I asked them about it on their Facebook page and they suggested that I call their support line to get help. Look, this is stuff that should just work for dummies like me.

Now I could probably figure out how to root my DVD player with a few minutes searching on Google. But why fight a vendor who doesn't really want me to do that, anyway?

Instead, I bought a $35 computer called the Rasberry Pi. I also bought an SD card, a powered USB hub, an HDMI cable and spent hours working with various distributions of XBMC to settle on the rasbmc. Sure, the total came out to more than $85 - the cost of the DVD player that I now struggle with. It will total something like $20 more once I can convince my wife that we need to get a wireless N adapter for the rasbmc.

Nevertheless, there is a certain satisfaction in learning how to get this thing working the way I wanted it to. I tested a fair number of distributions, and discovered which one I liked the best. I learned that documentation isn't always complete so I had to improvise. For example, I needed the password for the pi user set up on the rasbmc machine. Why? The password listed in the documentation doesn't work. I tried many times to get it to work to no avail. A quick search revealed that I could blank that password with a simple edit to the /etc/shadow file. (A word to the unwary: if anyone should get physical access to your file system, even on Linux, kiss your security goodbye.)

Once I got that figured out, I did a little digging to review rsync and sync the files from my media collection to the rasbmc. My next plan is to write a bash script that will do this automatically and eliminate the orphaned files and directories on the player that no longer match the source directory on the source machine after I clean up my collection. Rsync is tons of fun.

I also found that if I want to stream 720p video, I will need a wireless N network adapter. Then I can get that clean picture I've come to expect on our TV. I like YouTube and though there is a YouTube app on the DVD Player, the rasbmc app blows the Samsung app away. I want the freedom. If I pick up a little Python, I can learn how to improve the app and share that with the community. That just doesn't happen on the Samsung DVD player.

There is also a Pandora App, but I haven't gotten that to work yet. I think there is still some work to do on it. I also found the Internet Archive for both video and audio works that you probably aren't going to find on *any* DVD player.

It's important to keep in mind that the copyright holders get to determine which technology can play their content and on terms they desire. That's why Samsung and any other DVD or Blu-Ray machine manufacturer is so constrained and confined. The copyright holders want a captive audience for their content. Sure, you could get something that just works, but you may miss out on certain freedoms.

The rasbmc has no such limitations and we're free to use it as is or modify it as we see fit. Or we can use another device that limits our freedoms. The choice is ours to make.
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