A low-power HTPC running Boxee on linux 64 bit (and XP, sigh, brickbats to Netflix)


Last month I finally got sick of cleaning peanut butter off DVD’s. Between me and the 4.5 year old, there probably was a whole jar of the stuff inside the dvd player, and a corresponding amount of skipping. We’d turned to online streaming services like Hulu, which sat on remote servers and were invulnerable to the mess, but they tied up my laptop every time the kid wanted to watch Finding Nemo, or Super Structures.  Also, I didn’t enjoy the vibe that was building up, where there was no separation between the machine I use for work and the one I use for vegging out.

It was finally time to realize a scheme I’d been mulling for a while: making a tiny little home theater PC (HTPC) that would allow my household to go diskless.  Here’s how I did it and how it’s working — which is great, even if some providers of content and software seem determined to keep users stuck in the past.

I got a little Acer Aspire Revo R1600 computer.  It is really small, about the size of a book, and even with some accessories could hide behind the couch invisible.  It uses a tiny amount of power — probably about 10% of the old desktop I was able to recycle. While the processor doesn’t look impressive, it’s aided by an Nvidia Ion video card and an HDMI port.

I hooked the PC up to my LCD TV, and promptly repartitioned the hard drive so that I could install Kubuntu alongside the Windows XP that came with the device. After getting the Nvidia drivers working, I installed Boxee — a sweet piece of software that integrates all your local and online video watching activities, sucking in whatever you want from Hulu, Youtube, Vimeo, Pandora radio, etc., not to mention your local drives. Its big, friendly full screen interface helps you forget about the OS, so you feel like you’re using an entertainment center, as opposed to a work device that can show movies.

Kubuntu 64 bit and Boxee worked beautifully together for many sources, playing local files brilliantly and many online sources, including PBS, very nicely in full screen.  I stored my local movie files on a shared partition that could be accessed from any machine in my SOHO network.  This inexpensive setup was certainly not acting like a cheap computer, even with only 1GB of memory.  In terms of performance and security, Linux 64 had clearly left Windows in the dust.

I set up a user account explicitly designed to be safe and kid proof, and the fam took to it avidly, using it every day.  Besides helping us veg out to shows like Fringe, the setup was actually a pretty good educational tool.  Say the kid wanted to learn about Ferris wheels — we’d look some up on Youtube, then turn the thing off and start building a little one of our own.

But then we discovered that using a sweet cutting edge system brought unexpected problems, not from the machine’s technical capabilities, which were more than sufficient, but from lack of Linux support from unimaginative corporations. Hulu playback was very choppy, because Hulu wants Adobe’s Flash Player 10.1, and that is only available for Linux 32 bit.   And worst of all Netflix streaming would not play on Linux, Boxee or no Boxee, because Microsoft has not allowed its DRM (which is used by Netflix) to be used for that purpose.

I agonized about what to do.  I’m computer-literate enough I don’t really need Netflix that much; if I wanted, I could download pretty much anything I want from BitTorrent.  But I don’t want to be that kind of person; I want to give artists access to some revenue stream.  So I don’t mind ads on Hulu, and I want to subscribe to a service like Netflix.

On the other hand, Netflix’s obstinancy in not supporting Linux desktops — and indeed, forcing me to boot up into Windows XP, an operating system that is a decade old and really vulnerable — is just silly.  It’s not a technical impossibility, since there are Linux devices that stream Netflix, like the Roku box.  And there must be a lot of Linux netbook users out there who are shut out, despite some valiant attempts at workarounds.

I grudgingly started booting up into XP, with Boxee, partly because my family wanted Netflix to work painlessly.  But the performance stank; I had to add 2GB of RAM to make it acceptable.  I did two things in protest: I switched to a less costly Netflix account, and I called customer service there and asked them to support Linux.  There is also an online petition, but my guess is that direct requests from actual customers will have more effect.  Won’t you join me in bugging them?

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