If you haven’t heard, the Raspberry Pi is a card-deck size small computer, great for tinkering around with for many projects. There is tons of information and projects that are available about the Pi; just ask your local search engine. (This article is not meant to be a full technical review of the Pi, there are many other sites that have done that. This page from the Raspberry Pi Foundation has the Raspberry Pi specs and capabilities; lots of other info on that site to understand the power and capabilities of the Pi.)
I was intrigued with the concept of using the Pi as a little computer, thinking back to the days when I would build my own PC. My first personal computer was the original IBM PC model 5150. It had 16K of memory, the 8088 processor, and the operating system was Cassette Basic. (Yes, I am that old.)
I spent about $5K on the whole setup, including an RGB monitor and some accounting software for my wife to start an accounting business with (that was the excuse for the computer). I added 256K more memory with an expansion card, added a couple of 360K floppy drives, and later a 10MB hard disk. It was very powerful.
Then. It was very powerful back then.
The Raspberry Pi is more powerful than my first computer. And it costs $35 for the computer itself. I decided that I wanted to get one and try to build a media server for my large collection of DVDs.
You do have to spend a bit more than $35 to make it a usable system. I found a kit from Canakit on Amazon that included the Pi Model 2 (Quad-Core 900 MHz 1GB RAM), a 2.5 amp power supply, Wi-Fi dongle (Ralink RT5370 chipset), the 8GB MicroSD memory card (which included the NOOBS operating system), a heat sink, and a case. All of that for around $70. I got mine from Amazon here, there are several kits available; you can get only the parts you need for your project. (That link has all the details and pictures of the parts in the kit.)
I then got a 1TB USB hard drive ($70, such as this one), along with an powered USB hub ($18 here), since the USB port on the Pi doesn’t have quite enough power to run the hard drive. So my total expenditure was around $160. A bit more than the $35 cost for the Pi itself, but much less than my original computer; and more powerful.
SWMBO allowed the purchase, because her hobby (scrapbooking) results in almost daily delivery of supplies for that. So my expenditure, in the grand scheme of ‘things we do around here as a hobby’, was acceptable (she also is the CFO here).
All the pieces arrived in a couple of days.
A Great Tutorial
In the meantime, I poked around the Interwebs for a good tutorial on how to set up the Raspberry as a media server. And I found an excellent tutorial from a guy named Mel Grubb ).
Back in the old days (pre-Windows, DOS 1.0 days), I got pretty good at doing computer things with the command line. The Raspberry Pi OS is “Raspbian” (aka ‘”NOOBS”), which is a distribution of Debian. That’s Linux stuff, which I have played around with some over the years, but never on a daily basis. But I knew some of the concepts, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar.
Using Mel Grubb’s excellent tutorials, I was able to enter the necessary incantations to install and configure all of the software needed to set up the MiniDLNA media server software. I won’t repeat all of that here, but Mr. Grubb’s tutorials are the place to go for a very easy and clear introduction to getting things going. In addition to the MiniDLNA instructions, he tells you how to set up a NAS (Network Attached Storage), BitTorrent, a VPN, and more. All very readable, with clear instructions.
The result was a full configuration of the Pi as a Media Server, with remote access to the Pi (via Secure Shell – SSH and control via the Webmin interface) so it doesn’t really need a keyboard or monitor for things to work. There were a few false steps along the way, so I needed a bit more googles (plus some questions answered by Mr. Grubb) to figure things out until I got things working as I wished.
Ripping and Copying
Now that the Pi Media Server was configured, and visible on my home network, it was time to figure out how to ‘rip’ the DVDs into media files that could be stored on the USB hard drive.
After a few false starts, I settled on the WinxDVD software at about $35. Installing the software is the usual install wizard process. Operation is just a basic three-step process; insert the DVD, click a few buttons, and the software rips the DVD into your desired format (I chose MP4). The ripping process takes about 45 minutes per DVD, depending on the DVD length, and the hardware capabilities of your computer. I ran it on my HP Pavillion DV7 laptop under Windows 7, all was well after the Windows 10 upgrade. The WinxDVD software runs nicely in the background, so I could use my laptop for other purposes while the ripping was being done.
The Pi is on my local network via it’s wired and wireless Ethernet connections, although video playback via wireless is just fine without any ‘stuttering pixels’. I could transfer the files from my laptop’s wireless connection via the LAN. I found it a bit faster to shut down the Pi and connect the USB hard drive to my laptop and transfer the media files that way. Once the USB hard drive is connected back to the Pi Media Server, and the Pi is restarted, all of the DVDs I have ripped are available on my networked media Server.
Viewing the Movies
We have a Roku box here connected to the main TV (well, there’s another one for another TV). The Roku is connected to our LAN via a Wi-Fi connection. It comes with an application that will connect to the Pi media server. So all access to the movies on the Pi media server can be done with the Roku remote. The quality of the movies is just as good as the DVD player. (The WinxDVD software will not handle BluRay DVDs, but they have a BluRay version available.) We’re not that picky on movie quality, DVD 1080i is just fine. And we have some old DVDs that are only 720p resolution, but those play just fine through the Pi Media Server. I also copied some digitized home movies files, and they viewed fine. (Now I have even more things to embarrass my children when they visit.)
There are ways to convert your old video tapes to MP4 files; a quick search came up with this article; the process would require a RCA to USB cable and some software, plus your VCR. I haven’t done that, but it would be a way to get more old home movies onto the media server. There are also services that will do that conversion for you.
As I was reviewing this article with the Chaos Manor Advisors, Eric Pobirs chimed in with this observation on VHS conversion:
I did that quite a lot for my sister when she had a VHS-C camcorder. The product we used was the Pinnacle Dazzle, which came with their Studio software. (They’ve since been acquired by Avid, so they have heavy duty connections.) That product is now a lot less, listing at $70. It should work with anything that outputs to composite or S-Video.
There are a lot of much cheaper products out there. A few months ago I got an SIIG branded device that Frys was selling for under $10 on a promo. Just in case I ever needed such a thing again as the Dazzle went missing at some point after my sister switch to a digital video camera.
The Pi MiniDLNA Media Server will also handle pictures and music, so you can access those via your LAN, just copy the files to the appropriate folder on the USB hard drive. The 1TB drive will hold a lot of movies and music. The MiniDLNA software on the Pi will handle multiple hard drives if needed.
The whole project was fun to do. So much so, that I made two more (one for each daughter and their family). I got a simple wooden case from the local craft store, and a can of brown spray paint. I cut a notch in the back of the wooden box for cables, and used some Velcro squares to mount the three pieces in the box. The picture with this article shows the finished project. (It is convenient to have a little surge protector to power up everything, since the Pi doesn’t have a power switch, just an external power supply.)
The Raspberry Pi is an interesting platform for anyone to try out. The Pi’s Raspbian NOOBS OS comes with MineCraft, plus the Python programming language, and a simple programming language for kids to try out.
There are a ton of projects out there for the Pi;. I’ve seen home security, robotics, motion-sensing cameras that send texts alerts, flashing lights, wireless phones, mini-tablets, and more – any web search will find ideas for your own projects. Home schoolers will be able to find projects that will help any kid ‘get geeky’. If you can think of a project for it, chances are that someone has already done one that you can try out.
Since the Pi’s operating systems is on the memory card, you can swap it out for your different projects. The ‘HAT’ interface (Hardware Attached Things) can be used to control just about anything. The possibilities are many and varied.
And it’s much cheaper than my original $$$ computer.
What do you think? Have you made something with the Raspberry Pi? Use the comments below to add your thoughts. Or write up your own story and submit it to Chaos Manor Reviews for publication consideration – details are here.