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How to turn your Raspberry Pi into an XBMC media centre

Turn the £20 Raspberry Pi mini computer into a XBMC media centre for watching iPlayer, 4oD, ITV Player and Demand 5 with this guide.

The Raspberry Pi is a bargain mini computer that's designed to get kids into programming. It sells for just £22 and includes an HDMI socket so you can connect it to a TV. With Ethernet and USB ports on board too, you can easily turn it into a cheap-as-chips media streamer for watching online TV catch-up services like iPlayer and 4oD.

I'm going to show you the easy way to do this and how to get the XBMC media centre software (known as Raspbmc) running on your Raspberry Pi.

You won't need any knowledge of Linux or programming to get it to work. In fact, all you'll need is an SD card to install the software onto via your Windows PC, plus a USB keyboard to quickly change some settings on your Pi to allow you to use your smart phone or tablet as a remote control.

The SD card needs to be at least 2GB in size. For best performance, it should be a Class 6 card or faster. Okay, let's get cracking.

Step 1: Grab the Windows installer

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The first thing you need to do is download the Windows installer here. I experienced problems with the site being down on one occasion when I visited -- if you have a similar problem, download it here instead. Once you've got it on your computer, unzip the compressed file (you can use a program such as Winzip to do this -- get a free trial here). Before running the software, it's best to remove any USB drives or other memory cards from your system. Then plug the SD card you're going to use with your Raspberry Pi into your computer's card reader.

Step 2: Prepare your SD card

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Double-click on 'installer' to run the program. It will show you any removable drives attached to your system. Make sure your SD card is shown and then tick the box next to it. If more than one drive is shown here, and you're not sure which drive to select, exit the program and find out which option relates to your SD card via Windows Explorer.

If you don't do this there's a chance you could overwrite a disc instead of copying the software to your memory card. That would be a very, very bad mistake (you'd lose all your data and then have a little cry).

Step 3: Install the software

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With your SD card selected, click on the Install button. The software contacts the Raspbmc servers and starts downloading the latest version to the SD card. This isn't always reliable as the servers are sometimes down. I had to try it a couple of times to get it to work. When the download has been completed successfully, a window should pop up saying "Congratulations". If this doesn't happen, the download has failed, so try again.

Step 4: Connect the cables

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Now the fun really begins! Take the card out of your computer and insert it into the SD slot on the Raspberry Pi. You can't really go wrong with this as the grooves on the slot only allow you to insert the card if it's the correct way up. Connect up your HDMI and Ethernet cables and then attach the micro-USB power cable.

Step 5: Downloading from the Raspbmc server

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The Raspberry Pi will start up and show some lines of text on your TV to indicate that it's reading the SD card and setting itself up. It will then contact the Raspbmc server and start downloading the Root File System before unpacking the files and installing them on the SD card.

This takes a while, so be patient. If the progress bar on the downloader doesn't update, power down the Pi and start it up again. If this doesn't solve the problem, remove the SD card, return to your computer and run the installer again as the transfer may not have worked properly.

Step 6: Plug in your keyboard

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Once the install has finished, the Pi should display the Raspberry Pi splash screen and then boot into the XBMC user interface. Naturally, you need a way to navigate around the interface. You can use a tablet or smart phone as a remote control but first you have to configure XBMC to recognise it.

To do this you need to attach a USB keyboard to your Pi. Once it's connected, use the arrow keys to move to the Settings option and then hit the Return key. Select Services and press Return. Scroll down to Webserver, hit the right cursor key to select 'Allow Control of XBMC via HTTP' and hit Return to activate the setting. You can now disconnect the keyboard.

Step 7: Smart phone or tablet remote control

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I'm going to use an iPad to control XBMC on the Pi, but there are free software remote control apps available for most mobile platforms including these for iOS and Android. I couldn't get the two free ones for Windows Phone to work but you could use this cheap plug-and-play remote instead.

On the iPad or iPhone, go to the App Store and download the free Official XBMC Remote. Start it up and tap on the box at the bottom of the screen (next to the volume control), and select 'XBMC(raspbmc)'. Now tap the 'Use as Remote Control' button and you can navigate XBMC using the touchpad remote that appears on the screen.

Step 8: Get the plug-ins

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Okay, it's time to install the add-ons that will allow you to access the video-on-demand services from the UK's terrestrial broadcasters. Download the 4oD plug-in here, grab BBC iPlayer here, get ITV Player here, and finally, download Demand 5 here.

Step 9: Install video-on-demand services

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Do not unzip these files, but simply copy them to a USB memory key and insert it into either of the Pi's two USB ports. Tap the Home button on the remote and go to System, Add-ons and select 'Install from Zip File'. Tap the central button on the remote and choose your USB key from the list. It should be the first entry. When the file browser opens select the 4oD file and press OK. Wait a few seconds and you should see a '4oD Add-on Enabled' message at the bottom of the screen.

Repeat the process for the three other files. That's it -- you can now access these plug-ins by tapping the Home button on the remote, before selecting Movies and then Add-ons. If you want to play back videos from USB drives, just select the Files option instead.

Let me know how you get on in the comments or over on Facebook, and if you want to know more about Raspberry Pi, watch our video below. For more cool projects, check out our guide on 25 fun things to do with a Raspberry Pi.

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