Interview: Raspbmc maintainer Sam Nazarko

Lead Image © Shawn Encarnacion,

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A 19-year-old student has launched the most popular media center distribution for the Raspberry Pi. Read on for the story of Raspbmc and Sam Nazarko.

The Raspberry Pi was barely on the market when a new Linux distribution transformed the mini computer into a complete media center with an excellent price/performance ratio. This distribution was Raspbmc [1], which is now the most widely used media center distro for the Raspberry Pi. Since its inception, Raspbmc has also been very reliably maintained. Raspbmc uses a modified Raspbian system that boots into a version of XBMC [2], which has been optimized and expanded with many patches.

XBMC consists of powerful media center software. The first version appeared for the Xbox; thus, the acronym XBMC also stood for "Xbox Media Center." Over the years, XBMC was ported to additional hardware platforms like Apple TV and the iPad.

When XBMC became available for the Raspberry Pi, the number of users, which was already significant, literally exploded. Three different distributions brought XBMC to the Pi, including OpenELEC, Xbian, and Raspbmc. So far, Raspbmc has emerged as the most popular.

Raspbmc is very user friendly. Its frequent updates include lots of new features (Figure 1). We spoke with Sam Nazarko (Figure 2), the initiator of the distribution, about the history of Raspbmc and what to expect in future developments.

Figure 1: Over the years, the XBMC community has devised many useful add-ons.
Figure 2: Sam Nazarko.


Raspberry Pi Geek: Tell us a little about yourself: Who are you, where do you live, and how did you get involved with the Raspberry Pi?

Sam Nazarko: I'm Sam. I'm a 19-year-old, currently studying Computer Science at King's College London. I live in Surrey, which is part of Greater London. Communication with the Raspberry Pi foundation began after Liz Upton, the Raspberry Pi foundation's public relations manager, blogged my announcement to develop a distribution for Raspberry Pi, and I contacted them for an early board so I could start work as soon as possible.

RPG: Why did you start the Raspbmc project?

SN: I had good results and a strong user base with an XBMC distribution I developed for the original 1st-generation Apple TV. The Raspberry Pi looked appealing because it was just entering production (they don't produce Apple TV 1st gen anymore), it consumes very little power, it is cheap, and it has a very small form factor.

RPG: The distribution has been downloaded over one million times. How does it feel to have created something that is used by so many people?

SN: It's really amazing. Almost everyone that gets a Raspberry Pi tries Raspbmc and after Raspbian (the official OS for Raspberry Pi), Raspbmc is the second most popular. I'm surprised the project gained so much traction. I love seeing users tweet about their great experiences with Raspbmc, and it motivates me to make it better and better for them every day.

RPG: What other projects did you publish in the past?

SN: My other major project is Crystalbuntu. I've worked a lot on the 1st-generation Apple TV. I maintain Crystalbuntu for Apple TV, which lets users run XBMC under Linux on an Apple TV system. The advantages of this are that users can play back 1080p content with a CrystalHD card. Apple abandoned updates for the 1st-gen device in November 2009, but I have been maintaining Apple TV patch stick utilities since August 2009 and the Crystalbuntu distribution from June 2010 to this day.

RPG: You made a very successful distribution at a young age. When did you start using computers? How could the Raspberry Pi motivate more young people to do creative things with technology?

SN: I started using computers at around 4. My first computer was a Toshiba T4500C with DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.11. I think it's important to use computers at as early an age as possible as they become an ever increasing part of our everyday lives. I think Raspberry Pi can play an excellent role in educating and encouraging young people to do things with technology. The advantage of Rasp Pi is that a young person can use it as a consumer device, say with Raspbmc, or as a development platform, and as the device is theirs, they do not have to worry about breaking the family PC.

RPG: How many people are now involved with the development of Raspbmc?

SN: I am currently the sole developer of Raspbmc, however, several people are involved in testing, and the community is very good at reporting bugs as well as fixes. I look forward to getting more developers on board in the future.

RPG: XBian and OpenELEC are also media center systems for the Raspberry Pi. What do you think about them? How does Raspbmc differ from these alternatives?

SN: XBian and OpenELEC take different approaches to development. OpenELEC is not Debian based and is very minimal for an appliance-like feel. I feel like it does not fit in with the spirit of Raspberry Pi, as Raspberry Pi is about allowing modification. With Raspbmc, one can install packages via Debian's apt repositories, however OpenELEC does not allow changes to the root file system. OpenELEC is great for a user who wants to just watch TV, but it doesn't allow the exploration or freedom that Raspbmc does, and that Raspberry Pi should offer. Raspberry Pi is a tinkerer's toy.

XBian is Raspbian based, like us, but it lacks features. Raspbmc supports USB soundcards, "nanny cam," (Figure 3), easy installation to NFS and USB, dual audio output, and much more.

Figure 3: Raspbmc even supports the Rasp Pi camera.

RPG: Because of many big updates, Raspbmc has advanced a lot since its first release. How much work and time do you invest in it?

SN: Updates take a lot of time, mainly due to having to monitor upstream sources of XBMC, as well as Raspberry Pi firmware and the Linux kernel, update Raspbmc patches, and test that the changes work well. Testing takes a very long time. The last thing you want to do is push an update to tens of thousands of users and break all of their systems! I spend around 4-5 hours a day working on Raspbmc and this varies from activities such as development to researching the feasibility of features for future updates or even helping users in the forum or IRC channel.

RPG: What do you think about Google's new Chromecast stick? Is it an alternative to using a Raspberry Pi as a media center?

SN: I actually see Google's Chromecast stick as an incentive to use Raspbmc. Future versions of Raspbmc will support "Chromecast to Pi" capabilities, where one can send video from the Chrome web browser to the Raspberry Pi. This will be achieved by reverse engineering the Chrome streaming protocol and making Raspbmc advertise itself as a Chromecast-capable device.

RPG: How much feedback do you get? An April Fool's joke announced that from now on Raspbmc would contain cracked codecs. Were there people who believed that and reacted angrily?

SN: People generally found the joke quite funny. However some people were angry at the foundation for not releasing the codecs free of charge. Unfortunately, due to patents, it's out of their hands. A few people believed it at first and were "outraged" at me, but when they realized they had been pranked they found it pretty funny. The only worry now is what prank to play next year!

RPG: What is LinXBMC [3]? Will it replace Raspbmc?

SN: LinXBMC is an XBMC Linux distribution that will run on multiple devices. The Crystalbuntu and Raspbmc codebases are very similar, however one is for the i386 architecture and one is for ARMhf. The idea is to merge these two codebases, as well as add support for other devices. As a result, this will minimize "development overhead" and will allow me to deliver a consistent media experience across multiple platforms. There will be new features as well, such as Chromecast streaming, the ability to order food from your TV, a web browser embedded.

RPG: Thank you very much for the interview. We wish you lots of success in your future endeavors with Raspbmc and LinXBMC!

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