The Raspberry Pi Home Theater: What You Can And Cannot Do

Christian Cawley 21-02-2013

raspberry pi home theaterIf you’ve been following our recent articles about the Raspberry Pi, you’ll know that it can be set up as a media streaming client with a dedicated XBMC build How To Make Your Raspberry Pi Into a Home Theater System Four weeks on and I’ve been playing with my Raspberry Pi in various ways, from using it to browse the web and standard day-to-day computing tasks to playing around with the various configurations that are... Read More and you should also be aware that by teaming the device up with any additional hardware (external hard disk drive, cables and adhesives), it can become the complete media center How To Build a Media Center That Will Play Anything I've been building a media centre recently. Actually, scratch that – I’ve been building two. One is a compact device (my Raspberry Pi) running the RaspBMC distribution of XBMC, while the other is a traditional... Read More .


However as fantastic a solution the Raspberry Pi is to your various HTPC requirements, there are a few things that it cannot do too well. Some additional hardware may prove useful in some situations, but in others – such as where DRM or proprietary software is required – there is currently no way around the limitations.

You’ll find more about using and setting up the Raspberry Pi in our new guide Raspberry Pi: The Unofficial Tutorial Whether you're a current Pi owner who wants to learn more or a potential owner of this credit-card size device, this isn't a guide you want to miss. Read More .

Subscription Streaming Services: What Works, What Doesn’t?

The popularity of the Raspberry Pi has seen it chosen by thousands as a compact Raspberry PI home theater device. However, while it works superbly with XBMC to stream content stored on your SD card or on an attached device (local or network), the Raspberry Pi is limited when it comes to certain popular online TV and movie subscription streaming services.

Lovefilm & Netflix

As popular as Lovefilm and Netflix have become over the past couple of years, neither service offers a plugin, add-on or app that will enable you to view its content on the Raspberry Pi, with or without XBMC.

While there are XBMC plugins for both services, these will only work on Windows computers. Because the Raspberry Pi is running Linux and is powered by an ARM processor, the plugins are unsuitable for reasons of compatibility and because they employ the Microsoft Silverlight software for streaming content. This is a proprietary system, so there is no way to access the stream.


raspberry pi home theater

However, all is not lost. There is a good chance that an Android build for Raspberry Pi will be able to run Lovefilm and Netflix – and if these two companies see how many Raspberry Pi computers have been sold (now over one million!) then there is also a good chance that they might soon see sense…

Services that Will Work

This isn’t to say that there are no streaming services that run on the Raspberry Pi using XBMC. Hulu will work, for instance, as will UK TV catch-up streaming provided by BBC iPlayer, Channel 4’s 4OD and ITV Player.

Booting up a Raspberry Pi home theater running XBMC and checking the various add-ons that are available, meanwhile, will enable access to YouTube, Vimeo and a wealth of streaming services such as German TV and various niche channels carrying video games, technology shows, and movie trailers.


Storage: Local or Network?

With XBMC installed, the Raspberry Pi can playback music, video, and photos on devices attached locally and remotely. You’ll probably find that the best solution is to either use an external hard disk drive or a network drive (either a NAS or a hard disk drive on your PC that has been shared to the local network).

raspberry pi home theater pc


Although SD cards can be used for storage, the largest supported size for a SDHC card is 32 GB. This probably won’t hold all of the media that you wish to watch, and using the same storage device for media and for running the operating system isn’t ideal when the OS fails and the card needs to be reformatted.


Similarly, maximum storage capacities of USB flash sticks don’t come close to external hard disk drives or network drives, so while they’re useful for playing back a small number of video files, USB flash devices shouldn’t be considered a permanent storage solution for a Raspbmc.

Watching Live TV on the Raspberry Pi

There are a couple of ways that you can watch live TV on Raspbmc. The first requires the most up-to-date build of XBMC (version 12 and above) and a PC on your home network that is equipped with a TV card or USB TV tuner. Acting as a server, this computer will make TV signals available to your Raspberry Pi, with the XBMC software providing a front end for the TV card, enabling you to remotely change channel.

raspberry pi home theater pc

The alternative is to use a USB TV tuner that is compatible with the Raspberry Pi. Such devices are produced by Sundtech but will require you to purchase the MPEG-2 license key for the Raspberry Pi (just £2.40) in order to successfully decode the digital TV streams.


Raspberry Pi: Ideal as a Media Center with Some Limitations

If you own a Raspberry Pi then you have in your hands a hugely versatile mini-computer that can be used for teaching yourself programming, as a NAS box controller, as a retro gaming/MAME unit, or as a media center.

raspberry pi home theater

In all of these uses the device has some limitations, usually in power, so to find that it won’t stretch to streaming Netflix and Lovefilm shouldn’t come as any surprise.

However, remember that this limitation has been imposed by third parties. There is a chance that the Raspberry Pi will eventually be able to stream video from these services at some point in the future…

Image Credit: Hulu logo

Related topics: Media Player, Raspberry Pi, XBMC Kodi.

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  1. Michael Fischer
    February 2, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    Much of my TV watching happens as I use Chrome or any web browser to see subscriptions to PBS or Amazon.
    Sounds like this would work on the Pi with little set up.
    Sound right?

  2. Joyce young
    November 2, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    Does this bring in all movies and how much

  3. Chadwick Jones
    October 22, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Netflix et al need to get on HTML5 already.

  4. Jocelyn
    August 23, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Is this illegal in the U.S?

  5. Mai
    August 18, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    I don't know. I install it on my pi and it couldn't display HD or FULL HD without being choppy. I think the GPU driver is not free.
    It just didn't have any power and the software was buggy as a cockroach.

  6. DT
    May 3, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    I want to stream videos from my NAS and PC. Can I do this if I plug a RasPi to the network and my TV?

    • Jason Bird
      May 9, 2013 at 12:54 am

      Yes, I'm assuming you're using windows? You can browse smb shares easily. How to specifically do this depends somewhat on what you have installed on your Pi device. I personally use openELEC, connected to a freeNAS server.

  7. Shawn
    March 24, 2013 at 12:09 am

    Use Openelec or Raspbmc for easy setup of XMBC. I set up 5 of them this way. Then load bluecop plugin for Amazon prime and VOD.

    • Ishaq
      April 11, 2013 at 2:19 pm

      I am using a preinstalled openelec Xmbc. I have downloaded the zip file for bluecop plugin, but I do not see add-on from zip file under the systems menu. I am a newbie and would appreciate your help. Thank you

  8. Walter Gilbert
    March 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    I collect all Pi tutorials while waiting for my Raspberry Pi.

  9. Rama moorthy
    February 22, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    when PI giveaway .?

  10. loosieus
    February 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    i might have missed it but can i attach my 4tb hard drive on to the pi and just have all my movies and tv shows run off that? ie does the pi support such large external harddrives?


    • Alex House
      March 24, 2013 at 5:15 pm

      Yes, the Pi can use an external hard drive of any size, as long as it's USB and doesn't require more power than the Pi can provide (if it does, get a powered USB hub).

  11. Alessandro Morgantini
    February 22, 2013 at 10:23 am

    If you don't want get up from couch, you need one of these:
    I'm using it with XBMC on a Linux box and it works like a charm: for the system it is a standard USB keyboard (play/pause space bar, rwd left arrow, ffwd right arrow etc.), no driver needed.

  12. Mathew Berkhan
    February 22, 2013 at 6:08 am

    One addition to the streaming section. The Amazon Prime instant plugin ( does work with Raspbmc.

    That was on 11. I haven't tried 12.

    • Christian Cawley
      February 22, 2013 at 9:04 am

      Useful info, Mathew, thanks!

  13. Márcio Guerra
    February 22, 2013 at 4:02 am

    Despite being cheap, for noobies I think it is still a «noobie-unfriendly» device... But, there's always a but, MUO and some other sites can helps to not being a noob, ahhaha!

    Thank you!

    Márcio Guerra