How to build your own Smart TV box for £28 flat

The inexpensive Raspberry Pi can supercharge your TV
The inexpensive Raspberry Pi can supercharge your TV
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Make your own TV box for just £28, says David Behrens

IN between presiding over showbiz hirings and firings, Lord Sugar put his name and reputation behind YouView, a next-generation Freeview box which lets you watch catch-up services like the BBC iPlayer on your TV. It’s currently £250 at John Lewis.

That’s quite a reduction on last year’s launch price, but if you really want to save money, here’s how to build one yourself for £28 flat. I did it the other weekend, and it’s the best media player I’ve ever used.

The outlay is for a Raspberry Pi micro-computer, a bare-bones circuit board marketed as an educational tool but with many other uses besides. One of these is the ability to play high-definition video to a connected TV, whether from the internet or another computer in your home.

Of course, a circuit board can’t do this by itself; it needs the right software – and that’s where the media manager XBMC comes in. Originally designed for the Xbox games console, it’s now a home entertainment centre of remarkable versatility, capable of running on a PC, Mac, tablet and, yes, a Raspberry Pi. Significantly, it’s built by enthusiasts, not corporations, which means it’s absolutely free.

Mine can access the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5 catch-up players and stream live Freeview channels I can’t get through my aerial. It lets me watch YouTube and every other web-based service on my TV, and it plays all the home movies and other videos I keep on my main PC. If I were Lord Sugar and I saw this, I’d fire myself. The basic £28 Raspberry Pi includes wired connectivity to your router, but little else. A power supply, case and wi-fi adapter are a few pounds extra – but a spare mobile phone charger and a box of Lego bricks will substitute for the first two.

A remote is also not included, but if your TV is a recent one and you connect via HDMI, you’ll find its own zapper will control all the basic functions. You can also run XBMC from a free remote control app on your phone or tablet – but if you want a dedicated commander, the Pi’s distributor Premier Farnell (http://cpc.farnell.com/) will sell you a mini keyboard/touchpad for £33. The XBMC software sits on an SD card, which also serves as the Raspberry Pi’s memory. You can buy one pre-loaded or download a Pi-specific version of XBMC called Raspbmc on to a spare of your own. Find instructions at www.raspbmc.com.

Don’t worry, it’s just computer science, not rocket science – and you’ll be too busy watching your newly-supercharged TV to get sidetracked.