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Build a dedicated – and fast-booting – XBMC media center PC with OpenElec 3.0.0

28 March 2013, Nick Peers

Got a lot of media stored digitally? Want access from a range of devices, including your computer, mobile and smart TV? One of the best tools for the job is the wonderful – and open-source – XBMC 12.1. It’s capable of so much, acting as a media center, DLNA-compatible server and – from version 12 – PVR for live TV on your computer.

Next to XBMC, just about every so-called smart media box out there pales under its radiance. If only you could build your own XBMC-based smart box, eh? Actually you can: all you need is a spare PC and the wonderful OpenELEC 3.0.0.

OpenELEC 3.0.0 is a complete Linux-based distribution based around XBMC. Boot up a PC running OpenELEC, and within seconds you’re at the familiar XBMC desktop, with all your media within arm’s reach. The concept isn’t new – there are plenty of Linux-based XBMC distros out there, including XBMC’s own XBMCbuntu, based around Ubuntu.

OpenELEC 3.0.0 is built from the very latest version (12.1) of XBMC.

What makes OpenELEC stand apart from the competition is its size – or lack of it. By focussing solely on providing a platform for running XBMC and nothing more, OpenELEC weighs in at a maximum 125MB when installed. That’s megabytes, not gigabytes, which is why it’s optimized for smaller removable media like SD cards and USB thumb drives, leaving your hard drive free to store all that media on.

Installation is refreshingly simple – all you need is a PC that supports USB booting, and a spare USB thumb drive (256MB or greater) to place the installation files on. Then it’s a case of picking the right version to download – you’ll find customised builds for ION/ION2, Intel and Fusion GPU chipsets, the Raspberry Pi and two “generic” builds to cover just about any laptop or desktop out there.

Creating the bootable OpenELEC installer is a simple task in Windows.

The file you download will be in .tar.bz2 format. Extracting your installation files from here may be a bit fiddly – Windows users will need a third-party tool such as IZArc to do so. Once done, Windows users can simply double-click the create_livestick file and follow the prompts to create the USB boot drive; Mac and Linux users should follow the instructions at the OpenELEC wiki.

Now switch to your media center-to-be, insert the USB stick and boot from it to install OpenElec itself, again following the simple prompts. You can install to the internal hard drive or any removable drive – as we said earlier, picking a SD card or second USB thumb drive allows you to separate your media from OpenELEC itself.

Once the installation process is complete, you can boot OpenELEC proper. You’ll see it’s incredibly fast – another benefit of such a small footprint – and delivers you direct to the familiar XBMC desktop. The new version – OpenELEC 3.0.0 – is actually the first official stable release, and based on the very latest version of XBMC: Frodo, v12.1. That means if it works in XBMC, it’ll work in OpenELEC too. Your media experience will never be the same again.

OpenELEC 3.0.0 is available as a free, open-source download for use on a secondary PC. The installer can be run on Windows, Mac and Linux to create the required USB thumb drive installer. XBMC 12.1 is also available as a free, open-source download for running on a primary Windows, Mac or Linux computer.

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