How To: Dell Studio Hybrid Home Theater PC/Media Center

About a year ago I purchased a Dell Studio Hybrid (now discontinued) to use as a discreet and silent home theater PC. The hardware in the base model is powerful enough to easily handle 1080p video and maybe even run a virtual machine or two in the background for testing purposes. My first configuration included Windows 7 with Boxee, but this soon proved to be rather unstable and the boot times were horrendous (as in nearly five minutes) with the slow laptop hard drive in the hybrid. After doing some research, I was able to find a much more lightweight approach using Ubuntu 10.04 Server. At the same time I decided to switch from Boxee since development has pretty much stopped after the release of the Boxee Box. The interface was very buggy as well and it would become unstable for no given reason which required frequent application restarts.

For this project, I opted for XMBC because of the very active community and the excellent documentation for running it on a minimal Ubuntu install. I didn’t follow the document exactly, but using the following (original found here) got me up and running with very few issues and boot times of less than a minute.

  1. Download and install Ubuntu server from the following link. I chose the server version since it only installs the basic packages that the system needs to function. Because of this, you will only be installing X11 (later on) and will not need a desktop environment such as Gnome or KDE if you do not choose to. Be sure to check out the installation guide if you are unfamiliar with this process. In my setup I was single booting with the default “erase all data” option during setup. Be sure that you backup any data as this will obviously erase the entire disk. You can also dual-boot, but that is outside of the scope of this article. Use Google when in doubt.

  2. During setup choose the OpenSSH Server package for easy remote access and setup during the rest of this tutorial. Once the installation completes, SSH in or continue with the remainder of the setup with a keyboard and monitor attached locally. Run the following commands to add the stable XBMC software repositories.

    sudo apt-get install python-software-properties pkg-config
    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:team-xbmc/ppa
    sudo apt-get update
  3. Install XBMC and all required software dependencies:

    sudo apt-get install xbmc xorg
  4. Since my Studio Hybrid did not have an Nvidia or ATI graphics card, I did not have to enable any restricted third party drivers and was able to proceed to the next step.

  5. Make a new user called “xbmc” with the following command and give it a password. This will be used for allowing XBMC to launch automatically when the PC starts.

    sudo adduser xbmc --gecos XBMC
  6. Add the new XBMC user to the groups XBMC will need to function properly

    sudo usermod --group adm,sudo,cdrom,floppy,audio,video,
    plugdev,netdev,powerdev,fuse, polkituser xbmc
  7. Install XBMX-Live to allow XBMC to start automatically when the system boots. This relies on the user you created and configured in the last two steps.

    sudo apt-get install xbmc-live
  8. Test by either rebooting, or by running the following command to start XBMC:

    xinit xbmc-standalone

    Note: If XBMC failed to start, review the X11 log for troubleshooting. Again, Google will provide more help. I did not run into any problems myself. grep EE /var/log/Xorg.0.log

  9. Install ALSA to enable audio.

    sudo apt-get install alsa-utils pulseaudio

    Note: If you run into issues refer to the following to update ALSA to the latest version.

  10. Review optional isntalls if you wish to enable additional functionality if desired or needed.

The steps were very straight forward. The biggest issue I ran into was with audio and I ended up updating ALSA as instructed in the guide. This is likely due to me running audio over HDMI, but you mileage may vary.

Once XBMC was up and running I also installed Subsonic to steam my music collection, TV, and Movies over the internet. The installation for that was also very easy to complete, instructions and download can be found here:

That’s about it, just a couple hours worth of configuration and testing. So far I haven’t even run into severe issues with codecs, but I have had audio/video sync issues. A reboot was able to resolve it in the end and so far it has only happened a couple times. Still much less frequent as the issues I had in Boxee!

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