Finally my search for the living room media player may have come to an end. For years I have had a HTPC, a PC hooked up to a TV to watch my collection of digitally backed up films and tv shows. It was sufficient but had many draw backs.
Firstly I could never manage to get suspend to work correctly, which had it wake, what seemed to me, randomly throughout the day. It led to me keeping it shutdown and have it boot up (slowly) into windows before launching my media software of choice as and when I used it. Also, like any PC, it has fans, on the CPU and power supply. My build was to be quiet as possible, but it was never silent.
The media software I used was “Media Browser”, which was a plugin for Windows Media Centre. It was fantastic in organising your digital media, great skins and customisations. Unfortunately you needed to load windows with a number of codecs or use a third party player (which you had to if you wanted to play subtitles), to play back High definition encoded videos or certain containers.
I moved over to XBMC a while ago, which like Media Browser, was fantastic is its organisation, skins and customisations, but used its own player for playback, utilising hardware acceleration, which combated a lot of my prior issues. Also, due to its huge development community, it provided me with so many other options that I never had before.
Despite moving to XBMC, I was still limited to the hardware I was using, I still had the noise and frustrations of using a PC, which in terms of ability, was probably overkill for what I wanted to use it for, 1080p playback. Ultimately, the biggest problem, despite streamlining the usability by switching to xbmc, it never had the WAF, the wife approval factor (she always complained that having discs would be easier, which should never be the case when having a media centre).
I initially wanted to build a new HTPC, looking at low powered and fanless solutions. I came across many, but I always thought it was overkill for what I wanted and I knew it will still ultimately frustrate me. However, when moving to XBMC and reading up on its setup, I realised, due to its development community, that they had ported its software to a number of different hardware’s. I looked at the Raspberry PI, a development micro board, version of XBMC, but the guys had something up their sleeve.
Low cost Android boxes had been making its way onto the scene for the past year or so and XBMC decided port it over to be used with the Android OS. Pivos had become the official commercial partner of XBMC, even hired some of its developers, to get XBMC working on its new Pivos Xios DS player, an Android based TV box. But then the guys at Pivos created a Linux only version, which had the box boot up directly into XBMC. I didn’t need Android on my box; it was like windows on my HTPC, an OS to get to the Media Player. This was exactly what I was looking for. So I took the plunge.
The Pivos Xios DS is tiny, measuring at 100 mm x 100 mm x 15 mm. It comes with a basic IR remote, HDMI cable and DC power supply. It is a very stylish looking box, although I would prefer if the Pivos branding wasn’t so brazen on top.
There is no real spec on the box, but the website states that it has an ARM Cortex A9 processor, with 1GB of Ram (my version was the M3 version, the M1 has 512mb Ram, but is no longer available). It only has small amount of internal memory. It is recommended you buy a class 8 or above micro SD card of 8GB or more, it use with XBMC, as you will find that the internal memory is quickly filled by cached images and information (of your films and tv shows) if you have a medium to large collection.
I loaded the Linux version XBMC on to it, I will detail on a later post the exact steps of my set-up (its quiet straight forward), and I was off running. After pointing to my media collection and let XBMC do it thing, I had my films and TV Shows in a nice organised GUI. Using the standard out the box skin, Confluence, I found the interface is smooth and very responsive. However, I would not recommend a more graphical heavy skin, such as Aeon Nox. Switching to this, I experienced some slow downs, not a lot mind, especially once XBMC had cached the images. You have to remember that this is a lower powered CPU, so as such, isn’t going to give you the same responsiveness if running on a HTPC.
I tried a number of files, 720p MKV’s, 1080p MKV’s, standard definition Avi’s, etc. It played them all without, or unnoticeable, drop in frame rate. One thing that I did notice was that, on occasion, playing H.264 encoded file, the picture would freeze, but the sound carry on. I had to press 5 sec skip to carry on. It still happens, despite the latest nightly Linux build, and no one experiencing similar on the Pivos forums, I assume it’s down to how the file was encoded, and as it only on occasion, it’s not a hindrance.
I don’t use XBMC for the numerous addons available, such as 1Channel, BBC iPlayer, so I cannot give you idea of whether these work correctly on the box. But for for all intents and purposes, this is a Linux version of XBMC, so if the addon work on Linux, it should work on this. Reading around on the net shows no issues with addons.
The remote itself is pretty basic. Anyone who has been used to the windows MCE remote for XBMC will be frustrated by its limited functionality. You can use a Logitech Harmony remote, which has the additional buttons on its website (this is the option I’ve taken) or programme the Pivos to recognise the key presses of a spare remote (which I will detail on a later post, you can’t do this with an MCE remote however), or if you prefer, use one the many android/iOS remotes for phones/tablets.
You may notice that the Pivos Xios DS, looks exactly the same as other android boxes, mainly the sumvision cyclone nano+ and MyGica 510b. It is because they are the same box (on the surface), manufactured by a Chinese company called Giatech (MyGica is its commercial arm). However, the Pivos box is manufactured to Pivos supplied BOM (Bill of Materials), which ensure that the components used are ones that have been passed Pivos quality control, whilst the other are cheap copies. They also assign their own hardware ID, so although you are able to install the android apk of xbmc onto any android os, you cannot flash their, continuingly developing and supported, XBMC Linux version onto a Box that is not Pivos’s own.