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Using a cubox as a media platform.

23 May 2014 21:50

Somebody recent got in touch offering to mail me a Cubox, in exchange for me experimenting with it and writing about it. In the past I've written book reviews in exchange for receiving free copies, and while I don't want to make a habit of it I don't see a problem providing I'm up-front and honest.

So, what is the cubox-i? It's another one of those "small computers", roughly similar to the Raspberry Pi, but with slightly different hardware, and a really neat little case design, as the name suggests it just looks like a tiny two inch cube, only spoiled by the mass of cabling attached to the back.

Me? I was cheeky and said I'd have no use for one, unless it was the fancy-model. The hardware comes in 4 different versions, which you can read about on the Cubox-i product page.

Ignoring the smaller/cheaper models the fancy version is the CuBox-i4Pro, and this differentiates itself from the Rasberry Pi:

  • It has built in WiFi support.
  • It has two USB ports, and a SATA port too.
  • It has a built in infrared receiver/transmitter.
  • The onboard NIC is 1Gb - though limited to 400Mb or so due to bus-constraints, certainly faster than the Pi.
  • The on-board storage is micro SD.
  • It looks lovely.

I had two uses for this toy; the first was to be a random NAS-box hosting local backups, the second was to be a media-center. In the past I used a Rasberry PI as a media-box, but unfortunately performance was appalling, largely because of the low-spead of the USB WiFi dongle I bought.

The video playback would stall at times, even though the hardware could display full HD-output, the network constraints seemed to be a limiting factor. In the end I abandoned it and these days use it sporadically for emulation, and little else. I've been meaning to do something more interesting with it, but never quite got round to it.

By contrast the Cubox-i is wonderful at being a media-box. I've exported some shares of MP4/AVI files from my desktop host, via NFS, then downloaded a binary image of the geexbox (XBMC) distribution which I installed onto the MicroSD card via dd.

The box boots in about seven seconds, was configured to use WiFi (via "Programs | Settings"), and was streaming media in less than two minutes.

There is a Debian disitribution available for download from the cubox-i wiki, but sadly it is an ancient snapshot of Jessie from December last year. It did install, but there was no WiFi out of the box. Gunnar Wolf wrote about bootstrapping an image from sources, rather than using a binary snapshot. He's kindly shared the resulting image he built, but again sadly no WiFi support, so for the moment I'm just enjoying the media-suport.

In the future I need to decide what to do:

  • Keep the Cubox-i as a media box, using the PI for backup-hosting.
  • Avoid having two devices and lose media-streaming.

I also need to look at running Pure Debian, for obvious reasons, but if I can't use WiFi the machine is no good to me. (The TV is in a different room to the office which contains our Linux hosts.)

Either way I've not been excited about new hardware for a while, not since I bought a Logitech Squeezebox, and we're both enjoying watching media on the TV.