The ZOTAC ZBOX ID41 Plus Linux (and XBMC)

As most of you know, XBMC began as a hackers project for the original MS Xbox way back in 2002. It’s now 2012, and in all that time not a single major manufacturer has ever shipped hardware that came with XBMC pre-installed. Until 2008, that was virtually guaranteed, as the only way to run XBMC was to have a modded Xbox, which was debatably legal at best. I STILL remember nervously looking around the guy who offered to solder my board, waiting for the feds to show up.

It wasn’t until fairly recently that the idea of “jailbreaking” hardware was deemed legal under the DMCA by the Library of Congress and even that was exclusively targeted at wireless telephones. Most people would find themselves hard pressed to argue that the original Xbox was, in any shape or form, a wireless telephone.

With that said, much has happened since 2008. XBMC is now on numerous platforms beyond the original Xbox. Indeed, Team XBMC no longer recognizes the original Xbox as a valid modern platform. Honestly, the only way to to make an original Xbox really GOOD at modern tasks is to do a full on hardware revamp.*
*Speaking of which, how many people have seen the below video? It’s absolutely incredible.  I deeply, deeply want to do something like this. Anyone know anybody at Newegg who wants to sponsor an XBMC on the NEW Xbox 1 rebuild? I have an old, broken Xbox lying around just begging to be put to use for a project like this.

Today, XBMC is on OSX, Windows, iOS… It’s running its own version of LXDE Ubuntu. And, of course, it works on a traditional version of Ubuntu.

That last bit is crucial.

Andres Mejia is an XBMC dev who has spent some time working to get accepted as a Debian developer. Because of his knowledge of the Debian network, he offered to work on a project to carve out specific chunks of XBMC in a bid to get XBMC accepted in Debian. In particular Mejia replaced ffmpeg with libav; decss was cut entirely; rar support was likewise cut to be switched with libarchive; and AFP was disabled.  The amount of time and dedication necessary to get an application as monstrous as XBMC into Debian shape is massive, yet Mejia took the project on and excelled. On April 10th, we were excited to announce that we’d finally been included.

For those unfamiliar with the Debian concept, years before Apple coined the phrase “app store” and years and years before XBMC developed its addon manager, Debian packages and repositories existed. In the mid-90s, users of Debian could log onto the internet and find, install, and update software distributed from a central location. If you’ve ever seen the phrase “apt-get,” that’s the Debian way of saying “please download the following software from your app repository.” While it’s still possible to download applications from a website in Linux, like one typically does on Windows or OSX, it’s mostly unnecessary, thanks to the magic of Debian.

Essentially, all of the amazing experiences Android users and iOS users are raving about now have been available to Linux people for nearly 20 years.

As an official part of the Debian repository, XBMC automatically gains a great deal of legitimacy and passes the biggest barrier, both technologically and legally, to becoming a valid option for hardware vendors.

At the same time as Mejia was excising largely unnecessary (and legally hazy) chunks of XBMC, a team at ZOTAC was working to evolve their line-up of low power htpc-style computers. In particular, the focus of the team was shipping the Zbox ID41 with Linux pre-installed, rather than as a barebones computer with no OS.

A developer by the name of Kevin Wang at ZOTAC came aboard this project in early 2012. At the beginning, Wang spent most of his time working with Canonical (the organization behind Ubuntu) to get native support for the hardware of the ID41.

Scale computers

ZOTAC invariably powers at least one computer at SCALE every year for XBMC.

Wang had been a major user of XBMC for years. Likewise, ZOTAC has been one of the most outspoken backers of the XBMC project, specifically designing numerous boxes with XBMC in mind. Two years ago at SCALE, the entire XBMC display was stocked exclusively with ZOTAC boxes, almost entirely because the relationship between the two organizations has been so positive.*

*It also helps that they were the only company I know of that offered to stock our booth. That’s typically a big plus.

When the bombshell announcement that XBMC was to be included in Debian struck on April 10th, 2012, Wang saw a massive opportunity. He sat down with his colleagues and demonstrated XBMC on the ID41 running MythTV and Navi-X. He showed off XBMC’s ability to launch a MAME emulator using an integrated and stylish MAME frontend for some retro-gaming fun. “After the demonstration,  we were all convinced to preload XBMC along with our Linux ID41 system,” Wang said.

And so the ID41 plus Linux project took on an entirely new flavor.  XBMC went from being a sort of “wink wink nudge nudge” software option that ZOTAC couldn’t install itself but otherwise actively promoted, to being a key part of one of the big hardware pieces of the company.

At the moment, the ID41 plus Linux appears to be available only on ZOTAC’s own site. The hardware can be found on both Amazon and NewEgg, but the software doesn’t seem to come pre-installed at either site. It’s entirely possible that the software actually IS installed on at Amazon and NewEgg, but neither description is completely clear on that topic. If more info on that comes to light, we’ll update this post.  With that said, regardless of what is installed, ZOTAC has made it clear that the ID41 should work with Ubuntu pretty well out of the box.

Because Wang had made it clear that he was a fan of XBMC going way back, I thought I’d ask him what he uses the software for, besides the obvious movies/tv/music combo.

When asked, Wang had two suggestions for extracting maximum value out of the ID41 with XBMC. First, XBMC’s advanced launcher is awesome, so if you have legal access to games/roms/emulators/etc., you should definitely take advantage. “It brings new life to retro gaming, along with a stylish ROM management GUI,” Wang said.  Second, Wang personally had excellent luck installing a TV tuner and using Myth TV as a backend for XBMC’s PVR. Of course, you will most likely need a specialized build to truly take advantage of the PVR powers.

For the future, ZOTAC and Wang are testing and developing the Nano series of mini PCs for use with Ubuntu and XBMC, with the goal of eventually launching two more models of even smaller Zboxes for the XBMC htpc lineup. So be certain to keep an eye out for those.

And in the meantime, if you happen to have an ID41 already, by all means send me your review at natethomas AT xbmc DOT org or post it in the comments, and we’ll see if we can’t put together a meta-review of the kit.

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