GeeXboX: Lightweight Media System
GeeXboX is a live distribution that can quickly turn a PC into a straight-forward media playback solution. It can be installed to a hard disk, but it works quite well when booted from a CDROM or other removable media. I'm going to examine the existing, stable 1.x series and also take a look at what the forthcoming (but already usable) 2.x series has lined up.
GeeXboX 1.2.4, The Stable Edition
For fans of lightweight distributions, things look promising from the start as the GeeXboX ISO is only 18MB in size. Upon booting, the user is presented with a startup menu giving options for booting into GeeXboX itself or installing to a HD. After a few seconds, GeeXboX assumes the default option and boots from the media, a surprisingly fast process. The boot time from a physical CDROM on real hardware was considerably faster than booting from an ISO image with a VM on the same machine, a point worth bearing in mind when assessing GeeXboX.
If you have booted from a CDROM, the disc then ejects as it is no longer needed. I've no doubt that the sheer speed with which GeeXboX can boot will allow many users to do away with installing it to a hard drive altogether.
The main GeeXboX menu is quite simple and there is no media library system at all. Effectively, GeeXboX is front end to MPlayer that can be easily operated via the keyboard or a remote control. It can play individual files on mounted volumes or network resources and it can also play DVDs. There are some controls to calibrate the screen and choose an output display.
For users who want to setup an HTPC that gives access to an enormous library of media files, GeeXboX 1.x is probably too simple, but it's perfect if you need to quickly turn a computer connected to a TV into a media player that can cope with most popular file formats.
GeeXboX 2.0 alpha
GeeXboX 2.0 is based around a custom media player called Enna. Overall, the 2.x series offers more functionality, but at 43MB, no one can accuse the team making things bloated. In addition to the playback features of the previous version, 2.0 includes video and music library facilities in addition to a weather application and an online comic browser.
GeeXboX 2.0alpha. The development team seem to have been able to add the extra facilities without adding unnecessary complexity
Now, I like the idea behind GeeXboX so much that I'm suspicious of any new version. However, being pragmatic, although 2.x does deliver on the new feature front, it's still so slick that there is nothing that you could do on the old version that you can't also do on the new version.
Alternatives such as MythTV and XBMC are applications that offer a full screen interface to media, online content and simple applications such as vintage computer emulators. As such, they do a lot more than the current stable branch of GeeXboX. Dedicated distributions exist (see our overview of two of them) to simplify deploying either solution on a dedicated media box. Despite being more complicated than GeeXboX, both in use and when setting up, they would be my first choice when setting a dedicated media playback box such as a living room HTPC. However, the new 2.x line of GeeXboX is starting to overlap with the capabilities of those larger systems.
As it stands, GeeXboX is hard to beat for quickly turning a standard PC into a simple media playback station. I hope that the developers can continue to improve the system without greatly deviating from the efficiency and simplicity that have become the GeeXboX niche.
The GeeXboX website.
UK based freelance writer Michael Reed writes about technology, retro computing, geek culture and gender politics.
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