Your Raspberry Pi can do a whole host of things that will take you by surprise.
That little computer can run as a desktop replacement, or even a retro game station, and that’s just the beginning. It’s also capable of doing much more.
But one of the most popular uses is as a media center. As with other platforms, the best solution is Kodi, but it comes in a number of different guises on the Raspberry Pi. So which one should you choose?
The 3 Main Versions of Kodi for Raspberry Pi
Running Kodi on any device in your home gives you access to a whole world of legal, free (and some subscription) entertainment. Movies, TV, music, audiobooks, podcasts, videocasts… there is so much on offer.
You might install Kodi on an Android device or even an Amazon Fire stick. In fact, Kodi will run on almost anything, even PCBs like the Raspberry Pi.
Own a Raspberry Pi and want to turn it into a Kodi-based media center? You have three main options:
- OpenELEC: Released as an alternative to Raspbmc, the first version of Kodi for the Raspberry Pi, OpenELEC is the oldest option.
- LibreELEC: A fork of OpenELEC, LibreELEC has a slight performance advantage over its predecessor.
- OSMC: This is developed by a team featuring Sam Nazarko, who previously released the Raspbmc media center.
In addition, you can run Kodi within some popular retro gaming distributions, and even install it manually in Raspbian. Don’t use Raspbian? Don’t worry, Kodi should also install in most other Raspberry Pi distros.
First released in May 2014, OpenELEC uses the “just enough operating system” principle. This means that as well as Kodi, there is enough operating system components to allow the software to boot. OpenELEC also has a very small footprint; the download file is under 150 MB. Once flashed to your microSD card, meanwhile, it remains compact, making it the smallest Kodi option for the Raspberry Pi.
However, installation of OpenELEC is strictly manual. You’ll need to flash the downloaded disk image to your microSD card using a specialist disk writing tool like Etcher. This is in contrast to the alternatives below, which have their own installer tools.
Perhaps most worryingly, OpenELEC has some security issues, and was named in the NIST vulnerability database. If you’re only planning to use OpenELEC with local media files, this shouldn’t be a problem. Otherwise, you should avoid.
Download: OpenELEC for Raspberry Pi
Another “bare bones” Kodi system, LibreELEC is a fork of OpenELEC. This means that some of the code is derived from the earlier distribution, and is developed by former members of the LibreELEC team. Forking is common in the open source world, and often (as here) results in a superior product.
Slightly faster and more stable than OpenELEC, LibreELEC has a useful installer that lets you easily install Kodi to your Pi’s microSD card from a Linux, Windows 10, or macOS computer (there is also an x86 version). Thanks to the LibreELEC team being larger than its immediate competitor’s, support for this particular Kodi option is better.
Download: LibreELEC for Raspberry Pi
Perhaps the most popular option, OSMC is an operating system combined with Kodi. Whereas the other Kodi versions for the Raspberry Pi have a lite version of Debian running underneath, OSMC can be used as a full OS. If you needed to install software and run it, in theory you could.
Having that integration with the operating system makes OSMC the most robust and stable option. It also enables you to install software/the OSMC app store. Here, you’ll find plugins and add-ons to enhance your Kodi experience. Add-ons can also be installed in the traditional way (just make sure you keep it legal!).
In many cases, OSMC is the end of the journey for anyone looking to turn their Raspberry Pi into a media center. OpenELEC and LibreELEC are good solutions; the non-Kodi solutions are also strong, but OSMC feels more like a finished product. Having used OSMC on two Raspberry Pis for the past couple of years, I can personally recommend this option. OpenELEC comes with its own installer, although disk images are also available.
Download: OSMC for Raspberry Pi
Distros for Gaming: RecalBox and RetroPie
In addition to the dedicated disk image solutions, it’s possible to run Kodi from within RecalBox or RetroPie. If you’re a fan of retro gaming, you’ll appreciate how this might be advantageous.
Perhaps you’re already running RecalBox, or RetroPie, and you’ve been frustrated by being unable to install Kodi. You might even have a separate Raspberry Pi just for gaming, or have different microSD cards, one for each purpose.
Well, this is no longer necessary. RecalBox and RetroPie each have the option of installing Kodi; but how well does it work?
It’s here that you might run into a problem. While Kodi should install and run without any problems, performance degrades considerably once you start installing add ons. As these are an important aspect of using Kodi, you might prefer to look for a different solution. Kodi should still be useful for streaming video from a NAS box or other PC on your network, however.
What About Installing Kodi on Raspbian?
Most of the time when we discuss installing Kodi on a Raspberry Pi, we’re talking about downloading a disk image and flashing it to a microSD card. It’s far simpler to do this than it is to install the software on Raspbian (or some other Pi distro) and configure it.
But this is an option. Installing Kodi on Raspbian is possible, and if you opt to do so, it can prove useful in appreciating what is required in configuring the media center software.
Don’t expect this to run smoothly, however; put a few hours aside and take your time, learning as you go. When you’re done, and all is working, remember to make a clone of the microSD card.
Which Kodi Will You Use for Raspberry Pi?
With three main options for using Kodi on your Raspberry Pi, you should already know which one you plan to use. A manual install is worth the time, as is running Kodi with RecalBox or RetroPie, but if you’re looking for a way to enjoy streaming video or audio right now, you should be looking at LibreELEC or OSMC.
My own personal preference is OSMC, but if you have different requirements you might prefer LibreELEC. Meanwhile, if you’re taking your first steps, check our getting started with Kodi guide.