Linux operating systems for Kodi-embedded have always been very popular in the world of open source media centers. Of the many that have come and gone, there are four big ones everyone has heard of or used today:
- OpenELEC - ELEC stands for Embedded Linux Entertainment Center
- LibreELEC - formerly OpenELEC
- OSMC or Open Source Media Center - formerly RaspBMC for Raspbian or Raspberry Pi MC
- Xbian - Debian derivative Kodi-embedded Linux
These four contenders may appear much the same because they all are made to run only Kodi, but they are all unique in their own way and each is suited for a different purpose. [Read: Ubuntu boot to Kodi: 2 ways to boot directly to Kodi on Ubuntu systems]
Table of Contents
Just enough OS for Kodi
LibreELEC is a fork of OpenELEC that began in March 2016. Though it is Kodi-oriented, future versions will be made out of other apps. LibreELEC is already forked to provide the stable JeOS base for Plex Embedded, Lakka, and a number of single-purpose IoT and maker projects. This is actually my favorite. Though it is on a read-only file system, there is no real need to go in and make changes and modifications through the CLI. It is fully loaded and decked with all the underlying software it should need to run smoothly, and anyone can install all Kodi add-ons and make changes through Kodi normally. [Read: How to add favorites shortcut to Kodi homescreen]
OpenELEC aspires to efficient use of hardware, small capacity, and fewer version releases. So, it is really all about convenience in a lightweight JeOS for Kodi software package. This is my favorite for lighter devices and portability, and ease of use and operation. [Read: Chrome launcher addon for Kodi media center]
OSMC is best noted for many things in terms of development. While the other two LibreELEC and OpenELEC are installed on read-only file systems you cannot develop or modify from the CLI, OSMC does allow and benefit from having a writeable file system. The software license lets anyone use and modify the operating system, but they must contribute their changes back to OSMC. So, a developer that forks and brands OSMC for a vendor might make a new software package to help it run better. If he uses it, so can the developers who make OSMC. This is my first choice for DIY projects. [Read: 6 best legal Kodi TV show addons 2017 - TV show addons for Kodi]
Xbian: 1st choice for organizations
XBian is a Kodi-oriented media center on top of the Debian Linux distribution. The reason that is so great is Debian is the operating system platform for upstream software developers. That means, many if not most of the software you use in conjunction with open source apps like Kodi are first made compatible with Debian. After that, they are developed for Debian-based distros like Ubuntu and other Linux. The benefit of using Debian as an operating system for running a media center is, not only do you get the best software first, you get the best patches, fixes, updates, and upgrades first. I believe this should be the first choice for organizations, such as school and office setups. [Read: 6 best legal Kodi movie addons 2017]
Best choices for running server software
As operating systems, OSMC is more suited to act as a server in terms of software. XBian too is well-suited to act as a lightweight server, and can easily be configured as one. It is able to run server software like Samba, AirPlay, TV Headend, and VNC Server. With VNC Server you can remotely view other screens on VNC client devices. This could be a PC or tablet or any device able to install and use VNC. And, their website has a great wiki that is a perfect reference for server administration.
Kodi-embedded for personal use
For personal use, LibreELEC and OpenELEC are more commonly used. That is likely because they are available on a greater diversity of hardware and devices than OSMC or XBian. LibreELEC and OpenELEC as servers do not work well simply because they are on read-only file systems. Though there are many ways to make them servers with add-ons. It is only server functionality. You cannot really run them in the way a server should be run. If you were to install either on a standard PC, you could have the hardware you need but you are still limited to basic command usage in the terminal.
Software is important for a media device because of the various file formats and hardware components installed. Not only do you need the software that will open and play your files, but you need the software that makes them playable.
As a Kodi-based operating system, OpenELEC is made to be light and run on as little resources as possible. Even the builds for legacy systems are commonly used today because they turn old devices into media devices. The legacy builds may not be able to run all the add-ons of today but you can get many of the skins made for previous versions of Kodi right inside the repository. [Read: OpenELEC vs LibreELEC - Comparison of operating systems for Kodi]
The other thing to note about repos is when you first get OpenELEC the default repositories are ones that host software that is made for OpenELEC. These repos will be up-to-date for current Kodi builds, but with legacy builds that is up to the developers that host the repos inside OpenELEC. What that means to be very brief is, do not install a Kodi build on a legacy OpenELEC build. [Read: How to install OpenELEC on Raspberry Pi]
What is a Kodi build?
A build is a collection of add-ons for Kodi, and on a legacy build, you want to test each add-on you install before you decide to keep it. If you install a Kodi build on a legacy OpenELEC build, you will have one too many incompatible add-ons installed and it will crash Kodi. As for skins, however, there are plenty of skins available for legacy builds even in the main Kodi repository, not just the repos used by OpenELEC. [Read: Cheap 4K HTPC build for Kodi, OpenELEC, and LibreELEC 2017]
Many people think of OpenELEC as the Kodi-embedded solution for old and low-end devices only. This is not true at all if you have better hardware to run it on. It is not true that it cannot or does not run the same add-ons as other Kodi-embedded either. OpenELEC at one time did have a slow moment in development, but today it is fully charged and up to par. The main difference is OpenELEC is made for ease and portability. LibreELEC and OSMC were made for people who sit around and play with their setup all day. That's not us...
When I read criticism of OpenELEC it is usually an old post or it is an uninformed one, but it is always about something that is OpenELEC is not really made to do. OpenELEC is made to be portable and light. If more functionality and performance is what OpenELEC needs, install it on better hardware and find the add-ons you require. Many times add-ons require certain hardware and software dependencies to run. This is not particular to OpenELEC. It is particular to Kodi itself, and it affects any Linux embedded with Kodi or running Kodi.
Using the better hardware
If you install OpenELEC on Intel or AMD and are using good hardware, you do not even have to shop around or invest in a good processor to watch a smooth streaming video or listen to music without a snag. OpenELEC is not very demanding no matter what you try to make it do on even a standard HTPC.
It has firmware, and that is the big difference that ensures LibreELEC is able to install on Odroid and Amlogic when other Kodi-embedded systems do not. To many people that is a big deal, because Odroid and Amlogic are in popular use today. Obviously, the developers of LibreELEC have the sense to know what people want. Also, LibreELEC is going to set the stage for other embedded applications such as Plex and embedded Kodi builds such as Lakka for playing legacy games by Sega, Genesis, and SNES in emulators. LibreELEC is just entering the game at this point, and it sounds like they will be right up alongside apps like Plex and Emby in complete fame. [Read: How to create a LibreELEC live USB]
The advantage to using LibreELEC in this regard is you would be running it alongside these future versions of embedded systems elsewhere on your network. From a technical standpoint, it could make maintaining your setup a lot easier to use the same underlying OS. If you were to do the same thing with your other devices, LibreELEC is a Debian-based distro. Any Debian derivative such as Ubuntu will use the file system, same core software packages, same core software updates, and even the same core commands on the command line. I like to have most of my media devices running Debian-based distros for this reason. [Read: How to install LibreELEC on HTPC]
Open Source Media Center, or OSMC, has the usual repositories for add-ons and it runs Kodi, and it too comes from the Debian family. It also has an app store, which means you can go into OSMC through the GUI and install software instead of remoting in with SSH through the command line. This brings much of the dirty work out of the hands of tinkering enthusiasts into the hands of the common person. To turn it into a PVR you can install TV Headend. You can make it a Samba server. Alternately, you can install Transmission for downloading torrents. Furthermore, you can even install SSH from the app store.
This is a big deal if you have ever tried to setup TV Headend from the CLI or messed with setting up Samba on Linux for the first time. Samba is always the fun one to set up because you have to set it up on Linux and Windows. If it has a hiccup, you might have to fix it from inside one or the other OS. This is fine if you spend all your time with computers, but it is even better to be able to simply walk into the app store and pull Samba off the shelf.
OSMC also lets you make changes to the file system. So, if included software and the apps available in the app store are not enough, you can go in and set it all up yourself on the command line. This is often why many people will go with OSMC regardless of what other Kodi-embedded Linux distributions might have to compete with OSMC. If you have to be able to install and modify software, your best bet is OSMC or XBian. Both are on writeable file systems, and allow you to use the command line in the usual way. A read-only file system will only let you run very limited and basic commands.
Because XBian is doesn't require much set up, it's a great choice. XBian is also a full OS, not one made to be lean. Not only does this mean there is more in the box, this also means you can do a lot more with it on the CLI after you get it out of the box. The art of stripping and trimming down an OS involves taking out anything you won't need or might need, and installing packages you do need for the purpose it will serve. When an OS is made slim or thin for a single purpose, it is so that the CPU can focus on one or a few apps. The Amazon Fire TV devices all run trimmed down versions of Android. LibreELEC and OpenELEC are both trimmed down, particularly OpenELEC. XBian has not been trimmed down and needs less modification.
Xbian has CEC and LIRC technology installed for using your TV remote with your Xbian device. It also uses AirPlay for Apple devices. You can run VNC Server software for mirroring screens. TV Headend provides a PVR. It even comes ready with NZBGet for accessing newsgroups, Couchpotato, Sickbeard and Transmission for downloading and streaming torrents. It also has an app called Headphones for people who like listening to music. And, it resides on a ZFS file system, which is the most advanced FS in use today.
Compatible hardware and devices
The biggest difference between these operating systems is the devices they can be run on. While LibreELEC and OpenELEC can installed and run on a lot of devices made for Android, OSMC and XBian cannot run on these devices at all. So, many times the choice between which to use becomes an easy matter of what device you want to run Kodi-embedded on. Let's take a look at the options for devices made for Android.
OpenELEC gives the user much more choices in devices. It can be intalled on:
- Raspberry Pi
- We Tek devices
- Freescale i.MX series (currently I.MX6)
- 64-bit Intel/AMD CPU computers
Legacy OpenELEC builds
- AMD Fusion
- Apple TV 1
- NVIDIA ION / ION2
- Intel GMA HD chipsets
What is great about OpenELEC and LibreELEC is you can install both on a standard HTPC using an Intel or AMD 64-bit processor. The Raspberry Pi is fun, but many times you want to play with pure power. The only way to do that with a Kodi-embedded OS is with OpenELEC or LibreELEC. Of course, you could make your own Kodi-embedded Linux, but that means you want to. There are tools like Buildroot and Linux-from-Scratch to help you, and today there are developers by hobby and trade. That is the reason for the success of Raspberry Pi.
If you need something with a little more power on the same platform as educational and experimental devices such as the Pi, you might try the Hummingboard with OpenELEC. It uses Freescale I.MX processors. The type of I.MX compatible processor you need for the current release of OpenELEC 8.0.4 as of this writing is I.MX6.
Best Media Player Sticks / Dongles:
LibreELEC can install on We Tek devices, Raspberry Pi, Hummingboard, CuBox i2 and i4, Amlogic, Odroid, and AMD. Amlogic and Odroid are nice options to have, and that opens the door to many more devices you can run LibreELEC on. The more you are willing to explore hacking and tweaking options for Amlogic devices, the more devices you will be able to install on. Odroid is another trending SBC single-board computer that beats the pants off Raspberry Pi and other Pi.
- Raspberry Pi
- We Tek devices
- CuBox i2/i4
- Intel / AMD CPU computers
- Five Ninja's Slice
What is the Five Ninja's Slice anyway? I can't tell you how many times I have wondered this downloading LibreELEC, but to write this I had to look it up. It actually looks like a nice device, but it is no longer being manufactured. If you own one of these, you can install LibreELEC.
We Tek Play 2
We Tek devices are true Android TV devices. When I say that if you have shopped Android TV boxes you know what I mean. There is the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is always what they say and do not need to advertise what they are worth and how well they perform because people know. Shield TV, NVIDIA and ASRock devices, no one needs to defend their value.
You may not have heard of We Tek devices before LibreELEC, but will not hear the end of after OpenELEC. Equipped with a Quad-core (Amlogic S905H), a Mali MP-450 Penta core GPU, and a TV tuner for your locale, We Tek Play 2 is a true Android TV set box. It is also equipped with Bluetooth, optical audio, and 3 USB ports! I love having extra USB ports, and I the only way to use Bluetooth is the fastest way. With Bluetooth 4.0 my file transfers should be extra fast. And, We Tek Play 2 not only can run LibreELEC but also OpenELEC.
OSMC sports the Vero 4K device. The Vero 4K is easily one of the best. With a Quad Core 1.6Ghz 64-bit processor, 2GB DDR3 RAM and 16GB eMMC storage, 2 USB 2.0 ports, it comes ready to boot into OSMC. You can attach your own storage as well. It comes with an HDMI cable and an OSMC RF remote control similar an Amazon Fire TV remote. You also get a TV mounting kit for the device, so that it does not have to occupy any extra space.
What makes it stand out from the rest for me is that it has both an IR and RF receiver and optical (SPDIF) audio output. Not only that but it has HDMI 2.0 with CEC which will allow you to control the Vero 4K with a CEC-compatible TV remote and TV. It also uses the latest technology for 4K, the latest FFmpeg, and is HDR ready.
That is why to me this device is perfect for personal use and could serve as a lightweight server. In fact, in the OSMC app store, you can get TVheadend, which allows you to set up a PVR or personal video recorder. This serves the same function as a typical DVR or TV set box with built-in DVR, but it has the all the feature-rich functionality you should expect from a real computer. A DVR from a TV provider only has enough operating system to do what it has to do. Mine from Cincinnati Bell Fioptics TV uses Tiny Core Linux.
You can also install OSMC on Raspberry Pi, and there is even a legacy build for Apple TV 1.
- Vero 4K
- Raspberry Pi
- Apple TV 1
XBian can be installed on the Raspberry Pi 1 , 2 , and 3. These make great client devices for home networks with media servers, and they are also great standalone devices. Solid Run has a similar but smaller version of a tiny computer or SoC system on a chip. XBian can be installed onto the CuBox-i and Hummingboard by Solid Run. These devices have all the same features as the Vero 4K and many of the same specs. CuBox-i4x4 series even beats the Vero 4K. The Hummingboard uses Freescale I.MX series processors, which interestingly so does OpenELEC.
- Raspberry Pi
- CuBox I
I would opt for the CuBox-i or Hummingboard for Xbian, especially for server software. The Pi can run server software like any computer can, but there is a difference between running server software and runing a server. Xbian makes a great small-but-simple server, and on the CuBox-i it even fits in your pocket!
Many times it is impossible to compare these Kodi-embedded Linux operating systems because they are not made to be the same. The best choice to make is the one that suits your needs and will reside amiably on the hardware you will use. But, they all share one thing in common, Kodi in all its greatness!