New video features! MPEG-2 and VC-1 decode, H.264 encode, CEC support

If you’ve been following this website since we launched it last summer, you’ll probably be aware that we had to make some hard decisions about exactly what we could include on the Raspberry Pi if we were to meet our extremely low target price. One of the things that we had to regretfully dismiss as an option was an MPEG-2 decode licence for every unit. Providing that licence would have raised the price of every Raspberry Pi by roughly 10%, and we simply weren’t able to justify that when we held it up against the educational goals of the Foundation. Our initial expectation was that most of you would buy the Raspberry Pi for educational purposes, and that you wouldn’t mind that MPEG-2 wasn’t available. Our bad.

MPEG-2 and VC-1 decode

Thing is, a bunch of you went and bought the Raspberry Pi in February and immediately started using it as your primary media centre. And many, many of you have existing media libraries which are encoded using MPEG-2, and don’t fancy transcoding gigabites of stuff to H.264. You’ve been complaining about that. Vociferously.

We’ve spent some months working out how on earth to square this particular circle. A blanket licence for everybody would cost the Foundation money it simply doesn’t have, and not everybody with a Raspberry Pi would use that licence; an individual licence for an individual user to download and use with an individual machine is a surprisingly finickity thing to engineer. (This is why we’re very grateful to have Dom on board our engineering team, because he’s clever.) But that’s what we’ve done – so from today, you’ll be able to purchase an MPEG-2 decode licence which will be tied to your Raspberry Pi’s unique serial number. This will allow you to play MPEG-2 material from XBMC and omxplayer, which hasn’t been an available feature before now.

To purchase an MPEG-2 licence visit our (relaunched) store. And before you mention it in the comments, yes, stickers, t-shirts and other merchandise will be available, but not until we’ve built up a staff to handle it, which will take up a few months. Eben and I quickly realised earlier this year that if we keep gumming the envelopes and sticking on labels for this stuff ourselves, we will die from papercuts and boredom in very short order – and nothing else will get done because we’ll be very gluey.

We have also made a VC-1 licence available for purchase in the store. This is Microsoft’s video codec, and we don’t expect as many of you to require it as require MPEG-2, but there is a significant volume of material out there in this format which we thought it’d be nice to have the option to view on the Raspberry Pi.

You will receive your key by email within 72 hours of ordering. We haven’t been able to integrate key generation with the store website, so we will be generating them offline and sending them out automatically.

H.264 encode

Alongside MPEG-2 support (which you’ll have to pay for), we’re making H.264 encode available for free. The hardware has always been capable of supporting H.264 encode, but we were under the misapprehension that encode required an additional licence fee, so were waiting until the camera board release (which is still coming later in the year) before spending the money to enable it.

During the course of talking to the MPEG LA about the MPEG-2 licence, we discovered that the existing licence fee that is already baked into the cost of the Raspberry Pi actually covers both encode and decode – I tell you, this stuff is arcane – so we’ve enabled the relevant OpenMAX components by default in the latest firmware. It may take a while for someone to produce an encoder application which uses these components, but once they do you should be able to use the Pi as a standalone transcoder.

CEC support

Recent versions of Raspbmc, XBian and OpenELEC (the OpenELEC site was down as of the time of writing, but should be back soon) now include CEC support. Before I go any further, here’s a video explaining what that’s all about.

This video’s both a demonstration and a tutorial; for the home user, the thing you’re going to find the most useful is the ability to use your remote control to control both your TV and your Raspberry Pi and any other connected devices, without having to do any fiddling with software or hardware or having to buy anything extra like adapters or dongles.

The video’s subtitled with very helpful tips which will get you set up within minutes. The Pulse-Eight guys (whose blog you should read if you want more details) and Patrick Loo at Broadcom have done a huge amount of work on this, and it really shows; it’s a lovely smooth, easy user experience which I think you’ll really like.