VortexBox 1.5: Turn an Old PC into a Jukebox

Have an old PC sitting around with nothing to do? Just add VortexBox and you can have a Linux-based streaming jukebox in no time.

The DAAP arms race continues. With iTunes 10, Apple has once again broken compatibility with third party DAAP servers — so projects like VortexBox that stream to iTunes have required a refresh. With the 1.5 release, VortexBox is back in the game and ready to play ball with iTunes — at least until the next update.

What is VortexBox? It’s a Fedora-based, single-purpose distribution that turns a PC or virtual machine into a music server or jukebox. Basically, you install VortexBox onto a machine and it will serve up your media to networked media players like iTunes, Sonos, an XBox 360, PS3, or streamed directly to other OSes.

Using VortexBox

Installing VortexBox is just a matter of slapping the CD into a drive and following the instructions. It also has a special install for VMware, which is what I used to test it out. It doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to get the system up and running.

The install is text-based, which might throw some folks off a bit. It’s not complex, but if you’ve been working with modern Linux distros, you probably expect a GUI installer at this point. It also doesn’t create a normal user during install, instead simply creating a root user. Not sure this is a great security choice, really. The security of a home music server may not be that crucial, but that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse for sloppy security.

After the install, the console shows a message directing the user to go to the system’s IP address in a browser. The Web interface is serviceable, but not entirely user friendly. Configuration options are sprawled all over several pages, and the user is left to poke around trying to figure out “just how do I get my music onto this thing?”

How indeed. VortexBox actually offers a few options. You can simply pop a CD into the drive and it will begin converting it to FLAC. Why FLAC? Obviously, FLAC is a better format for fidelity, but many users (myself included) are more familiar with MP3 and already have a massive MP3 collection. Also, I’m satisfied with the quality of MP3 files for streaming, so converting to FLAC seems excessive.

The good news is that VortexBox can convert FLAC on the fly to MP3 to stream to iTunes and other players. And you can load MP3s onto the system, it just takes some poking about in the documentation.

The ripping process is totally automated, which can be a problem if the system retrieves the wrong track data for a CD. This happened when I tried to rip an Elvis Costello CD, and it returned the CD identity as some classical album.

Tunes do show up in iTunes 10, which is a good thing. It also supports a number of other players, but I don’t have any DLNA-enabled players handy to test it out. You can also connect to the system via SMB and NFS. You have to jump through a few extra hoops to set these up rather than being prompted at install time.

The initial setup may pose a few headaches. Of course, once the system is set up and the music library is configured, most users won’t need to touch it again for quite a while. The Web interface could be better arranged, but once you use VortexBox for a bit it should be easy enough to navigate around. One minor touch that would make it much easier to navigate would be to add text to the icons rather than leaving the user to guess what the icons mean.

Tops of the Pops

Overall, I like the idea behind VortexBox. Like many Linux geeks, I’ve got a few spare systems laying around that would make a good streaming server. Having a dedicated distro to simplify the install and configuration is great.

However, VortexBox still needs a little work around the edges to be really easy to use. The workflow to load music onto the system seems to assume that the user is going to be working from FLAC files, and/or that they won’t have a library of MP3s ready to go. A simpler way to import an MP3 library would be a really nice touch. But it’s a great concept, and I hope the project will continue to evolve into something a little more user friendly. If you have another favorite jukebox distro, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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