Pros: The auto-ripping feature is handy, and there’s plenty of functionality bundled as standard.
Cons: Installation can be fiddly, and there’s no i386 build for older hardware.
There are plenty of methods for turning an existing server into a media streamer, but the promise of VortexBox goes beyond most: install me, it whispers, and you’ll have a headless, automatic-ripping, album-art downloading, powerhouse of a dedicated media streaming system in minutes.
VortexBox is based on Fedora 14 ‘Laughlin,’ and while that’s not the latest release – Fedora 15 ‘Lovelock’ has been out for a number of months now – it’s a solid basis on which the distribution can rest.
Unlike the majority of modern-day distributions, VortexBox isn’t provided as a Live CD. Instead, a console-based installation process walks you through the brief questions required to get up and running, with the boot menu including several scenarios – including installation on a system with multiple disks configured as a RAID setup – to make things easier.
For those with more complicated requirements, the ‘Advanced’ menu option loads a GUI with the more familiar Fedora installation menus, making it easier to customise the partition layout and to enable full-disk encryption, if required.
Installation of the distribution was relatively easy, although we did encounter one slight issue: leaving the VortexBox CD in the drive after installation and choosing the ‘Boot from local drive’ option gave us an error – leaving us scratching our heads until we removed the disk and rebooted, after which our new installation booted first time.
Another thing to be aware of is, despite the distribution being advertised as an i386 build, many of the packages installed are i686 versions – so if you were hoping to turn an ancient server into a usable system, you may want to look elsewhere.
Booting into a new VortexBox installation presents the user with a console: as a headless media server, its creators have decided to eschew the installation of a GUI in order to save space.
Instead, all the management is carried out via a web browser on a client system. It’s a neat trick, although we were forced to log in to the console on our test install in order to manually start networking – which, for some reason, had failed to come up at boot time – before the web interface became accessible.
From the interface, it’s possible to access VortexBox’s various features – and if you were expecting a minimalist loadout, you’re in for a surprise. A stock VortexBox install includes Logitech’s SqueezeBox software, the MiniDLNA UPnP streaming service, an iTunes-compatible streaming system, and most impressively of all an automated CD ripper.
This last feature is possible VortexBox’s strongest: insert a CD into an optical drive connected to your system, and the software will automatically rip the audio to FLAC – Free Lossless Audio Codec – format, with the option to mirror the files into the proprietary MP3 or AAC formats for non-FLAC compatible devices. VortexBox will even fill in the metadata, and download album art, automatically.
The distribution’s support of third-party hardware, such as the Sonos range of media streamers, is also impressive, largely thanks to its compatibility with various streaming standards like DLNA.
It’s true that there are plenty of niggles in VortexBox: the user interface for certain features is sorely lacking, and by basing it on an outdated release of Fedora its creators are missing out on the advantages that come from running the latest kernel and packages.
The benefits more than outweigh the negatives, however: while it’s possible to make a media streamer of your own using a more mainstream distribution, VortexBox packages a great deal of functionality into a distribution that gets you up and running in a matter of minutes.
VortexBox is far from perfect, but does precisely what it promises: after installation, you’ll have a system which offers media streaming through a variety of protocols with very little effort. The auto-rip functionality for CDs is especially impressive, and on a headless system with a CD drive could save hours.