Serving media since a few weeks from now.
July 24, 2012 11:51 AM   Subscribe

If you could start your HTPC set up all over again, what would you choose? I'm gifting everything (from tv to htpc to router) to my partner and starting from scratch. Tips and suggestions are welcome!

I built my current htpc setup in 2009 to replace an aging XBOX1 with XBMC. I'm now gifting all of it to my partner who is taking a job in another city. So I get to start from scratch. New TV, new HPTC and/or server, new router. Been doing a lot of reading and have some ideas, but would love other people's insight since the last time I looked into this was 2009....

Currently I have an old 720p HDTV w/ a mini ITX, Intel core 2 duo (e7200), 2 GB of ram and 2TB of storage which I regularly rsync to an external 2TB USB drive (I never learnt RAID). Running XBMC under Win 7. Originally built it as an HTPC for watching movies and light couch web surfing. Tablet has utterly replaced the couch web surfing so now it just plays media. I recently tried Plex on it and am impressed with the media server side (having access to all my media on the ipad is great) but find the client is of lower quality than XBMC. Still, I like the convenience.

So, hive mind. I now have the option to start over. Completely. What would you do if you could rebuild it all?

I'm currently considering a NAS as server (probably Synology 4bay Diskstation) and a separate HTPC running Plex server to serve media from the NAS. Upside: separate NAS allowing for smaller HTPC. Downside: 2 devices that must be on 24/7 (maybe some WOL options here).

Other option is a single HTPC with 4 bays (I'd like the option of up to 8TB) which serves media via Plex but also acts as media client for the TV. Downside: big, possibly louder box. Harder to manage than a NAS. Upside: Only one box has to be always on, can choose any TV I want (doesn't have to have a Plex client).

And a final option. Single headless media server computer which I stuff in a closet and buy a HDTV which supports Plex (Samsung has a plex client, Any TV with Google TV should have a plex app) or get a Roku box with plex channel. Downside: requires a TV that has a Plex app or some kind of Plex box. Upside: Seperate server, but can do lots more than a NAS. Bonus points: Could turn it into my primary desktop and set it up with wake on lan so tablets and phones can wake the server if the computer is off.

If I go the full hog media server computer (either as an HTPC or in a closet), I was thinking of an Intel I3 instead of any Atom based computer. I'd like to keep it low power since it will be always on but worry that Atom won't cut it for Plex if I'm away and require transcoding for my mobile devices. If I built it so that it's both media server, NAS and desktop then I could put a more powerful CPU in it and worry less about power, especially if I get wake on lan working.

Open to any suggestions (OS, RAID suggestions, TVs w/ apps vs seperate box for client) or any experience with the single media server (either headless in a closet or as daily desktop) vs. media server and HTPC in one (too loud?) vs NAS plus seperate Plex server. Basically, what would you do if you could redesign? Budget is moderate, but I'd like to avoid 600$ NAS boxes.
posted by Smegoid to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This may not appeal to you, but after spending way too much time debugging my HTPC setup and too little time consuming media, I opted to simplify. We are trying to emulate consumer electronics here and I feel that they should just work (more or less).

I have a non-Internet Samsung flatscreen, a Bluetooth capable soundbar, an Apple TV and a Roku.

I can stream music directly from my phone to the soundbar. Otherwise I just watch live TV from the air, or stream from Apple TV or Roku. I don't really have any legacy media I need to worry about. If you want to run a Plex Media Server, there is a (Roku) app for that (link).
posted by rocketpup at 12:00 PM on July 24, 2012

Best combo IMHO is a low power/quiet frontend w/ XBMC and a NAS backend.

There are lots of android/iOS video players that will play directly over the network without transcoding.
posted by wongcorgi at 12:10 PM on July 24, 2012

I too ditched my HTPC - it was annoying to control and update, and took a while to boot up if it was off. My particular build was too loud for my liking too.

I have a bunch of content on some NAS drives which are always on. I opted for a PS3 as my header unit with PS3 Media Server running on my PC and on my Windows Home Server - this means I have two different DLNA share points to choose from on the PS3 (with mostly mirrored directory shares) and it all works if my PC is switched off since the WHS is always on. All content bar .mkv and .ts files is available through the PS3 from all my shares on any TV it is connected to. Even these files sometimes play through PS3MS' built-in native transcoding abilities. Apparently the 'scene' is moving away from mkv files now anyway.

The Skifta app means I can also see those shares on my tablet and phone (Android unlike your iPad) but maybe there is an Apple solution which works just as well. This setup would all probably work with Plex too since you say you like that software.

PS3 is usually switched off if I am not using it, and boot up is very fast. Only NAS drives and WHS (which is itself also a NAS) are on all the time, but I use these for other purposes as well so I don't mind. All software is free. Hardware is the only outlay.

The only reasons I can see to go the HTPC route is for esoteric codec support and if you want to use a TV card for OTA stuff / DVR. I long ago cut the cord and consequently this is not a worry for me. Ironically PS3 Media Server also works with Xbox. I am not willing to pay their subscription for the Live service but you might be. The upside is that HBOgo is on Xbox and not on PS3 yet. But I use Hulu, Netflix and Amazon on the PS3 without a hitch.
posted by juiceanddoom at 12:27 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

For Plex, and low power, consider a Mac mini. Bonus is flexibility: you can use it as both a Plex server and client, or add Plex clients (many to be had) as needed. NAS for backend, there are options ranging from cheap to expensive, and you can upgrade, retask, add a second unit, whatever, without much trouble. The CPU in a modern mini is capable of transcoding without too much trouble, even the older mid 2010 could push a TV alongside a transcoding session for a remote iPad without problem.

An iomega StorCenter ix2-dl with two 3TB hard drives, mirrored, gives you redundancy in a 25 watt package for maybe $400. Along with a Mac mini that idles around 15 watts, you can have a complete media server that consumes less than 40 watts idle. The ix2-dl will take 4TB drives, but the price jump from 3TB to 4TB drives is hard to justify.

That is not a strong endorsement of the ix2-dl in particular, by the way, it's just cheap (recently as low as $100) and it works pretty well.
posted by jgreco at 1:46 PM on July 24, 2012

I run a Synology DS411+ as my NAS and a Boxee Box as my "HTPC." I also run Plex on the NAS so that I can stream to my iPad using the Plex app.

I am mostly very pleased with the Synology. One advantage is that it is future proof to a degree: as my storage needs grow, I can swap out droves and grow my pool of storage. The software is top notch. Plex is easy to install and works well. One big advantage is that it lets me be "client agnostic" - as my needs change, I can abandon the Boxee box and switch to Plex, a full HTPC running XBMC, a WDTV, or whatever I want without having to reengineer my storage. I will warn you that my model of Synology uses a cheap fan that gets annoyingly loud. It's not easy to replace and apparently it's not an uncommon problem (google synology fan noise). If you can put the synology in a closet and connect it to your router or hub by wired Ethernet, then you should be fine.

The Boxee Box doesn't support gigabit Ethernet. Even so, the rest of my network is fully gigabit. I have never had any trouble streaming to the Boxee box, even when playing Blu-ray rips I Transcoded using MakeMKV. The Boxee box is cheap and it mostly "just works," though I have concerns about how local media friendly they are going to be going forward, given their apparent willingness to work with the content companies.

Juiceanddoom: why is the scene moving away from mkv's?
posted by gd779 at 2:21 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been much less enamored with the current version of Plex. There's nothing like coming home to cooling fans-a-blazing because a Plex thread is hanging at multiple cores as 100% utilization for no reason.
posted by hwyengr at 2:32 PM on July 24, 2012

Oh, and while the Boxee box plays everything I've ever thrown at it, it sure sounds like XMBC on Android has promise. It's too early to tell, though.
posted by gd779 at 2:41 PM on July 24, 2012

I've got a QNAP 2 drive NAS that stores my media and some backups from my mac, and an Apple TV2 running XBMC connected to the 42" plasma TV. I've been using this setup for close to 2 years now and I'm really happy with it.

The NAS is in another room so now hard drive or fan noise. I don't even have the Apple TV wired to the network, using it wirelessly.

I believe there is a way to install a Plex client on the Apple TV and it looks like there is a QPKG to install it on QNAP NAS's here:
posted by eatcake at 2:41 PM on July 24, 2012

My recently assembled HTPC setup:

-Any small Nettop PC with Nvidia ION, such as this, or a DIY low-profile build using the equivalent. I use this.
-Ubuntu Linux, with XFCE + Nvidia's non-free drivers.
- This "Windows Media Center" remote, with LIRC

Connected via gigabit Ethernet to a headless HP Proliant N40L Microserver loaded with:
-5x 1 TB harddrives
-Windows Server 2008 R2
-Scripts to sync content from seedboxes
-Local torrent client

On the HTPC, XBMC uses Samba to access shares on the server.
posted by BrandonW at 3:11 PM on July 24, 2012

The first HTPC I built was based off of an ASUS Digimatrix (awesome case by the way, although proprietary and quite dated by today's standards). The more recent HTPC project I got into was based off of a AOpen XC Mini PC which is bluray equipped and able to support high def like a champ.

I think for overal media format and streaming support, you have to go with Windows 7 (or windows 7 embedded if you're feeling adventurous...I ran into a few gotchas with the media center embedded build however which made me go back to regular). If you like to tinker, I really feel Linux offers some great enjoyment opportunities as well, and can be a bit easier on resources. My two builds for the latest HTPC were as follows:

1. Windows 7, booting directly into the Media Center. From there I could jump to XBMC, Hulu Desktop, Netflix, Boxee, timeshifting, well as capture bluray and dvd titles via Autorip'n'compress using MakeMKV and handbrake on the backend.

2. Mythbuntu, which has come a long way since the days I had it on the Digimatrix (MythDora is another but if I remember correctly development has lagged behind). This setup was great for ripping dvd titles, timeshifting, seamless media integration, etc...and it felt more like a commercial appliance. The downsides however, no bluray support and limited streaming capabilities.

Overall out of the the two setups above, I ultimately stuck with #1 just for convenience sake. The boot drive I use is a hybrid solid state/platter drive which offers a decent amount of onboard storage as well as fast boot/load times. All archived media is conveniently stored on external drives (kind of like a USB bookshelf) through a hub.

But here's the kicker. While the HTPC projects I've done in the past were fun and rewarding, I rarely use them anymore. This is partly due to having less interest in watching videos/TV, doing the legwork of ripping, unraring, torrenting, and also partly due to having both a PS3 and Roku which are far more convenient and accessible for the types of media I now use the most (namely bluray, netflix, amazon prime, hulu, and crackle).

The cost to benefit ratio is a little depressing too....I spent well over a grand putting the last HTPC together. It's an impressive little box about the size of a mac mini. And I'm sure it'll be a decent general purpose PC for years to come. The cost of a Roku plus PS3 barely dents into that figure however.

So I think if you were to ask me, what would be the ideal HTPC...I would advise you to think quite a bit on what you want out of a HTPC in the first place. If you want to capture broadcast TV (something I've cut the cord on years ago personally) then a good timeshifting solution is what I'd recommend. You could do that with Windows or Linux easily, and the hardware itself doesn't matter as long as it can handle your desired resolution. If you're looking into ripping bluray and DVD titles, converting/scaling formats, then I would recommend a similar PC, but with a decent GPU to handle transcoding. If you prefer streaming...a Roku or Boxee Box are pretty sweet, cheap, and insanely convenient devices. You can't tinker as much with them, but if the purpose is to just get those shows displayed on a TV you can't beat the ease of use.

Lastly but not least important, a PS3 comes into play for Bluray/DVD, and in my opinion is an exceptional addition to one's home theater if not just for the price alone. It can handle netflix and can store play custom media (as well as connect to any media shares on your home network/NAS...just be sure to have 802.11g or n to keep up for wireless). Not to mention all of the other media functions it provides, including a vast catalog of downloadable games. I've had mine for awhile now...a 1st gen. And up until the last year or two I sort of neglected it, just now tapping into it's potential (albiet due to major improvements to its operating system since release). YMMV, but I hope this helps!
posted by samsara at 4:31 PM on July 24, 2012

Research transcoding capabilities carefully before installing Plex on a NAS.
posted by jgreco at 5:14 PM on July 24, 2012

@ gd779: I don't know why the torrenting scene is moving away from MKV files but Matroska always gives me the most trouble when streaming over DLNA, so for compatibility reasons I am glad it is (if in fact it is--I based the assertion on stuff I've been reading lately; the internet is full of lies and misinformation, so YMMV).

@ samsara: For straight streaming, why do you need the Roku and/or Boxee Box as well as the PS3? What do they do that the PS3 cannot when allied with PS3 Media Server? I get that the PS3 adds Blu-Ray to the mix, but what do those other headers add? If the answer is compelling enough, I'll go out and buy one. Which one?
posted by juiceanddoom at 5:50 PM on July 24, 2012

Dead simple: $200 laptop with 1TB drive and svga out to HDTV, networked via Ethernet cable. Install browser, utorrent and pyTivo. All downloaded video shows up on Now Playing on networked Tivo. Interact with laptop using VNC.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:51 PM on July 24, 2012

Response by poster: Hey everyone, great responses all around. I hadn't expected such a diversity of setups. I agree with a lot of what's been said. Especially moving away from complicated HTPC setups to something simpler that just does playback (roku, boxee, ps3, etc). I also agree with samsara that a lot of what we do these days could be done with pure streaming (we have Prime and Netflix). However my HTPC currently stores some hard to find stuff (foreign film, r2 british dvds) that aren't available on netflix so I do want to stick to actual storage.

I really like the idea of a NAS running Plex, but from what I've been reading tonight it seems like even the top of the line NAS with dual core atom will still struggle transcoding some files. If I seem overly enamored with Plex it's because I'm enthusiastic about the possibilities of serving files remotely (and without much fuss) outside my LAN when I'm staying with my partner out of town. In fact, if I set her up with a Plex client it should just mirror the remote library. If my needs were purely within LAN, then yeah a NAS and roku or some small xbmc box would be more than ample.

The bottleneck in all this seems to be Plex Media Server, in that I can't use a traditional NAS if I want to serve media outside my LAN and have it transcode on the fly as network or device needs require. Thus, rather than having two boxes (NAS + Media Server), I'm thinking of building a combined NAS/media server with a decent CPU. Maybe headless in a closet and serving that within LAN to an easy to use client like roku or boxee as you guys suggested or maybe a simple XBMC live cd (openelec or other) on one of those small cheap atom based boxes. This would also allow the server to serve files outside my LAN to tablets, phones and my partner's computer.

Righto, thanks for the tips everyone. Good food for thought.
posted by Smegoid at 9:54 PM on July 24, 2012

@juiceanddoom. I actually have two TVs in the house. The 73" is run by the PS3. The smaller 40" has the Roku XD. There's actually a ton of channels available for the Roku other than the mainstream ones you can get on the PS3 (you can also create custom channels too that can connect back to a home media server, but I haven't gotten that far in). So it's kind of nice every once in awhile browsing through them, finding new and interesting shows not available on the PS3.

I think for what you get, the PS3 is the better deal out of the two. I just couldn't see myself buying two of the same gaming consoles..and was interested enough to give the Roku a try. Not regretting it in the least, it's a nifty device!
posted by samsara at 4:58 AM on July 25, 2012

I really like the idea of a NAS running Plex, but from what I've been reading tonight it seems like even the top of the line NAS with dual core atom will still struggle transcoding some files.

My DS411+ doesn't seem to spike above 60-70% CPU usage even when transcoding a raw Blu-ray rip I got from MakeMKV. On wifi on my local network, it seems to play downloaded movies fine but the Blu-ray rip pauses a lot, I presume because of bandwidth. Outside of my local network, my upstream bandwidth is the biggest limiting factor. I'm just getting started experimenting with Plex, but these are my premilinary experiences. Feel free to email me of you want me to run some tests.
posted by gd779 at 5:34 AM on July 25, 2012

Currently, I have a MacMini plugged into my TV that is connected to quite a few TB USB harddrives that I have built up as time goes on. We run Plex Media Server on the mini and also use the Plex OSX Client to watch stuff on the TV from the same library. If we want to use the mini for downloading shows or other tasks, then we can use ScreenSharing from one of our Mac laptops or alternatively we have a wireless Apple keyboard and trackpad.

The mini is also connected to the backup drives for our Time Machine backups and is the only real "desktop" machine we have in the house so is on 24/7 to do any other jobs we need (like rip DVD's etc). This setup has worked quite well for us and is pretty quiet. We also have the benefit of a single machine with the Plex, iTunes, iPhoto libraries as well, so we can stream those anywhere in the house on iPhone, iPad etc and also have two AppleTV's upstairs that run the Plex client (jailbroken) and stream from the same library.

If I had to chuck it all away and do it again, I don't think I'd change anything, except MAYBE I'd put the mini on a desk with a monitor as a "real" computer and then use an AppleTV on the TV in the family room. Occasionally it would be nice to sit down at a desktop PC and do some work rather than using the laptop on the couch, and the AppleTV interface is pretty good (I'd say maybe better than the OSX one).

Apart from that though, I heartily endorse your use of Plex, it's been great for me and the shared library is a real winner that you'll really appreciate the first time you watch 50 minutes of a movie at your place and then go to your girlfriends 2 weeks later, click "Recently Watched" and then select the movie and pick up right where you left off (or, do the same with your iPhone on the train!).
posted by ranglin at 9:58 PM on July 25, 2012

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