Is there an easy way to setup a home media server?
January 2, 2013 5:56 PM   Subscribe

Advice needed: is this an easy setup for a home media server so anyone can watch movies and listen to music anywhere in the house?

One-line summary:
Please help me put together a home media server so my wife and I can listen to music or watch movies from any room in the house.

Longer version:
My wife and I are expecting our first child at the end of February. I'd like to put together a home media server so either of us can listen to relaxing music or watch a relaxing movie from anywhere in the house.

Over the New Year holiday, my wife's parents came up to stay with us. They ended up giving us an old Dell Inspiron 1525 laptop. That's what made me think it's time to setup a home media server. It's got a 300GB hard drive, so there's plenty of space for our 20,000 music files and a bunch of movies. I'm not looking to have this replace our TV (we currently have DirecTV and sometimes watch movies via Amazon Prime Instant).

Here are some of the particulars:
  • With the baby coming, money is tight. That means no pre-packaged hardware like Sonos, Bose, et al.
  • No tablets are in our immediate future.
  • I would prefer to stay Windows-only (no Linux or Mac, please).
  • Wires drive my wife crazy. This has to be wireless.
Available equipment includes:
  • The Insprion 1525 laptop (I envision this as the server)
  • Two other laptops that we use as "home" laptops: photo album, word processor, browser, email, recipe book, etc. I envision these as clients.
  • A 250GB USB external hard drive from Maxtor (BlackArmor).
  • I just bought an iPhone 5 and my wife has an Android phone from HTC (I forget which). We'd like to use these as remotes and listening devices.
  • I actually got rid of all my old stereo equipment last year (amp, CD player, etc.). We have some very good Klipsch computer speakers that function as our TV's speakers. A friend is going to give us some old computer speakers for the baby's room.
I've never done this before, so I've done some searching around the Web for a solution. Here's how I'm thinking this will work:

1. Plug the Inspiron directly into the wireless router (the router has four available Ethernet ports and the Inspiron has one)

2. Install Plex on the Inspiron.

3. Use Plex to serve music and movies to my wife's Android, my iPhone, other laptops, etc.

4. All my music and movie files currently live on the external hard drive, so I will probably have to buy a NAS adapter and plug my portable external hard drive into it so all those files are available, too. I'm thinking this might do the trick.

Does this sound right? Any other advice or ideas? Pointers to any easy setups on the Web?

Again, I'm still learning as I go, so I'm not looking for an audiophile's dream setup. Something easy, relatively DIY, and cheap is the goal.
posted by zooropa to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
How many TV's or audio devices are you hoping to serve?

Setting up a networked media server is reasonably painless, but then it comes down to enabling your TV or stereo to access that server.

I use the Western Digital WDTV XL-Live as a receiver and NAS adapter, and it works great. (I added a wireless gaming adapter so that it can both serve and receive wirelessly. A "gaming" adapter is recommended because they don't require being attached to a true computer in order to be configured)

So, here's the setup:

WDTV has a 2TB drive attached, and is connected to the TV via hdmi, and the stereo through optical audio. The hard drive appears as a shared volume on our network. I can download music and movies on a laptop, then move them over to the 2TB drive (which I call "The Vault") via wifi or Ethernet. (for larger transfers, I'll simply plug The Vault directly into the laptop via USB.)

At this point, music and movies can be viewed on any network device, or the main TV. There is also an app for iPhone where I can remotely control playback, or listen to shared music or videos. (videos must be converted to mp4 format to play on iPhone, although there are other apps like Air Video Server which will convert on the fly)

The only drawback here is that if we were to add a second TV in another room, we'd need another WDTV box, and wireless adapter. Doable for under $200 or so.

But as far as having "whole house" access to a networked media library, it's very good. In a pinch, I could simply plug a laptop into a second TV via hdmi and use it to watch video from The Vault.

A WDTV XL Live and wireless adapter should be about $200, if memory serves. I'd recommend adding a dedicated external hard drive to it (or they also sell a model with its own drive, I think) as opposed to using your laptop's drive.

WDTV also has built in YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, and other services. Highly recommended by this MeFite.
posted by ShutterBun at 6:23 PM on January 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Any reason you can't just plug your USB drive into the server via USB, rather than buying that NAS adaptor thing? You could share your media via plex, but also just set the USB drive up as a windows share for whatever other NAS-type uses you fancy.
posted by pompomtom at 6:28 PM on January 2, 2013

True enough. If one laptop is going to be parked next to the router and act as an "always on" server, a NAS adapter would be redundant.
posted by ShutterBun at 6:38 PM on January 2, 2013

Response by poster: ShutterBun: How many TV's or audio devices are you hoping to serve?
One TV, two laptops, and two phones (one Android, one iPhone). Everything served from the Inspiron laptop.

pompomtom, ShutterBun: Ah, I didn't realize that. I might as well plug the external drive into the Inspiron.

Does the basic setup I have in mind using Plex sound reasonable?
posted by zooropa at 6:49 PM on January 2, 2013

I think the plex setup sounds reasonable - but I've only ever used plex on one box, rather than over a network. You'll probably find, for example, that if you're copying huge files over your LAN while playing some decent-quality video from the server that you get choppiness... but that's just something you need to test for/live with.

Also, you'll want to put some thought into when you allow plex to update its library, which can be a really long, disk-thrashing sort of task. Of course, it's all configurable, but I think the defaults are a bit plex-centric (were you to need the same disks for some other tasks at the same time).
posted by pompomtom at 7:06 PM on January 2, 2013

Your solution sounds solid. Here's my set-up:
Server: Synology NAS w/ Plex
Your laptop + external hard drive should work fine, although you may experience some lag when serving large video files from the external drive thru the laptop. When this happens, I simply transcode the file to a more efficient file size/type using Handbrake.
wireless router

..which wirelessly serves my music library and videos to:

Laptops: via the myPlex web service
Remote laptop (at work): via myPlex
Android phone and tablet: via the Plex app
iPod Touch: via the Plex app
TV (on the other side of the house): via a Roku 2 XS wireless streaming player ($79) with the Plex app (as well as Amazon Instant, Pandora, Netflix and other streaming apps).

One of the coolest/geekiest features I love is Plex's video resume feature--this weekend I watched 1/2 a movie on my tablet, then navigated to the file on my TV and was provided the option to resume from where I left off.
posted by prinado at 8:15 PM on January 2, 2013

As much as iTunes is deservedly criticized, if you consolidate your audio and video in that and get appleTVs for the other rooms (or AirPlay devices), you'll have an easy setup. After farting around with Plex and Boxee, that's what I've done.
posted by adamrice at 9:17 PM on January 2, 2013

Sounds fine. I use a similar setup to stream media to an iPad, various phones, and a DLNA client tv box. If you have a lot of odd movie file formats Plex's transcoding can lag on an old processor.
posted by benzenedream at 10:31 PM on January 2, 2013

Another vote for Subsonic here. I've set it up with minimal effort. What's even better is that it allows for remote access outside of your home LAN. I can access my entire music/video library on my phone through the internet.
posted by dobi at 8:28 AM on January 3, 2013

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