What should I do: Ext. Hard Drives, Media Servers, NAS, etc.
March 4, 2013 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Please talk to me like I'm stupid. I have a bunch of video files (~5TB...so far) hanging out on a bunch of external hard drives. Right now I just take turns plugging them into whichever laptop I'm going to use to watch the videos. I'd like something a little more convenient and easily accessible from multiple rooms in my small apartment, but I'm not awesome at setting up networky things (I've never successfully gotten two different laptops in my apartment to even "see" each other over the wireless router). What should I do?

More specifics:

Current external hard drives owned (in case these could be repurposed somehow): A Seagate 4TB that needs a wall outlet to be used, a Seagate 3TB that needs a wall outlet to be used, and two 1TB WD drives that don't need wall outlets to be used (but are presumably very fragile).
I would probably be adding more video files to this collection on a daily basis.
Several different Windows laptops and VLC would be the primary potential viewing methods.
Don't own or care about Netflix/Roku/Video Game Systems.
Would avoid using iTunes to the extent possible (have an iPhone and iPad, but use them primarily for podcasts and ebooks).
Though the ability to possibly watch some of these video files on a television someday could be nice, it's not a priority as I don't currently have one.
Similarly, being able to get at the files from somewhere else (via FTP, maybe?) in an emergency seems like it'd be cool, but it's not really a priority.
Don't really care about backing up my laptops constantly...nothing too important on them.
The appeal of having redundant copies of the video files comes from experience with hard drives failing and the months/years it takes to accumulate all those files all over again, as well as the idea that it might be harder to accumulate them next time (basic digital hoarder mentality).

I checked out previous AskMefis, but a lot of the cheap NAS's recommended maxed out at something like an 8TB setup where two 4TB drivers were mirrored for backup purposes. I'm already well past the 4TB point, so I'm hoping for something with even more space. Also, I would probably need a lot of hand-holding setting one up. I can learn this stuff if someone explains it slowly and walks me through, but if somebody starts out by mentioning something like "Tomato" or "firmware," I'm probably lost already.

I also saw the recommendation of the ASUS RT-N16 wireless router, which at least seems like it'd get me partway there by just plugging my two largest external hard drives into it (is this correct?). My current router seems to work fine as far as upload/download speeds go, even though it's pretty old (>5 years), so maybe that money is better spent toward an NAS.
posted by aswego to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Bought this NAS a year ago and have been super happy about it.

Would be good if you could get most of your files on one Hard Drive, open up the external boxes and plug them into the NAS (mirroring them). The instructions and wizards hold your hand through everything.

It has a built in media center, ftp, phone app, and can do bit torrent off of rss feeds. Makes you toast in the morning too.
posted by bleucube at 6:40 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My experience with routers that have a usb port for external media storage wants me to tell you that not to bother with that route. It's not a smooth sort of thing, and there's a lot of lag. I regret going that route myself.

You want an NAS. Which you seem to know. In order to get one big enough for you, you're probably going to have to invest in a more expensive machine. Probably a 4-bay NAS. Not to mention the hard drives to go in them.
posted by royalsong at 6:51 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My personal setup is a cheap mini-server running Plex on linux. If you have any machine that can run the Plex server (I think even some NAS devices support it), it's a good option in my opinion.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:03 AM on March 4, 2013

If at all possible, you want to avoid any leg that includes sending the data over USB. USB is slow, and you don't get the drive access through USB that you do through a direct SATA connection, for things like recovering deleted files, for example.
eSATA is better, but gigabit ethernet is the best way to go, so I'll add my voice to the chorus recommending NAS.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:55 AM on March 4, 2013

Seconding Plex. Get a cheap computer of some sort, preferably with GigE and 802.11n. Throw Plex on it, plug in all those drives and you're basically good to go. Stream to windows, macs, android and ios devices, etc. Plex is nice because it'll transcode on the fly, so you can view your 1080p video over a mediocre internet connection from 200 miles away.
posted by pjaust at 8:41 AM on March 4, 2013

I know just enough to get into trouble in this area, but maybe the following discussion points will help the OP get some additional perspectives:

- What are the criteria (or what is the price point) at which a DIY home file server functioning as a NAS (with our without redundancy) becomes superior to a prebuilt NAS?

- Coming from the Windows world, is it insane to use a device using Linux to host existing (read: full of data) NTFS drives?

- Are there 4-bay or larger NAS devices with WiFi capability, and is NAS-WiFi-Router-Wifi-PC painful to use versus NAS-GigE-Router-Wifi-PC?
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:04 AM on March 4, 2013

If you're looking for a cheap computer, btw, I recently faced something similar at my place, where I'd like to have a basic media server. I ended up ordering a Raspberry Pi, model B with Ethernet to hook up to my ADSL modem/switch, and plan to put Raspbmc on it, which is a Raspberry Pi-customized Debian distro based on/developed from XBMC, a pretty solid open-source media server.

I haven't yet got mine... so can't vouch firsthand for it, but there are a lot of people in the Raspberry Pi forums who seem pretty happy with it as a minimal home media center.
posted by fraula at 11:14 AM on March 4, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers so far. It really seems like some type of server answer is the way to go, as I suspected.

I would really appreciate guidance on which option is the easiest to set up (for a complete novice). "Throw Plex on it" sounds great, but I've never dealt with anything Plex-like. How simple is it, really? What does this Plex actually do, and why is Cheap Computer + Plex superior to the NAS others are recommending?

I'll cop to only barely understanding the difference between SATA and USB, which I mention to thank the poster above who stressed the importance of SATA, but also to underscore how much help I need on understanding the technical aspects of this. Please assume that plugging routers into cable modems, naming the router's network, and downloading things from bitTorrent are the peaks of my current computer skills.
posted by aswego at 2:29 PM on March 4, 2013

"Throw Plex on it" sounds great, but I've never dealt with anything Plex-like. How simple is it, really?

If you're running the server on Windows, it's really simple. Just run the installer, and tell it the directory or directories where you have various types of content (movies, music, TV shows, etc.). It will go through and identify them all for you. Then you can just stream all of the content from other devices either through the Plex app or through your web browser, so you don't have to mess around with VLC or other streaming details. The only problems I've run into were around it not being able to recognize or play certain content properly, but in terms of setup it's pretty painless.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:48 PM on March 4, 2013

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