I want to roll my own media center
January 23, 2014 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Looking for suggestions on the best way to replace a tv with a networked device.

A relative recently lost what was probably an illegal cable hookup in her building in NYC. They are not interested in paying for cable but do want to have the ability to watch movies and tv in their living room. I'm visiting soon and as a gift to them would like to set up a system that can do the following:

* play content from amazon prime
* play content from netflix
* play content from hulu
* play local files (avi, mkv, basically whatever VLC can play)
* serve as an automated torrenting box, something like a DVR so new episodes of shows they like can be automatically downloaded
* enable one-off downloads of torrents
* youtube and vimeo would be nice, as would a web browser
* switching between various interfaces is not so nice -- one ring to rule them all would be great for the users in the household who want it to "just work"

I've done some searching and had hoped that I would find a nice article on lifehacker or somewhere like that which would tell me how to "roll my own" including what hardware and software to buy and use, but most of what I found assumed that users would want cable, and video game hookups, and blueray capability. I did look at some past askme questions but they are dog's years old at this point. Assume I am savvy enough to build a box from purchased parts. They also have a large TV with hdmi input so I assume that is what I will want to hook into. Platform is irrelevant (mac/unix/windows) but this will live in a household that has both macs and pcs, and it might be nice if those other machines could put files on this machine. I've used xbmc (mac) in the past and found it a bit restrictive, and I had a lot of trouble getting it to interface with torrents so in my own house we just use a dedicated mac running macos for this purpose. But if xbmc is nicer on another platform I'm open to suggestions. Basically what hardware should I buy and what should I run on it to achieve these modest goals?
posted by tractorfeed to Technology (15 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Reddit has you covered: r/cordcutters
posted by rhizome at 1:18 PM on January 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm absolutely thrilled with Plex on my Mac as a media server for local files, serving data up to a Roku that acts as a client for that plus Amazon, Netflix, et al.

I'll let someone else go into the automated download magic, since I'm less familiar with it, but for output, "any decent personal computer plus plex plus roku" gets you 90% of the way there.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:19 PM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Step 1: Set up a box to run Plex that is strong enough to transcode, then plop files onto it from any client. Most of your bullet points will be covered here. (I just bought and set up a Synology NAS instead of a real computer, and its inability to transcode gets on my nerves. We also have a Mac Mini running Plex, which can transcode, but with other non-overlapping content.)

Step 2: Buy a Roku for your TV and add the Plex Channel.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:20 PM on January 23, 2014

Yeah, a Roku will do like 95% of that out of the box. I'm not aware of any way to automate the piracy of currently-airing shows, but you can definitely use Plex or a similar file-server program to stream downloaded files to the Roku after they've been acquired, and it'll run off the same interface as Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, etc.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:35 PM on January 23, 2014

For streaming services, echoing the above, Roku is presently cheap and easy at the TV, but plex will require another box to host the content and act as a server. Although it is easy to setup and update, it may require additional troubleshooting that you may not want to perform further down the line.

Couchpotato and sickbeard are a good combination for automating downloads though you should take note that copyright infringement is now being pursued more aggressively. There are methods to minimize that risk of course.

Lifehacker has a guide to set up automated downloads though you may have to find new index sites if the old ones are unavailable.
posted by palionex at 1:43 PM on January 23, 2014

We have a PS3 and NAS that does all of that minus mkv and automated torrents (though I'm sure we could set up the automated torrenting if we got around to it). For mkv files, we just plug the PC directly into the tv/av system.
posted by melissasaurus at 1:47 PM on January 23, 2014

I'm doing pretty much all you want on a Roku + box with Plex like described above. It's crazy easy to set up.
posted by General Malaise at 1:55 PM on January 23, 2014

I've heard that http://showrss.info/ can automate downloading series through a torrent client. But I surely do not know such things from firsthand experience.
posted by JJtheJetPlane at 2:17 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd think twice about setting up automated torrenting for somebody that may not be aware of the potential consequences of that, no matter how unlikely those consequences may be. So n'thing the Roku to do everything except torrenting. If you really want to do that, any box with Plex should work fine as the server.
posted by COD at 2:26 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Apple TV?
posted by radioamy at 2:41 PM on January 23, 2014

I have a Windows 8.1-based HTPC that does all of that.
- Amazon Prime via web browser
- Netflix via Windows 8 app
- Hulu via web browser
- Local files = yes, though the built in XBox video app doesn't play m4v to avoid the issue. There might be a codec pack or something, but I just rip everything to MKV. You could install VLC, but then you lose the library management of the built-in app.
- Torrents - it's a computer, so you could set this up.
- YouTube - Yes, via several apps in the Windows Store. I use Hyper for Youtube. Vimeo has a dedicated Windows app.
- If you have Windows 8.1 Pro, you can also install Media Center to record cable or OTA TV.
- All of this works within the Windows 8 interface.

I'm no fan of the Windows 8.1 interface on a desktop, but it works well on an HDTV once you change the size of everything to 125% to 150%.

So, what do you need?
* Wireless keyboard and mouse/touchpad. I'd recommend a keyboard/touchpad that's Windows 8-specific. Logitech and Microsoft make products that do this.
* PC. I use an HP dc7800 small form factor PC I bought for $75 on eBay.
* Copy of Windows.
* Video card if you have a Core 2 CPU. There are fanless models for $15-$40. An Intel i3 CPU or above generally shouldn't need this.
* I added a used SSD for $60 or so.
* A large hard drive for storing movies/music.
* Wireless networking if you can't get a wire to your home network.
* I record OTA TV, so I have an antenna and a HDHomeRun Dual.

Now, it is a computer, so it can be futsy, unlike a Roku or AppleTV that's plug and play. However, the computer does a lot more, so you have to strike that balance between functionality and simplicity of maintenance.
posted by cnc at 3:04 PM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

This gateway for $159.

AMD APU for video acceleration/playback = can play any blu ray profile, or any other 1080p video file once you have properly configured codecs and stuff.

HDMI output stock, very very small chasis not much larger than a DVD drive(not mac mini small, but small)

Ability to easily add a blu-ray drive if you find yourself caring about that. Also supports playback from USB sticks/memory cards, external hard drives, burned discs, etc.

Will support any and every streaming service under the sun, torrenting, has plenty of internal storage which most other solutions here lack.

You wont want to use VLC here. Use the shark007 codec pack(which will allow playback of ANY files in nearly any media player on the system) and something like MPC-HC or the built in windows media player/media center video player. This box will instantly support windows 8 media center.

All you need is a cheap wireless keyboard+trackpad like this(which works fine, and regularly hits $20 on sale) or a remote.

Personally though? i'd dedicate a random older desktop as the torrent+download station and use some roku/PS3/etc type box for the actual playback because of the simpler and congruent interface. The only issue there is that plex annoyingly costs money, and PS3 media server and other similar local streaming from a pc apps only really work well with game consoles and a small handful of other devices. I really only suggested the gateway because it's the only cheap do everything box that integrates every feature you wanted into one unit.
posted by emptythought at 3:41 PM on January 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Like others, I love my Roku with Plex connected to an old laptop in another room with 4TB of external hard disks plugged into it. It does everything I can imagine is ever want it to.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 6:09 PM on January 23, 2014

I went with an android smart tv3 that essentially turns your tv into a big tablet using one of your HDMI ports and I control it with the logitech keyboard that emptythought recommended.

It works a treat though I don't torrent anymore now that I am in the land of the rogue IP lawyers and their downloader extortion racket. You can upload to it if you install an ftp app.

My only real issue is that I would much prefer a one handed remote of some sort to control it. A keyboard just feels clumsy and cumbersome and sometimes it does weird things - it sometimes closes apps just when I set the keyboard down - I don't know why. It also takes up a lot of couch or coffee table space. It also doesn't quite manage all of the android tablet motions. I understand that I could use my android phone or nexus as a control if I update the ROM but I am a bit nervous about bricking it so I settle for what I have.

The advantage of the solid state android route is that it is very quiet - as in silent. The vaio laptop I use to play dvd's is noisy with it's fan and the xbox classic was damn loud.

The other issue i can anticipate for you is that you need to use a proxy for some of the services if you are still where you were. I haven't explored this with the android kit and it might require setting it up at the router instead.
posted by srboisvert at 6:23 PM on January 23, 2014

I don't understand half of the above comments ... but I understand my Roku. It is incredibly easy to set up and use. From your list, it will handle:

* amazon prime
* netflix
* hulu
* local files (I can beam from my phone, not my laptop. Maybe I should learn how)
* youtube (advanced versions have a youtube channel. I use a "plexit" with ok results)
* vimeo


* one ring to rule them

You can also buy HBO shows individually on Vudu, but they are pricey. Similar costs to buying on iTunes.
posted by kanewai at 12:19 AM on January 24, 2014

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