Help me setup my home theater network?
March 2, 2008 11:01 AM   Subscribe

How do I make an easy to use media server? I'd like a nice, pretty interface that'll allow me to play any files on the back-end without having to do work on the front-end. Can Windows Media Center be run over a VPN? Is there one that more properly showcases new movies or television shows?

I have a really nice connection (10/10) and recently came into the possession of some really nice HP DL360s servers. Here's my current setup:

- I usually receive content in a variety of formats depending on if it is HD or SD and even then a few formats. I have two dual core 2.8GHZ processors so I think I have enough to transcode HD streams on the fly if I need to ...

- Right now the servers sit in my basement and I have HDMI over Cat5. So my process for watching a movie now is terminal into the server, browse the file directory for the file "ugly-named-file.mkv" and run it in VLC. I then change the video source on my television to the correct input and see a nice 720p/1080i or upscaled DVD of the movie. I guess I could run Microsoft Presentation Server so that the desktop is never seen, but I still have to use Windows Vista as a GUI when I terminal in, which isn't really conducive to browsing for files and is impossible to show other people how to do this, or at least it takes too much time. It is a really "ugly" way of doing things, even if it gives me a quick and dirty way to use the functionality of VLC to play anything.

So I would like to be presented with a clean, nice interface that lists what movies are available, and if possible, sort them by new movies some how. I have a lot of movies (500+) and I don't want to have to go through all the movies to try an discern what might or might not be available. I would also like something that can present content in a coherent format. So I select "The Wire" I can drill down by season and by episode.

Basically I guess I'd like something akin to "HBO on Demand" in terms of simplicity and use. I'd like all the processing and transcoding to take place on the server end, if possible, but perhaps the ability to buffer data if I'm out of town and on a connection that can't stream HD.

Is SageTV what I want? Does anyone have experience with Microsoft Media Services?

I'd really like to set this up to run over a VPN, which I think should be possible. Slimserver does fine, so if I'm at a different location I can connect to the VPN and point my player (or in most cases, just my laptop) to http://slimserver or whatever and be off and running. I realize I can setup a VPN and a shared drive, but I'd like a little more granularity in how to access a large amount of movies and shows.

I'd like to buy one of those "media center extenders" that are only $200, but if I don't get enough granularity with those (XBOX360 won't let you play HD movies within Media Center, and only WMV encoded HD outside that, which absolutely no one uses). I don't think I can do HDMI over IP, way too much latency, so my current situation really limits me. If I remember Media Center by itself does a bad job with some HD files, and an HTPC with a harddrive, processor, etc. would spoil the fact I have a more than capable server to do all the work on. I'd like a nice thin-client solution if at all possible.

There seem to me several things like Sony LocationFree or Slingbox that might do what I want, but I'm confused to how they work and if they would work with my setup ... any experience on how to do this? Any advice?
posted by geoff. to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Windows Vista err Windows 2008 Server ... I'd like to keep to MS for the simplicity but if there's an amazing program only available for Linux, I would not exclude it.
posted by geoff. at 11:47 AM on March 2, 2008

posted by baylink at 2:11 PM on March 2, 2008

So, you don't actually have a PC sitting under the TV currently, do you? Just (what amounts to) a really LONG HDMI cable from the machine in the basement?

If that's the case, then doesn't it make sense to use the server for both jobs? I know this is a horrendously low-tech solution, but can you run a cable back to the server (over cat 5, I guess) for a keyboard/mouse, or a remote control? I'm thinking that once you do that, you make things simpler, because then you can indeed get a hold of MythTV or some other tool and control it all from the TV (basically, you turn your TV into a terminal!).

Re. the software, I'd recommend Media Centre. Most of the fancy versions of Vista come with it built in and it is essentially a front-end for the computer (called a 10-foot interface), so it should (fingers crossed) work with all the content you've already got. Having said that, not sure if it comes with 2008 server... :(

If Media Centre is a no-go, then maybe something like MythTV? Once you solve this problem of a thin-client, I think you'd be surprised what you can find!
posted by ranglin at 4:24 PM on March 2, 2008

Response by poster: So, you don't actually have a PC sitting under the TV currently, do you? Just (what amounts to) a really LONG HDMI cable from the machine in the basement?

Right, the problem is I'd like to extend this "LONG HDMI" cable to another location entirely. I have a second house I'd like to be able to access the content on the server. I am thinking perhaps just getting a dedicated HTPC for that and running a VPN? The problem is that I don't think Media Center has any buffering for that kind of thing. I'd like for it to buffer X% since I would assume that I can't stream HD over WAN like I can stream it over a LAN.
posted by geoff. at 4:53 PM on March 2, 2008

Unfortunately the market (and hence tinkerer pool) for nonstandard home theaters is pretty thin. I doubt there's something preexisting that will do what you need, depending on your programming chops you could tie together some pieces like VLC's streaming support under a half-decent GUI without doing any real heavy lifting yourself, but that's probably outside the scope of what you're looking for.

Since you're not dealing with live TV you've got more options. I recently found out about LinuxMCE which purports to be a re-implementation of Windows Media Center. It looks to have some nifty features and may do what you want all by itself and if not is probably more amenable to extension than the windows alternatives.

No idea about the streaming honestly, you may be better off just putting the files up on an http server under authentication and trusting VLC on the client to stream them properly on your laptop.
posted by Skorgu at 3:36 AM on March 3, 2008

Response by poster: I ended up going with a Mac Mini as a headless unit pulling from a SMB network share. I use OSXMBC which scrapes movies for me. Highly recommend OSXMBC. Check out later posts by me for more details.
posted by geoff. at 6:41 AM on July 9, 2008

Are there tv tuners e.g. what exactly is delivering video and/or cable HD/analog from the card on the server to the input on your tv?

I've started with an ATI 3850 card that can transmit audio over an HDMI cable with an adapter, and this keyboard. I was impetuous and bought it even though it cost more than all other keyboards I've bought, ever. It cuts out from time to time without a need to physically bring it near the usb on the computer with a wall and 25 ft between me and it. It's been worth it so far; MINUS the inability to turn off tap-to-click, sadly. No numpad either but I'm cool with that for a remote.

For now, I just sort my media folders by "acquired date" in the same folder. I sort series folders by name or date depending on the fuzziness of the names - works OK. I'm working on getting a decent version of Ubuntu or some such install so I can "de-fuzz" the movie names w/reg-ex, etc. w/out trying to get cygwin to do it with constant d/l's and additions.

This is the best forum I've found so far after receiving this and being surprised it wouldn't do what I wanted it to (yet.)

Sorry to rant, but I'm on a similar mission and just today tried out that HDHomeRun and GB-PVR dealio. GB-PVR looks OK, but I'll be trying SageTV et al my next go.
posted by prodevel at 12:35 AM on February 26, 2009

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