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  • Home Media Servers. The Why and How.

    6 August at 14:53 from atlas

    I remember a time when a Friday night would roll around and the family would go down to the local video store to choose some entertainment for the evening in the form of a VHS video tape. While times have moved on to DVD's and Bluray's in place of VHS tapes, the cutting edge is now in online rentals, streaming and content sharing around the house to a variety of media consumption devices like TV's, laptops, PS3's, iPads and tablets, smart phones and the like.

    Consumers now more than ever collect DVD's and Bluray discs rather than renting for the convenience of watching a movie or TV series whenever they want. The old model of yesteryear relied on the high cost of VHS movies driving demand for rentals. Now the cost of some movies is just $10 more than renting for one night, which drives consumers to owning the content rather than renting and returning.

    I had collected over 350 DVD's and more recently Blurays over the past decade. It got to the point that occasionally I'd even buy a DVD I already bought and the hallways were overflowing with DVD racks looking like the weekly rental section at the local BlockBuster Video store. It was an impressive collection of movies, but they were gathering dust and I needed the hallway back. Something needed to be done about it.

    Video compression and the H.264 or mpeg-4 AVC is a standard used for recording, compression and distribution of high definition video. It is one of the standards used on Blurays, digital TV broadcasts and streaming content like Youtube, iTunes, Flash player, Silverlight and Vimeo. With some research and the right software in place, you can convert your DVD and even Bluray collections into the .MP4 file format and store these digital files on your hard drive.

    I set about the painstaking process of converting my collection of discs to .MP4 files on a hard drive. This took weeks to do with a quad core PC and a top range dual core MacBook Pro and was not always smooth sailing with the odd disc error caused by scratches interrupting the ripping process. (Ripping is a term used for converting music or movies into digital files) Rips can take anywhere from about 20 minutes through to 3 or 4 hours per disc depending on the length of the title, quality settings of the conversion and which machine you are using.

    Now that the movie library is now digitized, these files have to be sorted to be useful. Think of what iTunes has done for your music collection with its album artwork and Grace-note CDDB name matching when you import a CD in iTunes. We need to find a similar solution for our movies and the answer is Plex. We will come back to Plex later on after explaining how a home media server works.

    A home media server will collect information about your content (movies, music, TV shows etc) and will make this information available to other connected devices on your local network. Connected devices can then request content be streamed over the network, whether it is Wi-Fi, Ethernet or even streamed over 3G/4G cellular networks at reduced bitrate / quality.

    You can setup your own home media server using your existing PC or Mac and suitable server software which is basically just a background process that listens and responds to incoming network requests from connected devices. This is the backend or behind the scenes software.

    The second component is the front end and can be a Smart TV, an app on PC or Mac, an app on your mobile or tablet, a PS3 or Xbox or WDTV Live to name a few. The front end communicates with the server and the server provides them indexing for the content being served. From here the user browses the content and is then able to play, fast forward, pause, reverse etc just as you would use a DVD in a player.

    So a home media server has a backend database, a network with connected devices and frontend interface for viewing and interacting with your content in the database. Plex is free software for PC's, Macs, Linux and has frontend apps for these as well as iOS and android devices. The backend is called Plex Media Server, the frontend is called Plex Media Centre. Together they work to sort and match your content to Internet databases that return metadata about your content.

    Earlier I made reference to the GraceNote and CDDB database for music used by iTunes to match your music CD with metadata like track, artist and album names. When this is combined with album artwork, you get a visual of the album cover and information about each song in the album being imported. Plex does a similar thing for your movies - automatically.

    Metadata is simply information or data about data. Without getting into the complexities of matching data with metadata, think of each CD having a fingerprint, it may have 12 tracks of a certain length and when matched up with the internet database the CD can be identified and the corresponding metadata (track, album, artist etc) can be matched to your CD. A similar process using the .MP4 filename is used to match movies and TV shows using other internet meta-databases.

    Plex Media Server will find metadata for your content. This includes movie artwork, synopsis, actors, directors, genres, dates and much more. When you put this information together in your backend database, the frontend can query the database to show only movies by genre, director, actor, rating, year, alphabetical, series etc. It can display this data in artwork like a virtual video store and you can scroll through the selection, read the plot and decide what you'd like to watch. It really is a fantastic piece of software and will change the way you think about storing and using your content - best of all Plex is free software.

    Moving on from the Plex Media Centre to other frontends, we arrive at destinations like the Sony Playstation 3 with the ability to search for media servers over the local network and play that content on your connected TV. Similar processes for Xbox, WDTV live that are already hooked up to your TV and surround sound system. They will all locate the media server and are capable of streaming content over the network. Some of the newer network connected smart TV's can also directly communicate with the media server to get your content on the big screen.

    Plex applications are available for free download at plexapp.com

    Install the Media Server first, add your content, correct any mismatches and then install the Media Centre to view the awesome graphical user interface used to display your collections.

    Finally setup your network connected devices that hook up to your TV and sound system to search for media servers and see how those frontends display your content.

    The iPad app is great for the kids and they can watch their favorite movies from anywhere in the house. Just make sure you have kids only movie section for them to choose from. As much as they want to watch Jurassic Park, best not to have temptation within reach!

    Happy computing :-)