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HTPC & Media Centre Experiences

My household has gone through a few iterations when it comes to media players & HTPC setups. The main requirements were something to provide a nice front-end to our collection of movies, TV shows and music which has grown a fair bit over the past 8 years.

Linux & MythTV

Way back in 2005, we started with a bunch of old computer parts, put into a nice Silverstone HTPC case, and then setup to run Linux with MythTV. This setup never really took off as MythTV (at the time) didn’t have TV episode support – in terms of presenting information from TheTVDB.com. We also had continual problems with the stability of the MythTV software and the linux driver support for our TV Tuner cards was flakey at best. MythTV also didn’t play too well with the remote we bought for the HTPC and I seem to remember the linux flavour we used at the time (Arch Linux) had some serious issues with hibernation/suspend power management, which became a bit of a show stopper for us.

Windows, MediaPortal & XBMC

Next we switched to Windows for some better driver support (at the time) and more software options. We ran MediaPortal for a while… which was OK but had some quirks which annoyed us. I can’t quite remember exactly what the issues were unfortunately.

So at that stage we dropped the TV Tuner cards as they seemed unnecessary for us as we do not record any TV (never have & probably never will). And we were happy to just put up with having the HTPC on one source of our TV (i.e. VGA), and free-to-air TV on another source on our remote control.

Without needing TV Tuner capability we could then look at the XBMC project (XBox Media Center) and this is what we used quite happily for a couple of years. The software was stable, playback was fine and the scraping of IMDB & TheTVDB was generally fairly reliable.

Dilemma

The only problem was that all of our movies, TV shows and music were stored locally on a 4x500GB hard drives inside the packed to the brim Silverstone case. As a result of being so packed, we never really felt comfortable leaving the computer on all the time due to potential overheating issues and power usage. Oh and ofcourse, since our collection was starting to get quite sizable, we were outgrowing the 2TB of space we had available. And most importantly, since the data was “valuable” to us, if one of those drives failed we would have cried a fair bit as we did not have a redundancy/backup process in place.

Solution! Mac Mini + Drobo + Plex

So the solution that suited us was to purchase a Mac Mini & Drobo (which I will cover in another post). I definitely can’t say this would be the best solution for everyone.. as it is quite an expensive way to go. The Drobo in particular is an expensive gadget, but the built in data redundancy and ease of use was just too irresistible.

And the best software for the Mac Mini has definitely been Plex – which is free and has its roots as a fork of the XBMC project but it now a standalone product with a huge following of its own. It is an incredibly easy product to use, very intuitive and has a great community of plugin developers and theme developers.

= AWESOME!

I have been using Plex for over a year now and there have been some huge changes in that time. The most notable change to my own experiences has been the addition of an iOS app for iPhone and iPad which transcodes videos on the fly for flawless (and simultaneous) viewing over wifi and even 3G. It really has added a whole new dimension to our media centre setup. I can start watching something on the main TV and then finish watching it in bed while Rob watches a silly Arnie or Stallone classic on the main TV. Heaven!

The standard Plex theme is attractive and the way it displays the TV Show and Movie artwork leads to a rich media experience. Playing the TV Show theme music in the background when browsing episodes of a particular show is a beautiful finishing touch.

One thing I look forward to utilising more is the ability to connect to a remote Plex library. I have experimented with this with a friends Plex setup, it basically allows me to browse and play their Plex share from within my own Plex installation (and vice versa). The only issue is our ADSL2+ upload speeds are not the best, so streaming video over peer-to-peer Internet has not proven fast enough to stop the stream stuttering. Of course, once we get some fibre goodness that will all be a thing of the past – bring on the NBN!

My parents were also so impressed with the Mac Mini & Plex combination that they bought a Mac Mini and had me set them up in a similar fashion. The fact that I have had no support calls from them speaks volumes for the reliability of the mac and the user friendly interface of Plex.

Our journey with HTPC setups has come a long way. In the end, our solution is expensive but suits our needs in terms of data redundancy, attractive front-end software and reliable/powerful hardware. I would thoroughly recommend Plex as a front-end for a media centre experience.