Streaming Home Theater Progress

For the longest time I’ve talked about putting together a media center where all of our movies on DVD can be streamed to any TV in the house, and tonight I finally started tinkering around with exactly that!

The trickiest part has always seemed to be the front-end – it’s easy enough to shove a server full of hard drives in the corner and load movies onto it, but what do I plug into the actual TV to make it all work without having to hook up a computer itself in the living room / bedroom / nursery / whatever? Over the years I’ve read about tons of HTPC designs that are basically PCs for the living room, admittedly some nicer than others, but at the end of the day I really want the two functions separate from one another with all of the heavy lifting done out of sight, out of mind and a nice, neat little box under the TV pulling just the bare minimum.

My other priorities:

  • The interface needs to be simple – as in cable box simple. I don’t want this to be something where I have to set it up whenever anybody else wants to use it.
  • It needs to be easy to browse, and pretty, too. No directories full of video files – everything should be organized by tags and preferably use cover art and the whole nine.
  • This one might be tough, but ideally both DVDs and downloaded media via iTunes, Amazon, or whatever should be co-mingled – no having to go one place for DVDs and another for everything we’ve bought digitally.
  • The front-end needs to be lightweight enough that I can justify eventually expanding them to accompany every TV in the house. Small & quiet goes without saying…

So for a while I’ve entertained the idea of using AppleTV for that front-end. I’ve bought a decent amount of music via iTunes and I know that they’ve got a nice selection of movies and TV, and I learned that you can also share the iTunes Library of other PCs on the same network that the AppleTV is on, so it seems like a workable solution to have a server stuffed in the closet with all of our DVDs sitting in an iTunes Library that just runs in the background 24×7. I’ve honestly been stalled out on this little plan for a long time out of a lack of funds to rebuild the server itself, but when Best Buy had AppleTVs on sale for Black Friday for $85 (normally $100), we were buying some other stuff anyways so I decided to splurge and get one to toy around with!

Last night I hooked it up and a few hours later, I was streaming an old favorite across the house…

htpc_batman

“Throw me down the Bat Shark Repellent, Robin!”

The re-encoding process wasn’t too bad despite never having done it before – using a combination of MakeMKV and HandBrake, both of which are free to download and pretty simple to use. After doing a couple more overnight, I found this app called MetaX that seems to do a pretty good job of tagging videos using data from IMDB, Amazon, and other sources … I like that it not only adds genres and titles, but the actors, directors, cover art, description, and even the chapter names when it can find them – seems to have been worth the $10 I paid to register it so far!

As far as quality via the AppleTV, so far I’m super pleased, though admittedly I am a bit curious to see how Blu-Rays go for true HD resolution. Won’t be able to do anything in that realm for a bit because I don’t have any PCs that have a Blu-Ray drive, but it has raised a bit of question because in the whole re-encoding process I can sort of see the potential for keeping the video files as their full-size MKVs instead of then later re-encoding them to a quarter of their size.

At one point I stumbled upon that Kaleidoscape media server that sounds like it does basically that, though regrettably at a price point considerably out of my reach at the moment!

Of course, the hitch to keeping them as MKVs instead of MP4s is that AppleTV can’t read them, so I’d need to go another route for my front-end at that point. I did also come across this Plex thing that I’m a little curious about which says that it can do it, along with some other neat features like online streaming over the Internet, but the installer failed when I tried to install their free server on my PC, so I might have to circle back on that one later. Plus, I’m still a little unclear as to costs because they also have a subscription model, so at this point I don’t know what all that covers.

Anywho, for the time being I think I’m going to flesh out the AppleTV idea a little more just to see where that goes, what it can do and what it can’t. I did notice last night that while I had my movie playing in the living room, Sara had had a movie from Amazon Instant Download streaming in the bedroom and when I walked in, it was buffering … not a big deal, and I kind of didn’t expect the wifi to handle that much bandwidth at one time anyways, so that just means that before all is said and done I’ll probably have to wire the house for ethernet, which is something that I’ve always thought about doing anyways.

I think my next steps will simply be to get a small collection of movies encoded so that I can see how the AppleTV interface looks with more than one video in the library! A nice mix of movies from different genres, some TV shows, even a few downloaded ones, too. I’ve got a spare 1.5 TB hard drive that’s actually been laying around since I tried (and failed) to use it to extend our DVR, so I can collect them on that until I come up with something a bit more permanent.

Also, I didn’t do it yesterday with the first few, but now that I think of it it probably would be a good idea for me to save those MKVs in addition to the re-encoded M4Vs for iTunes so that in the event that I have to go another direction I don’t have to re-rip the first batch all over again.

Will keep you posted once I make some more progress!

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