Content for Your Home Media Server

March 9, 2012 by  

A while back, I wrote about using a Mac mini as a home media server, but felt that maybe I hadn’t sufficiently described some of the huge variety of program content available—a lot of it free.

Free Content

Most of the big television networks, including many non-premium cable networks offer free downloads of their popular programs, but they’re all web-based and inconsistent in terms of the user experience. As you might have guessed, there are alternatives to the network-operated websites.


First, there’s Hulu, a joint venture between NBC Universal, News Corporation (Fox), Disney (ABC. Hulu is probably the closest thing to a full on-demand television network. The top shows from the major three networks and many of their cable holdings are there for the taking (or clicking). Did you miss the latest episode of House? It’s available on Hulu whenever it’s convenient for you to watch it. If you either can’t afford or simply choose not to have cable or satellite TV, and for the same reason, you don’t have a digital video recorder (DVR), Hulu could be the answer to viewing your favorite shows when you want to watch them. Hulu also has an assortment of popular movies that can be viewed from the site.

The most popular current shows are made available within 24 hours of their original airing. Some are offered in 720P high-definition, but only those whose internet connections can give them a steady 3.5-megabit connection should attempt this. With standard resolution content, a 1-megabit connection should suffice.

Searching the site is a tad challenging due to the huge amount of content available, but wading through all the content can be a fun thing by unearthing interesting stuff you might have otherwise overlooked.

The only thing that could be a dealbreaker is a recent announcement that Hulu may be moving to a pay-TV model, at least partially. No details are available yet, and I challenge you to understand the corporate-speak from the News Corp. drone who made the announcement.


Next is the Boxee service. Boxee is an aggregator that pulls in content from dozens of sources including Hulu. The big difference is that Boxee is a regular application that runs on most popular computing platforms, as well as AppleTV. This means you aren’t dealing with a web browser and its potential interruptions. Boxee also acts as a media center, by consolidating content that you own (movies, photos, music), all within this single application, thereby simplifying your home media environment. You only need to switch between your media center computer, your cable/satellite box, and a disk (DVD or Blu-Ray) player.  You can even use the small Apple Remote that comes with your Mac mini to control it all.

Pay Services

There are now a growing number of for pay services offering up-to-date movies and other content, whose services are only a credit card transaction away. Most prevalent is the popular Netflix online service, which lets you rent movies that have just become available for release on DVD, months ahead of your cable outlet. Along with the over 100,000 movies available for rental on DVD, Netflix offers over 17,000 downloadable titles, that can be viewed through your Mac or PC, as well as a number of hardware devices connected to your TV. Refer to the Netflix website for more information. There is no extra cost for this service if you have one of their unlimited plans. If your Netflix plan lets you rent 3 movies a month, for example, any or all of these titles can be downloaded. Of course, this also means you no longer have to wait for those really popular titles.

Similar services are also available from Amazon, America On-Line, and Apple’s iTunes Store. You can also purchase the movies from Amazon and the iTunes Store.

Many of these services offer optional high-def feeds. All it takes is a fast internet connection (at least 3.5-megabit service), and you will likely pay a tad more for that level of quality.

Your cable provider is not taking this lying down. Comcast, one of the nation’s largest cable operators, continues to expand and enhance their on-demand service which offers tons of free content side-by-side with their for-pay product (recent movies, content from premium services, etc.).

This is just a tiny taste of the wide variety of free and for-pay video that you can plug into your media server, be it a PC, a Mac mini, or whatever. Unless you really want or need to view the latest features on the premium cable channels (True Blood, anyone?) right away, you can save a lot of money using your internet connection for something beyond email and web surfing.