The Continuing Saga of My Media Center

March 31, 2012 by  

Since I last talked about my media center adventures, I still had a Panasonic 50-inch DLP HDTV and was toying with several media center software solutions. Well, that was February, 2009, and two weeks after I was laid off from a job I had for 27 years, my house was robbed. The 50-inch Panasonic? Gone. The 32-inch LG LCD HDTV in the bedroom? Gone.

Fortunately, my homeowner’s insurance helped out quite a bit. I got an adequate 32-inch Vizio HDTV and used the balance of the settlement to get a good, monitored alarm system, vowing I’d get a bigger and better HDTV someday.

I was only out of work for five months, when I landed a wonderful job with a small maker of high-tech goodies, working in the field where I started in 1987, technical writing. 2009 and the early part of 2010 were very good for my new employer and while things were especially good, we got some very respectable bonuses. One of them was earmarked for a new, killer HDTV. CompUSA was having a sale, and I wound up with a 52-inch Sony LCD, though not one of the fancy new LED backlit models… It’s still a great set and the centerpiece of my new media center. 30 months later, I am still very much in like with it. As for the rest? Read on.

First, there was the issue of getting my DVDs onto a couple of USB 2.0 hard drives. For the best quality, I decided to in effect clone the DVDs, by creating image files of the media, though with the copy protection removed.

Sidebar: Every DVD that I copied to my hard drives was a personally-owned DVD. Hundreds of them. Don’t pirate! I backed-up  my personally-owned movie collection to my hard drive(s) in order to make it more convenient to play them through my media server. I did not go to the Public Library or Blockbuster, mailorder rentals, or some of the darker places to copy their stuff. I copied, or more accurately, I backed-up my collection to hard disk to free up some shelf space in my house–that’s what necessitated the removal of the copy protection. The DVDs are now safely ensconced in my storage warehouse, should they need to be inspected, or if I might need to re-copy them.

I used the popular ripping tools Rip-It and Mac DVDRipper Pro to create exact copies of my DVDs, with copy protection removed. This process took about two months of on-again and off-again work on the weekends and most evenings.

To play the movies on my HDTV, I went with the Mac mini solution. I replaced my older Core Duo Mac mini (now assigned to the master bedroom) with a newer Core 2 Duo model, onto which I added more RAM. I obtained an adapter from Kanex to convert the Mini DisplayPort output to HDMI. Unfortunately, my new Mac mini was one of the first to have the Mini DisplayPort. The early ones did not provide a digital audio feed over that port. The Kanex iAdapt 20 performs some interesting trickery with the USB port and ultimately feeds the digital audio stream down the HDMI cable that in turn feeds one of the four HDMI ports on my TV. Another problem solved.

Plex System Configuration

I spent a great deal of time researching and testing various media server solutions. I was looking for one application that could seamlessly blend my digital media (movies, TV shows, etc.) and play them on my HDTV, I tried out several media server applications including Boxee, XBMC (among others), and finalized on Plex, which seemed to be the most mature of all of the products I looked at. Plex uses the Apple remote to navigate around the various sources of content—and not just stored movies. Plex can also access many streaming services (called plug-ins in Plexspeak) available on the web, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Cracker (a new, free movie service from Sony), Hulu and Hulu Plus, and countless other interesting internet video content (and I don’t just mean porn!). It can also play music and other content from your iTunes library. Plex seems to have it all, or at least most of it. But there was a problem.

Typical Plex Plug-in (BBC iPlayer in this example)

The movie disc image files would not play back reliably. Some did, and some didn’t. Turns out this is a known Plex problem that hasn’t yet been entirely solved. Also, the copy protection removal performed by the aforementioned utilities wasn’t entirely successful, or maybe the process introduced other unwanted side effects. I may never know.

Handbrake Compression Setting

I decided to take the advice of Ed Bliefenich, who was a guest on the podcast #362, co-hosted by my kid brother, Guy Serle. Ed used the excellent open source video conversion utility Handbrake. Handbrake is not promoted as a ripping tool, but more of a video utility to permit users to convert video files into the format they want, when they want it, and not what the movie studios want to give you. The process is pretty interesting. Handbrake works hand-in-hand with the open source video player utility VLC, which you also need to install. VLC contains a DVD decryption module that is needed to allow DVDs to play through VLC. Handbrake uses of this same module within VLC to decrypt the streaming video while it is converting it to one of several different video file formats. This is not a direct DVD rip (with all the “bonus” files, etc.). This process is most often used to only extract the main feature (the part you most likely want to take with you anyway). And…it’s all free! Ed recommended setting the Target size (MB) field to about 2 GB per hour (roughly 4-5 megabits per second). This is a much higher level of quality (less compression) than most folks use to move video to their small-screen portable devices. Since I was going to play these files on my big-screen Sony, I wanted the video quality to be as close to that of the original DVD files, as well as not degrading audio quality to any noticeable degree. Looking at the graphic above, for example, this movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes. To achieve 2 GB per hour, the final file needs to be 4 GB and something. 15 minutes should equate to about 500 megabytes, so the final file’s target size should be 4500 MB (4.5 GB). I’ve also found that it may be easier to get the Average Bitrate number to around 4500 kbps by plugging in larger or smaller numbers into the Target size field. One important note: this graphic is of a much older version of Handbrake and does not show a checkbox titled Large File Size. For files that will be over 2 GB (any movie over about an hour), you must check this box or the completed file will be corrupt. That said, these large M4V/MP4 files will work in Plex, but might not work elsewhere, due to the Large File Size setting being activated.

Anyhow, after going through the long, tiring process of ripping (er…backing up) hundreds of DVDs to image/ISO files and finding far too many didn’t work correctly in Plex, I converted all of them AGAIN with Handbrake to the aforementioned high-quality variant of MP4 (M4V). They truly do work better, and the quality seems to be every bit as good as the original DVD. Oh yeah, I already said that.

Now I have hundreds of movies, music video files (lots of old school jazz), and television shows in MP4 format. How do I consolidate them onto a single drive (to make it easier for Plex to find all the content)? After much research, and after another nice bonus, I went for a Network Attached Storage (NAS) solution. I bought a Synology DS-509+ 5-slot RAID5 NAS. I bought five 1.5 GB eSATA hard drives, installed them, waited for the NAS to automatically format them (a process that took about 12 hours). In the end, after what RAID takes away and general overhead, I wound up with about 5.5 TB of usable space. I copied all of my media files, located on various drives, to a single source that my Mac mini (and other devices in my house) accesses over my home network. A year later, I bought a Synology DX-5 slave unit, onto which I added five 2 GB eSATA hard drives, also set up in RAID5 format (total storage is about 7.5 TB). This permits the DS-509+ to back itself up to the DX-5; plus there’s enough space left over to back up several of my other computers to the DX-5.

Sidebar: A month or so ago, this strategy proved itself. I awoke from a sound sleep at around 4AM by a beeping sound downstairs (I keep the NAS next to the media center—it’s so quiet, I can do this without being distracted by noisy cooling fans). Turns out one of the hard drives in the RAID5 array went bad (crappy Seagate). I pulled the bad drive out, plopped a new one in (I always keep a spare blank drive or two around for such situations), and within 8 hours, thanks to the magic restorative powers of RAID, the NAS restored the missing files to the new drive and all was again right with the world.

So, now the Plex media server application, running on my Mac mini, accesses my media files over my home network, plays them on my Sony HDTV, which in turn routes the digital audio over an optical cable from the TV to my Onkyo AV receiver. Geek heaven.

Typical TV Show Presentation in Plex

Plex has some additional tricks up its sleeve. Working with the online database, you can organize your TV show content by season and episode (for example, if you have the DVD of House, Season 3, Episode 24, and give it the filename of House S03E024.mp4, Plex goes out to, “scrapes” episode information for that particular season and episode, and displays it within the Plex environment). And it’s all automatic, as long as you follow the filenaming conventions.

Furthermore, Plex seeks and automatically downloads DVD case art, banners, and other graphic files that make navigating through the various shows, movies, music, etc., almost pleasurable. Oh, and the problem I was having with the DVD image files went away completely when I converted my ISO files to MP4 format.

Mind you, this isn’t the only solution. Media center solutions are seemingly infinite.  AppleTV can do a lot of this, as can similar media server hardware from Sony and Roku, among others. These devices can also access your media files and let you switch between those and online streaming content services. Video game hardware like Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 with third-party software can also perform many of these duties.

Oh, I almost forgot! There’s even an IOS app that securely connects your Plex media server to the Internet. If you aren’t worried about bandwidth issues (best to use Wi-Fi anyway), you can watch all of your video content, listen to your music content, and look at your photo albums on your iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad. Pretty neat. There’s a similar app for Android users.

Setup is a royal pain, but in the end you have a great looking media server that lets you consolidate your digital media files, as well as allow you to connect to countless other mostly free online video services.