Digital Home Media Center

It’s time once again to update the build of my DHMC. I don’t call it a Home Theater PC (HTPC) because it is also a media server that serves my movies and shows and music to many devices in my home and mobile devices over the internet when I’m not at home. This is a full system description, not just the design of a single computer. Because of my DHMC approach over the past couple of years, I have been able to completely cut off cable television. All of my video entertainment comes from my local media library or from Netflix (via my Roku).

What I have:

  • Samsung 50″ plasma HDTV
  • Denon 5.1 surround sound system with HDMI
  • Wireless-N home network
  • 2010 Mac Mini
  • Roku 2 XS

So off we go…Let’s start with getting rid of the physical media. I own roughly 350 movies, 6 complete television series, and about $2500 of anime on DVD. I have a lot of discs and they take up a ridiculous amount of room. To solve this I got a 2TB USB hard drive. I went with a Seagate drive. It’s inexpensive and works really well. The first thing I did was connect it to my Mac and use Disk Utility to reformat it to HFS. Now I should have plenty of space for my current media library because it takes roughly 1GB per hour of video. If you need more space, you may want to consider spending a bit more money on something like a Drobo (which will be what I eventually upgrade to).

Now that storage space is no longer a problem, you need to consider management. Since I’m using a Mac and iTunes is slow and bloated, I chose Plex. The nice thing about Plex is they have clients for virtually every platform and is supported by a number of third party devices like the Roku. It’s built on XBMC and has a host of nice automations that really round out a digital library (such as movie/episode cover art and even TV show theme music).

The next question is how does one get the movies from the DVD to the hard drive? That’s another easy one: MakeMKV and Handbrake. Caveat here, I use them on my Win8 computer so while there are Mac versions, I haven’t used them in a long time. There’s really no other option worth considering, though,  because both MakeMKV and Handbrake are free, work great, and are really fast. I use MakeMKV to rip the titles to the hard drive as large MKV files. Then I use Handbrake to re-encode for smaller file size with nearly zero discernible degradation of quality. There are two reasons for this: the two stage rip is an order of magnitude faster than doing it all in Handbrake and the MKV format allows you to have multiple audio tracks with optional subtitles. This is doubly important for ripping anime or foreign movies. And if you are wondering about meta data for these new files, Plex will handle that for you so no need to go searching for a tool to do that. Just copy or save the finished files to a folder monitored by the Plex server and you are done.

So now you have a digital library. It’s stuck on this one computer, though. That’s easy enough to fix. First you need a home network, but who doesn’t have that these days? I’m not going to cover putting one together…just Google it. But there’s still the question of playing these files on your nifty HD television. I use a Roku. They are fairly inexpensive and offer a host of “channels” to watch such as Netflix, Hulu, Vudu and even Plex. The Plex channel will log you into your free Plex account and show you what you have in your library. Just choose a title and you’re off to watching your favorite movies sans physical discs. And since you are using Plex, you can get the Plex client app for your mobile devices and stream from anywhere you have an internet connection.

This particular configuration has several advantages. One, everything integrates with very little effort. Two, it’s done for virtually free. Three, there’s no stupid DRM to deal with. I’ve ripped both DVD and Blu-Ray discs with MakeMKV and have had no problems. Handbrake has never let me down on fast encodes that save loads of space from the raw MKV rips. And Plex has been the best and easiest media manager/server that I’ve used to date.

What I bought:

  • Roku 2 XS
  • 2TB Seagate USB HDD

Software:

  • MakeMKV (free while in beta, which has been a while)
  • Handbrake (free)
  • Plex for Android (to watch movies on the go on my tablet)
  • Plex for Windows 8 (to watch on my gaming computer because I’m lazy)