Technology abounds in every aspect of our lives. Computers are usually the center of a great many media types that we experience throughout the day. You can buy a computer pretty much anywhere these days for really reasonable prices. So the question on my mind has been, why are most people still using the old components of yore for their home theaters? Why not leverage some of this wonderful computer technology and versatility for the home theater experience?
Yes, I know there are HTPC options out there. Most of them run well over $1500 for the base model. I also know you can roll your own HTPC/DVR for about the same price. What I’m talking about is using a more distributed model, preferably leveraging systems you already have in place…just extending them to the HDTV in the living room. For my personal project, I have a 20″ iMac on my desk and a Vista laptop that usually sits on the coffee table. There’s a 50″ Samsung plasma TV in the living room that I really want to use to watch my media such as streaming video from the web with an XBox360 under it.
Ideally, I want to get rid of the DVD player and replace the set-top box from Comcast with my media system so I can drop the cable television service and thus save myself over $1000 a year. Now I realize that for my particular desires, I will not need a PVR/DVR setup and can thus skimp on some hardware. Actually, for step one of my media center makeover, I just want to stream ripped copies of my DVD library so my 360 will play the part of extender. For this setup, storage will be the biggest concern with network bandwidth running a close second. With today’s prices for hardware, neither of those should be a challenge to satisfy on a budget.
Let’s start by making sure there is plenty of storage for my media. My eventual completed media system will hopefully house rips of every DVD I own so I can just fire up my extender and select the title that it will stream to the plasma. For this I’m going to need something really large because I own a lot of DVDs. I will add an external 1TB USB hard drive to hold my movies. I will probably add a second one later on to house my anime. This is the nice thing about using external storage. I can add/remove/swap at will even while the system is running. These drives start at just over $150. So that’s reasonable.
Next I need to worry about network bandwidth. Everything in my house is running wirelessly on 802.11g. I was worried that video streaming would saturate the bandwidth, but after testing it last night with Pirates of the Carribean, I am confident that the G network will be sufficient for everything I will be doing in phase one. This is wonderful because I don’t have to spend the money on a new router and adapters for every system in the house. I now have more budget to work on other areas.
Now we have storage and bandwidth taken care of for less than $200. Time to hit software. I already have Handbrake which will handle the rip/convert process for my DVDs. I also have Connect360 ($20) to let the XBox see my iMac. Now I just need time. Handbrake 0.9.2 has a large selection of presets for different types of devices. Since I am using my Xbox360, I selected the presets for that device. It works wonderfully. Handbrake also has presets for everything from the iPhone to a PS3. It is a wonderful little program that costs nothing.
If you are using Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, you have what you need to connect to the 360…Windows Media Center. That would just leave the ripping/converting software. Many people take the inexpensive route of ripping the DVD with DVD Decrypter or DVDShrink to a single VOB file then changing the extension to MPG. Media Center will let you stream the renamed file to your 360 with full DVD Quality. Details for this method and some caveats are here. There is also TMPGEnc MovieStyle ($39.95) which can encode to different playable formats.
Do not be fooled. Ripping and encoding a full length movie is not going to happen quickly. It took nearly four hours for my iMac to get finished with Pirates of the Carribean. This is not a project for the impatient. You will easily spend a couple of weeks working on rips if you have a large library. I have about 400 or so DVDs from movies to anime and television series. I fully expect this conversion process will take me about two months. On the bright side, unless I lose a drive, I won’t have to worry about it ever again and adding new movies that I purchase will be mostly painless.
Now that my DVD library is taken care of in this design, time to hit up my other wants. I want to be able to stream from video sites such as SurfTheChannel and Hulu since this is where I get a lot of my television series fulfillment. That will be in Part Two.