Introduction: A Media Center Solution Even the Wife and Kids Will Use.

This Instructable is a summary of my experience trying a large variety of media center apps, OS's, Hardware and file formats. This is not a PVR how to and does not allow you to record or pause live TV, although I will suggest some good alternatives. This isn't the ultimate or the "best ever" solution. But the end result is the most stable, cost effective, and elegant set up I have seen to date. it's a setup that isn't too much hassle to use, its wife and kid friendly and gets better every day. Doesn't fit what you're after? Don't read on.

In a nut shell here is the setup:

1. An old PC running Naslite to share media content.
2. A Network is required to distribute the media.
3. AppleTV as the hardware connected to your display.
4. XBMC to navigate and play the media.

Optionally:
" An original Xbox instead of, or in addition to an Apple TV.
" Use an Ipod touch/Iphone as a remote (highly recommended).

In this Instructable I'm assuming that you have a fairly good understanding of computers. (This isn't an idiot's guide either.)

This Instructable won't get you a room like this, but it will get you a system worthy of it.

Step 1: Your Media!

Getting your media ripped and converted is going to take the most time. So I'm going to start with it first, This way you can be converting while your media while waiting for your AppleTV to arrive.

I'm opting not to give a step by step on how to rip DVD's or convert them. There are already too many tutorials out there, and too many different ways to do it. Here are the programs that I use and a few tips to make your life easier than I had it.

The programs I used for this part of the process:
AutoGK
DVDshrink or DVDdecripter (or program of your choice)
Terracopy is also good to help movie files around.
Use these sites at your own risk, if you're not sure about them don't use them. Get these programs from friends, if they don't have them get new friends!

Reauthoring
Most ripping software allows you to re author DVD's, getting rid of the menu, trailers, and commercials. I prefer to rip and save only the main movie. Ripping takes about 30 minutes.

Quality vs. Quantity
I have found that most movies, and especially tv shows don't need to be watched in HiDef. I just don't need to see episodes of friends in 1080i with full surround sound. Besides I'm a big fan of the classics, they aren't in HiDef and are usually in black and white. This is my opinion, so you need to decide what's most important to you, video/sound quality, or smaller files and less quality. Each has its pros and cons, which all boil down to Quality vs. Cost. The AppleTV does support 1080P and 5.1 surround sound, XBMC supports upscaling which will be more than DVD's can muster. So if you want to watch HiDef go for it.

I chose to do my movies as AVI using the DIVIX codec, with single pass encoding. I set my quality to 75%. I can't tell the difference from DVD, even on my 1080i projector. Using the divix codec the file size is 800-1200MB instead of 4-6GB per movie. Encoding takes about an hour on a fast PC. When it comes to my favorite movies like Lord of The Rings or Star Wars, I do keep the original VOB files to keep maximize quality. If I want the extras, I make an ISO of the DVD. Some films defiantly warrant Hidef and surround sound.

File management
XBMC handles movies as single files far better than each movie in it's own folder, containing several files(JOB rips). You especially run into trouble with multi disc sets. And TV shows with multiple seasons. Converting your movies to AVI is a good way to handle this.

XBMC will automatically download movie info and cover art from IMBD and other sources. This makes name critical, not only are their thousands of movies out there, there are remakes, and even different movies with the same name. After ripping I search IMDB, for the exact movie name, then copy and past the name with the date. Ie, "Iron Man 2 (2010). AVI" this eliminates the chance of XBMC making a mistake. This only takes a few seconds and will save tons of time and headache later.

XBMC doesn't handle parental control too well, but one easy way is to separate your kid movies from your non-kid movies. I have KID MOVIES, MOVIES and MOVIES R, which I put G & PG, PG 13,and R movies into respectively. XBMC allows password-protected profiles, and you can select which profile has access to which folder(s). If you add another hard drive later, the same filing convention will still work with minimal changes to XBMC.

Your Master profile can be set to see all sources (all of the drives/folders)
Your kids' profile can be set only to have access to MOVIES, and KID MOVIES folders. (However you want)

Take advantage of the Que feature of AUTOGK. I had my computer running 24/7 to convert my 400 movies. And even at time had four other computers converting at the same time.

So here is the break down 30 minutes to rip, one hour to convert. (Longer for TV episodes). Let say, you have a modest 200 movies. 1.5 hours X 200 = 300 hours to convert. That's 1 PC converting for 12.5 days 24/7! Don't go crazy, just do a few every night and it's amazing how fast it goes, if you keep at it. It's worth being able to box up all of your DVD'S and put them in storage to prevent theft, damage, and from that neighbor who never returns movies he borrows.

"TV Shows"
XBMC uses "Scrubbers" to determine which episode of which season each file corresponds to. In order to do this correctly naming is critical. it's quite simple, put each episode, in a folder for each season, or even put them all in one directory, then name them like so: Season Title.S##.E##.avi for example Alias.S02E12.avi here is a site the explains all about it.
http://xbmc.org/wiki/?title=TV_Shows

Step 2: Setting Up the Server :Hardware

I tried about every method I could think of to store and share movies. I have tried sharing from my main computer, having a dedicated windows box attached to my TV the list goes on. It pretty much came down to one common denominator. Windows! windows isn't stable enough, windows needs constant updates, and the longer its on the slower it gets. it needs a keyboard for error prompts or restarts, the list goes on, you know the drill. it was just too big of a hassle to use.

Hosting from another PC can cause movies to lag and slow down the host PC. I tried a NAS Hard drive enclosure, but the firmware was just too unstable and resulted in data loss. I originally found FreeNAS, and fell in love immediately. Very shortly later I discovered that FreeNAS has many great features, but has slow xfer rates on windows networks and isn't as stable as it needs to be. This again resulted in data loss, about 70 converted movies. almost 2 weeks of work! I paid $30.00 for NASlite M2 and haven't looked back. It doesn't have a lot of the features of other NAS builds, but it doesn't need them either. it's rock solid and is really easy to set up. It also has a good support forum, unlike other sites that cater to ultra geeks. and don't like answer "simple" questions.

Yes I am suggesting an old PC as your server, and this is why.
All your Media Sever does is server media, even streaming a 8GB blue ray iso over 2 hours doesn't take much hardware, besides that NASlite is Linux based, has no GUI and therefor handles the hardware much more efficiently.

The computer
once again there are too many different PC to make this a step by step but here is what you need to cover, at a bare minimum.

Basic requirements are:

  • Pentium or better processor (I'm using a PIII 256M RAM)
  • PCI bus
  • 64M or more of RAM
  • 1 or more fixed disk drives
  • PCI or on-board network interface adapter

Dust off that old PIII computer, and pull out everything except the video card.
update the BIOS if necessary, so it supports large drive sizes.
in the BIOS disable the comm ports, printer ports, etc.
set the error reporting to halt on all but keyboard, this will allow the computer to boot with no keyboard. ( for later)
I set up power management to "most saving" and hard drive power down after 10 min.
Depending on how many hard drives your using you may want to upgrade the power supply.
large IDE drives are rare, slower, and usually not supported by the motherboard bios. So when buying Hard Drives definitely get SATA drives.
usually computers of the PIII era don't have SATA ports, this isn't a problem, you can get a PCI SATA adapter at Best Buy for $20.00. which will support 2 drives, mutiple SATA cards can be used in the same computer.
using a RAID is an excellent way to protect against data loss and increase performance, however it's expensive, and software RAID isn't supported by NASlite.
see if you can boot from a USB drive, if not install a hard drive for the OS. smaller the better,
you'll need a CD-ROM to install the OS, after that you can remove it.
you'll also need a keyboard and monitor attached, but only for the install.
once your hard drives are installed, make sure your computer boots at least to the "no bootable drive" part. building 2 of these I did run into some finicky hard drives and an older SATA card that didn't support 1TB drives. connect the drive and make sure it sees them all.
hard drives generate a lot of heat. so make sure your case has enough fans and vents to cool it properly, add more as needed.
close up all of the empty drive bays and card slots. this will actually help get air flow to the right places.

that's it on to step 3!

Step 3: Setting Up the Server: Naslite

"NASlite"
NASlite is it's own unique task specific distro, built from the ground up, designed specifically to be used as a network attached storage appliance. It doesn't require a keyboard, mouse or even a monitor. Once set up you can make changes via Telnet or check the status via a build in web interface.
NASlite can be purchased at www.severelements.com.
I opted for the naslite-m2. It supports Unpnp as well as DAAP. Supports streaming video to Iphone but that's a task for another day!

How to install
download the ISO file after purchasing
Burn the ISO to a CD using a program like NERO or equiv. (google Iso burner)
Boot from the CD on your newly repurposed computer. (You might need to change the Bios boot settings)
Follow the install instructions, they are simple and only take about five minutes.
to save power, booting from a USB drive is preferable, if your computer doesn't support USB booting, install to an old smaller hard drive.

Configuring NASlite
its very easy to set up, I can't get screen shots of the install, but it's quite easy to set up. just follow the on screen instructions.
Once you go through the install process and reboot, you will come to a log in screen, once you log in, you'll be at the MAIN OPTIONS MENU screen, shown below.

First you'll need to go through the activation process as most options are locked until you do.
Enter the license code, press 9 to save the configuration, then reboot.
Once the server is back on line. From another computer on your network, browse to the IP address listed on the start up screen before you log in. Follow the obvious link progression to the Server Status Menu.
On the left side click on the Unlock icon.
Enter the Unlock code provided from that screen on your naslite server.
Save your configuration then reboot.
this should unlock all of the settings,

Next, you need to go to option 3 from the main and format all of your drives, make sure they are set to "RW" (read write) under option 1 of the DISK CONFIGURATION MENU, turn on SMART capability if your drives support it.
Under 2 SERVICES CONFIGURATION enable all services that you'll need for you network. This varies, most commonly enable SMB and AFP. See the image below for more info.
Change any other settings, needed, save your configuration and reboot.

This is a good time to make sure your computer will boot without the keyboard attached. Don't store your new media server away in a deep dark closet just yet. Murphys law seems to rear its ugly head if you hurry to fast at this point.

At this point you should be able to see the NASlite server when browsing your network.
If you can't, you need to log onto it, at the computer and double check that your IP address is in the right ranges, enable the proper services for your type of network, and ensure your workgroup is the same as the rest of your network.

Once you see it on the network start copying the movies into the proper places. This is when Teracopy comes in handy, once you start a transfer, you can pause, resume and add files to be copied to other locations. Teracopy will add them to the Que and only moves one file at a time, Windows would try to move the files to different locations at the same time, slowing down your PC. This is a good process to start and then go to bed.

Step 4: The Network

Not much to add here, but just to eliminate questions:

AppleTVs have built-in wireless and should be setup to access the network prior to hacking.
Wireless is slower than a wired network, so I suggest using a wired connection if available. Several programs will need to be downloaded by your AppleTV, to complete the hack, so I would also recommend using a temporary wired connection if your planning on using wireless.

By default the Apple TV uses DHCP, I recommend setting a static IP address. If your planning on using an Iphone/Itouch as a remote you don't want to have to change the settings every time your AppleTVs IP changes. The App requires that you specify an IP address and doesn't auto connect. Usually just when your showing off your new set up your IP address will change. This applies to your server also, set it up to an IP address that is easy to remember this will help keep your network conflict free and organized.

When Using Wireless I will occasionally get lag while watching movies, I'm using a wireless N router and 10/100 NICs. I'm in the process of hard wiring the AppleTV, which should eliminate the lag. I'd try the wireless option first, and go from there. I do have a busy network, you may have better luck than me.



Step 5: Setting Up and Hacking the AppleTV

When I discovered the AppleTV I knew I had my solution, it provides every thing a Windows PC can't style, compact size, and it's absolutely quiet. One of my wife's big issues over the years was having a big clunky computer, keyboard, mouse, and tons of wires next to the TV. I even bought a stylish case from coolermaster. The case alone was almost as much as the AppleTV, and it didn't solve any of the issues.

Hacking your AppleTV

Q: I like it as is, why hack it? The apple TV is like an ipod for your TV, to get any media on it you need to sync it to your itunes library on another computer. Hard drive space is limited on your AppleTV, and why have the same media on several computers, hacking provides for better customization and a better interface. Still not convinced? Check out www.appletvhacks.net

NOTE: hacking your Apple TV leaves all of the original functionality, it is a software hack and only adds additional functions to your Apple TV. In most cases it is 100% reversible, but will potentially void the warranty. Do at your own risk. You are warned, don't blame me!"

Set up and install your new AppleTV following the instructions that come with it. You need to set it up on your network before you hack it. Once on your network download any and all Apple updates. (Ver. 2.31 is the latest version at the time of writing, updating beyond this version might disable any and all hacks). If you update to 2.31 after hacking it will "unhack" your AppleTV and you'll have to start over.

To hack your AppleTV download the ISO provided by the link below, make a bootable USB drive from it. Boot your ATV from the USB drive. It automatically installs, reboot and completes the hack! This takes about 10 minutes. Learning curve not included.

This site has every thing you need to know including the files, so I won't repeat the steps here.
http://code.google.com/p/atvusb-creator/http://code.google.com/p/atvusb-creator/

One thing to note, once hacked XBMC will show up on the launcher Menu, you need to go to Launcher> downloads, update the Launcher, and XBMC updates, before XBMC will actually work. (At the time of writing there is: XBMC Atlantis (bf1) and XBMC Babylon (RC1) available for download, but I would stick with Atlantis, I have had trouble with the other.

Since future updates could disable or even lock out hacks altogether, I would recommend turning off auto-update. to do this, go to Launcher>Settings then set ATV OS Update enabled to: NO

If you can't get your apple TV to boot from the USB drive, hold down menu and Volume down. This should force it to boot USB. If it still won't boot reimage your USB drive or try a different one. Not all USB drives are bootable.

I got my Apple for almost 1/2 price from a local classified web site. This is something to consider.
Because your hacking it to see network shares size isn't an issue, used 40GB Apple TVs are quite inexpensive.

Because I got my AppleTV used I didn't have documentation. After an hour or so my AppleTV started to get hot and I started to worry. After some research (Googleing) I found it was normal. They do get quite hot, so make sure it has proper airflow, so it doesn't cook it's self.

If you already have an apple Universal remote, it will work with your apple TV also. All you need to do is hold down menu and left buttons for about six seconds, a little image will pop up on your screen indicating that it now synced. You need to sync in while in the native AppleTV menu, not XBMC.

The Apple TV has two video connections, Component and HDMI. S-video and component aren't supported.

Step 6: Setting Up XBMC

I've tried several media center programs. Windows Media center, web based front ends, and besides the fact that most have to be running on a PC, they cost money. XBMC is opensource, free, and totally customizable. When browsing movies in XBMC, there is little, if any lag, even with large movie collections. With Media Center, the more movies you add the slower it gets. XBMC running on an AppleTV was what sealed the deal to make it my final solution.

Once you boot into XBMC try it out, kick the tires, take it for a spin. then:

Set up your screen
Go into settings> Appearance> Screen. Then select Video Calibration. This will step you through the process to ensure you are utilizing your entire screen, and also that nothing is getting cut off.


Add your media
The next thing to do is add sources. This is where you tell XBMC where your movies are located. If you would like to add parental control, start with your account. Add all of the drives that you have movies on. One source can contain multiple drives and directories.
To add sources click on Videos> (disable Library mode if active)> then click on Add Source.
Choose the right source type, usually SMB, and then browse to your media server. Add as many locations as you need to. Before you hit ok, click on the SET CONTENT button. This is where you tell XBMC what type of content is in the folder. I prefer IMDB, choose the option you prefer, which should be that same place you got he movies names when converting.


repeat this same process for TV shows, music, and photos. you want every path to every location to be listed under one source, for each type of media. in other words, you want 1 source for movies, 1 source TV shows, etc.. each source can contain multiple paths. (watch the video)

Convenient system settings
a few setting that I like to set up for convenience are Update on start up, and I like to get rid of additional menu items that won't be using. this way every time your start XBMC is will update your library, and you won't have to scroll through menu items you don' t use.


"Change the look and Feel"
Next choose your favorite skin. There are three default. I prefer the skin 1/3 Media Stream, it has a separate menu item for TV shows and Movies, and has a better over all look and feel, IMHO.


Library mode vs. File Mode
XBMC has two modes, file mode and library mode. Simply put file mode is for adding sources, seeing all of the options available and is a little more coarse to use. Library mode is for when you have every thing set up, and your ready to just use your new set up. it has a little more elegant look. but if you want to change something on the fly, some extra steps will be required. This is my opinion on how to use XBMC. Configure it to your hearts content!

Step 7: Itouch/Iphone Remote Control

One of the real caveats for this set up is using an Iphone/Itouch as a remote. Besides having all of the functionality of the AppleTV remote, you have the option of using the Iphone/Itouch onscreen keyboard for input. This makes doing searches and entering passwords a lot easier. you have the option of looking through your media on your Iphone, and much much more.

As well as being feature rich, you don't have to worry about line of sight issues like a conventional remote. Your Iphone/Itouch uses its WiFI connection to communicate with XMBC. This really increases the possibilities. I've cued up movies for my wife, from work. Using the now playing feature, I've logged in to see what the kids were watching while we were out. Paused movies from the kitchen, because the kids wouldn't stop watching and come eat. The list goes on.

I've tried several Apps, but only one is worth downloading. The app is called XBMC Remote and can be downloaded through the App store. Here is a link to their web site http://remote.collect3.com.au/. They have a good video showing XBMC and XBMC Remote work in action. This app cost's $2.99, but is worth every penny.

Once you down load and launch the XBMC Remote App, click on settings, Enter the Title, Port (8080 is default) Host/IP, and Password, if you set one on your AppleTV. If you're not sure what Your IP As mentioned before I would configure your AppleTV network manually so that's IP doesn't change and make your XBMC Remote not able to connect.

Once that is finished hit Done and you're ready to go. If you have multiple devices you want to control you can add additional hosts Making it possible to remote control every instance of XBMC.

Step 8: You Can't Record TV But...

This set up does not allow you to schedule and record TV. But there are a few things you can do to help compensate for this.

Record from another Computer.
Set up a computer on your network to schedule and record TV to your Media Server, as long as you use a proper naming convention your TV shows can automatically be added to your AppleTV listings. You will need to do a library update to have them show up in library mode.

Buy your favorite shows from Itunes
Itunes now allows you to download non DVRM media. So rather than paying $60+ a month for cable just but and download seasons of your favorite shows. Although I haven't tested this yet, I don't see why this wouldn't work.

Watch TV online.
Many networks, and sites like Hulu, allow you to watch TV online. XBMC has scripts to automate streaming TV, and the AppleTV can also run Boxee that will do the same thing, even easier. a couple of days after I got my AppleTV up and running Hulu was pulled from the ApplyTV, hopefully the networks will accept new era of technology and come to their senses.

Step 9: Notes:

Comments

author
leaning_r made it! (author)2012-06-08

I use Media Center Master and XBMC.

I have tried several other apps and this is by far the best.

Media Center Master Is a free metadata and media organization solution for Windows Media Center.
Including support for MediaBrowser, XBMC, Boxee, Netgear NeoTV, pyTiVo and more!

http://www.mediacentermaster.com/

author
jpayton made it! (author)2011-10-30

Take a look at mediarenamer. Its an amazing renaming software. I like the apple TV Idea but a PC is a better solution as you dont need to have a separate NAS or other things running. and it can be cheaper. Also download your movies from the internet with torrents. Its legal if you own the DVD and you start them all at once. depending on your connection you will have them all in a few days. and no DVD swapping.

author
blackdragon27 made it! (author)2011-07-02

Do you mean S-video and AV aren't supported. because Component is the three video output.

author
EarlyGrayce made it! (author)2010-09-30

Vista worked for me with 2 HD digital tuners and 2 XBox 360s in different rooms as extenders.
I already had a PC with Vista Home Premium and 2 360s so all that was left to do was buy 2 pci tuners under $50 each so the entire cost in hardware was under $100

author
cotton made it! (author)2009-08-10

freenas is free and better justget a older copy cuz the new one has probs with realy realy old hdds

author
Ev42tman made it! (author)2009-08-02

Most computers that are a p4 or newer have a raid chip built into the motherboard that support raid 0 or 1 and some times raid 5 for big multi media file servers I recommend putting the os drive on a single drive then make a raid 5 for the media files you'll have better read speeds and if one drive dies in the raid your configuration will still work until you can order a back up. but one fyi is NEVER use a raid set up instead of back ups. hard drives fail and server weather happens so if something comes along and kill more then one hard drive at a time then your screwed.

author
Hextor made it! (author)Hextor2009-08-03

I'd love to go Raid 5 but at the time I build my server a 1TB drive was around $200.00. and I didn't have $800-1000 for hard drives. I think the problem is, for the average person, raid is too hard to set up, and too expensive. the latter is my issue. I'm ok with no raid, for back up I use a different Hard drive to store the movies. and I leave the hard drive not in use, in a safe place. not fool proof but it's cost effective and easy to restore.

author
Jason_G made it! (author)2009-07-31

Regarding FreeNAS... how long ago was it you evaluated it? I'm wondering if the newer release is more stable with enhanced performance.

author
Hextor made it! (author)Hextor2009-08-03

I haven't looked into FreeNAS for a while, about 9 months. it took days to move 1.4Tb, I don't see myself switching when I have a working set up. The only reason I could see my self switching from FreeNas would be to visualize the server, I currently have my Media Server and a Skype Server, I'd like to get both of these on one machine to save or electricity and upkeep on 2 PC's

author
Hextor made it! (author)2009-06-15

....if you read the instructable you'll see why I don't recommend freeNAS FreeNAS is cool but I want my data on something rock solid... NASlite.

author
sonoman15 made it! (author)2009-06-12

use http://www.freenas.org/ instead is FREE

author
rfzl24 made it! (author)2009-06-02

XBMC or Boxee is better?

author
Hextor made it! (author)Hextor2009-06-02

They each have a different focus. XBMC is more media center oriented, and Boxee is more social network oriented. XBMC has been fine tuned to be very easy to use and easy to que up media. Boxee is brand new and there are a lot more steps to get to your media. so it really depends on what your after. also the Iphone app for Boxee doesn't even compart to XBMC Remote. I was leaning toward Boxee as my primary interface, but when they lose Hulu. that made XBMC more appealing. When you hack an AppleTV it installs both XBMC and Boxee and its easy to switch between the two.

author
abadfart made it! (author)2009-05-16

dose XBMC work on an xbox

author
Hextor made it! (author)Hextor2009-05-17

Yes XBMC (xbox media center) was originally written for the original xbox. to my knowledge it does not work on an xbox 360. you can substitute the appleTV with an Xbox, But in keeping to the "a wife will use theme" I'd recommend an appleTV. it is a more elegant solution.

author
abadfart made it! (author)abadfart2009-05-18

well mines is going into a house full of collage students with a "guess the stain" couch so looks aren't that big of a deal.

author
mikeasaurus made it! (author)2009-05-14

how about some photos of your system that 'even the wife and kids will use'?

author
Hextor made it! (author)Hextor2009-05-14

sure, I will post some photos of MY system, but the point of this is, there isn't really anything to take a picture of... the server, See Step 2 for photos, is in my basement out of the way, and my AppleTV sits on top of my TV . What you see on screen looks exactly like what is on step 7.

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