Next to computer gaming, my next greatest passion is definitely watching movies and shows. My wife and I watch something every evening for family time together, and we have a slew of shows we follow. So it should not be surprising to you at all if I were to tell you that we’ve accumulated over 700 DVDs, and that the collection literally takes up an entire wall in my den. That’s space in my den that I really want to put to better use. Say, for a love seat where I could sit and watch sports or the shows my wife doesn’t want to watch, more comfortably. In fact I have a 40” Samsung flat screen LED HDTV in my den just because my wife didn’t want me monopolizing “her” TV in the living room on the weekends during my various sports seasons. Method to my madness!
The problem is I have just my desk chair or a small folding camp chair to sit in while I watch my shows. There isn’t room along the other walls to place a Recliner or other similar chair and so I’d been mulling over building a “home entertainment system” for some time that would allow me to store our collection of movies and shows digitally, freeing up an entire wall in my den. I also didn’t want that system to be tied specifically to one television; instead I wanted to be able to stream content to any of the three HDTVs in our house (den, living room, and my son’s room). Which meant that in as far as the “home entertainment system” is concerned, it was going to have to be broken down into three (or four) components instead of a single monolithic system that would have been directly connected to a single television otherwise.
First is the storage component. Second is the media server itself. Third is the television. And fourth is an optional component – a sound system. In regard to the storage component, it can take on many guises. Anything from an existing desktop or laptop with an external USB drive mounted, to a full blown NAS. To each his own on this component, but I definitely intend to build a NAS at some point. I have too much content to worry about losing and having to rip all over again at some point. But for now I’m storing my digital content on two external drives connected to one of the desktops on my desk. Neither this system, nor the eventual NAS will be directly connected to the television. uPnP is running on the system for the media server to connect to.
The second component – the media server – is however directly connected to the television. I opted to use XBMC as the media server, and opted to run XBMC on a jail broken Apple TV 2, connected directly to the TV via HDMI. XBMC is configured to retrieve media from my media storage system via uPnP, and display it on my TV via HDMI. I could have opted to use DLNA directly from my Television, but I truly hate the DLNA implementation on the SamSung TVs I have. Samsung’s DLNA implementation has every appearance of being a complete afterthought and requires a client application install on the storage system. The application, called AllShare, is a truly horrible end-user experience in my opinion. Samsung’s DLNA implementation might work well enough with a relatively small amount of content, but with hundreds of movies to choose from, the complete lack of UI usability and search functionality quickly takes DLNA off the table for me.
XBMC is designed from the ground up to be a user friendly media server, but it has to run on something physically attached to the television. Though that piece of hardware doesn’t have to be connected via HDMI. Any other available input will suffice as long as that input method is also supported by the hardware.
The third component is the TV, which needs no configuration in order to display my digital content. When I want to watch a movie I simply choose the source input (my Apple TV 2/XBMC is on HDMI 4) which brings up the XBMC screen. I then use the menu system to choose the specific content I want to view and hit the play button on the handy remote.
But that’s not the totality of my “home entertainment system”. What I’ve described is for my purchased content – DVDs. But I also have a Netflix and Hulu account as well. My Tivo has a Netflix and Hulu application on it (so does my TV), and I can watch streamed content from either of those services as well. Since I’m a cable subscriber I can also DVR content from my cable provider and watch that anywhere in my house as well (as long as the content isn’t “locked”). Current generation Tivos can transfer content recorded on one Tivo to another Tivo over a network. And Tivo also provides a free application called Tivo to Go, with which I can copy/transfer content saved on a specific Tivo to the computer the application is loaded on.
In short, I’ve made a system that is incredibly flexible and enables me to watch a range of media content throughout my home. Including mobile devices if I want to convert media files to a file format viewable on the specific mobile device. For a homebody geek like me, this is close to Nirvanna.