Media Center 2014.
I recently moved house and as part of the move we decided to take a reset on our TV and media setup. This posts documents where we are going with the system and some of the things which we have come across along the way.
What we need.
In a nutshell we needed 5 things out of our new media setup:
HD Satellite TV with record & export: We don’t get great DTT TV reception here, and we have multiple satellite outlets in the wall. So satellite seems the way to go, with the ability to record, pause and export shows as an essential.
iTunes Library playback & streaming: Between us both we have about 750gb of media in our iTunes libraries. The new system will have to be able to serve these libraries (to iPads etc) and allow playback on the main TV in the lounge. As an added complexity, much of our content is DRMed so we need to use Apple software to play it back. (bah)
Bluray playback: I have a growing bluray collection. I have exported the main films, but occasionally I like being able to watch the extras included on the disks. So the ability to playback blurays is important, it does not have to be easy though.
Flexible F1 & Football: The F1 was pretty boring last year, but if it gets interesting again we want to be able to watch it. My partner also likes the football so the ability to watch it, without a long commitment is important to us.
Oh yeah, Backups: The last part of the puzzle is a sensible backup system. Right now, only my most important data is backed up via dropbox. My media library has been living on a couple of different drives, but its been practically homeless.
So thats what we need. Here’s my approach so far.
I already had a USB Satellite TV tuner (an eyeTV Sat), and a USB bluray drive. I also have a 2008 500gb Time Capsule. We’re also running on 35mb/sec Fibre broadband with no usage cap.
I did look at what combination of boxes I would need to get everything I wanted. There were a few YouView boxes which could do most of our needs, but they were pretty pricey (£200-300) and didn’t solve the iTunes problem.
I did research using a Raspberry Pi as an XMBC frontend with an iTunes server for the Apple TV…. but that looked like a very complex setup and by the time i brought a large enough external drive and made a suitable case it would be another £150-200 on top of the YouView box.
So, in the end, we went with another Mac Mini; a really fast one.
I found a fast i7 Quad Core model going for a good price on gumtree as an unwanted present. It already has a 1Tb drive and 16Gb of RAM in it, so our immediate needs are met. Nicely, there is an easy upgrade path to fit a 2nd drive too, so when the time comes, we can fill it with another 1-2tb of storage.
I decided waiting for the next gen Mac Mini would not be worth it. I don’t need a big screen, so an iMac was also out of the running.
On the software side, each need has a slightly different software solution.
Satellite TV: The eyeTV software works really well, I can get all the HD channels and I can pause and record TV. A nice feature is being able to edit and export recordings into iOS friendly formats directly into iTunes.
ITunes & iTunes Remote: iTunes holds all the media and it can stream it to the Apple TV and the iPad , etc. We can also use the iOS devices as a remote control for the TV.
MakeMKV, Handbrake, VLC: MakeMKV can stream blurays to VLC for playback, or extract them for conversion with handbrake. Works for DVD’s too.
F1 and Football: we are looking at getting sports via a monthly Go ticket. Its not cheap, but it is cheaper than the satellite package for the same content and its a one month subscription so if the F1 gets boring we can cancel it.
Backups: The Mac mini pretends to be a time capsule for the MacBooks in the flat. It then in turn does a Time Machine backup of the media to the time capsule. The Time Capsule is a little small, so the media backup is selective. I don’t bother backing up what I have on iCloud as I can always redownload it. This provides enough coverage for our needs and results in a 3x backup of my most important files (on dropbox, on the mac mini and on the time capsule)
The system has been pretty impressive so far, the Mac Mini is very capable and has happily chewed through 50+ DVDs and a stack of blurays. Watching a Bluray is a little fiddly, but it works.
The iPad / iPhone remote app is rather brilliant. Being able to select what to watch on the sofa and then have it playback on the TV is really awesome. We have also used the iTunes home sharing quite extensively. We have an Apple TV somewhere in our moving boxes, and when i get some free time i’m planning on setting it up on the TV to give us TV on one channel, and Media / iTunes on the other.
Performance is mostly flawless, when pushing it hard by simultaneously converting videos with handbrake, exporting TV shows into iTunes and extracting a DVD its not buttery smooth but it does work. When running full tilt its not super quiet, but it is quiet enough.
I’m really happy with how the latest stab at a media centre has worked out. It has all the capability I care about, wrapped in a energy efficient and reasonably simple package. I would prefer for the software side to be more elegant, but the combination of the Apple TV and Mac mini covers all the bases without much pain.
I also plan on building on the setup with a bunch of side projects. I’m just starting to explore some basic home automation (lighting control, energy and temperature monitoring) with a view to possibly building myself a Panic inspired dashboard.
Ultimately, I think the new media centre has made my new lounge a better place to be. Its got some flaws, but it’s a marked improvement on the clunky locked down hard to read Skybox and the homeless iTunes libraries of the past.