Set Up a Media Streaming System

By | September 5, 2015

plexLogoYears ago I built a damned impressive collection of VHS video tapes… and then I junked the whole thing to move to DVDs. (When I think of the money I’ve sunk into this obsession, it is frankly a bit embarrassing!) By the time that BluRay came out, my collection had grown to over 500 movies and a bunch of TV shows. But luckily, by then I’d been bitten by the media-streaming bug. I mean, why get off the couch to fetch a disc to watch a film, when you could just pick up your remote control and have your film streamed to you?

Enter the media-streaming system.

This all started with a long conversation I had with my nephew. His dad’s DVD collection had nearly outgrown the media shelves we’d built for it, so we plotted and planned how we could rip the contents of all the DVDs to a server, then write some software to access the catalog and let you choose what to transcode and send to your TV. We were making it all up just for fun, but by the time we were all talked out, I was fired up and *wanted* one. After googling a bit, I learned about XMBC, which led me to Plex. If what I was reading was true, I could have the media-streaming system of my dreams without too much effort. Of course I *had* to try.

The following is what I did to make it happen. This is a good starting point for anyone wanting their own streaming system for your own DVD collection.

Hardware

You need a server, storage, a streaming device, and a good network. I spent about $1500 on it, but prices are a bit lower these days.

Server

You’ll want a dedicated server, or put another way, you want a computer behind this that will not be used for anything else, at least not when it should be busy serving your content. I knew that I’d sometimes want to watch stuff using my iPad, so I wanted a system that was able to handing the transcoding, which meant I needed a system with some compute power behind it.

After looking at the Plex min/recommended requirements for the server, I got a Lenovo M82 for $600. (This particular model is no longer available, but here’s a link to the Lenovo M83 on Amazon, just so you can see the specs I went for.) My policy with computers is to never settle for the minimum specs. But note that the graphics capabilities don’t really matter. You want a fast CPU, plenty of RAM, and support for Gigabit Ethernet. That’s enough.

Storage

The biggest expense in my system (beyond the uncountable mind-numbing hours it took to do all the media ripping) is the storage. You’ll want to use NAS (network-attached storage), which is a little pricier, but which makes life easier when you want to add content to the drives, if you need to replace something, or if you decide to move the content to or access the content from a different system.

When I researched this, the overwhelming majority of the advisors in the Plex forums recommended Synology NAS, so that’s what I went with. At first I used them as straight drives, but then I wised up and set my next batch up as a RAID. (I still need to get more drives and reconfigure my original drives as a RAID. Sigh.)

Why RAID? It takes so much time to do the ripping that I’d be extremely depressed if I lost a drive and had to rip all of that again! Go RAID to safeguard against that.

I have two 2-bay Synology NAS systems that cost about $300 each. You can get single systems with more bays, but then of course you are putting more disks under a single potential point of failure. Then once you have the systems, you need to fill the bays with drives. I used four of these Western Digital 3TB drives, which were about $150 when I got them, but it looks like they’re closer to $115 now.  Of course, nice-and-fast SSD drives are becoming more affordable these days, but I haven’t done any research on if those are treated differently in the Synology NAS systems.

When you do your setup, you’ll need to decide whether you want to map your drives to act as standalone disks, or set them up in a RAID. As I said above, I’d go RAID if I were you, but either way is fine. Just remember, if you don’t go RAID, be sure you have backups, or else you will kick yourself (hard!) if you have a drive failure someday. (Yes the original DVDs are technically your backup, but don’t forget that each one will take 30-60 minutes to rip. Do you really want to re-rip that all again?)

Streaming Device

Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, PS4, or a smart TV — almost any streaming device you can buy will support streaming your content from Plex with a (usually free) Plex app. Visit the Plex site for specifics on the devices supported.

When I first set up my system, I used a Roku 3. I really loved my Roku, but I didn’t like it that I could never get my Harmony Remote to work with it. Also, I didn’t like the way the Roku Plex app listed my 600+ movies as one long single-file line of thumbnails to scroll through.

Later I changed to an Amazon Fire TV. I like the Plex App better in this devices, but I liked the overall of the Roku better. Also, the Fire TV still had the issue that I couldn’t use my Harmony remote. But then I got a Samsung smart TV, and I loved that experience! The Plex app presents my content in a large grid instead of the stupid single-file line, and the biggest plus is that I can use my Harmony. Perfect!

Network

Finally, you need to make sure you have the fastest network you can get. I’m not talking about internet access, but the network that you have in the house. To do this, make sure everything is Gigabit Ethernet: every router and ever cable.

I have my Smart TV and one NAS plugged into a Gigabit Ethernet Switch rather than using wireless, and then I have a similar switch on the other side of the house that my server and the other NAS are plugged into. I could have gotten away with just one switch if I’d located all my equipment next to my TV, but I didn’t want to do that. Make sure all your cabling supports Gigabit Ethernet (Cat 6 cables).

Note that if this is getting too geeky for you, going wireless is the easiest and it works fine. But wired is faster and is prone to the occasional lost signal. Then if you are going wired, going Gigabit Ethernet is the best you can do.

Plex Setup

Once you have the hardware and the network in place, you need to do the setup.

Step one is to set Plex Media Server up on the server and make sure it sees your drives.  (You should have a film ripped to use as a sample for this step). I use Plex because it is easiest, but there are other options. Plex Server is available on Mac, Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD. If you don’t care about being able to stream content onto other devices (such as to your iPad or other tablet) and if you want the system to be dedicated to a particular TV, then you will want “Plex Home Theater,” which is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. In any case — here is the Plex Downloads page.

Plex now has media server software that installs directly on your NAS. As this wasn’t available back when I set up my system, I have *no idea* what this is and whether this is better than using a separate server.

Then your next step is to make sure your streaming media device has the appropriate Plex app installed and that it is connecting to your Plex Media Server.

Ripping the media

After all that work to set up the system, it will do absolutely nothing until you have media ready for it to serve. Now what’s left is the mind-numbingly long process of ripping all that content.

There are several formats supported by Plex. When I first went down this road, the type that seemed to be the most highly recommended was MKV. The software I use to rip is MakeMKV, avaialble for Windows and Mac OSX.  It does a fairly good job and the video looks excellent on my new 4K UHD Samsung TV, but I ran into issues on some of the films that have any foreign language bits. I’m told that the software “HandBrake” gives you far more control for making sure you have all the right audio and caption tracks — but I found it was too complicated to use and abandoned it. YMMV.

Whatever software you use, you’ll want to invest quite a lot of time upfront to figure out the settings you want to ensure the quality you need. The process is to put in the disc, wait for it to load, make sure your settings are right, tell it where to save, then start it up. Get it all figured out early and develop a process so you can “go on automatic” and rip all that content!  It takes about 30-60 minutes per disc to rip and each film takes roughly 300-500GB of storage (BluRay takes considerably longer and considerably more storage space).

I have the following in my system, which uses up about 6TB of space. (I have 9TB, but remember that I have 2 of my drives in a RAID.)

  • 53 TV shows (2-8 seasons per show)
  • 596 movies
  • 100 files of “Bonus content”

Once you figure out your process, it’s a great project to do in the background while doing other things.

Moving forward: physical media vs. digital

I don’t buy DVDs anymore. When I look at the cost of the storage plus the time it takes to rip, coupled with the hassles of retaining the disc for backup: I decided that I’d rather just purchase digital content. If you go this route, make it easy on yourself and choose a vendor and stick with it. I have a close friend who uses an AppleTV to stream and buys everything on iTunes. On the other hand, I buy all of my content from Amazon. True, if Amazon or Apple go belly-up someday then my friend and I will both will be screwed unless they come up with a way to give us our content. But I figure that isn’t all that likely.

As for all those discs. At first I got all the disks filed alphabetically in 17 bankers boxes that took up lots of space in my garage. Just last weekend I pulled all the disks and paper inserts out of the cases, and filed them alphabetically into three of these large capacity disc storage cases which I store in the cabinet beneath my TV. Once I drop off all those DVD cases at Goodwill, I’ll have freed up all that space in my garage, and on the rare occasion when I need a disc (such as when I want to watch one of the foreign films that didn’t rip very well, or I want to lend it out), I can easily access it.

Here’s how it looks (click the image to see more):

MovieBook

Now that I read all of this, I think it’s NUTS how much time and money I’ve spent on this. But everyone needs a hobby, right? And I really love my media system!

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