The lazy geek's guide to building a home media center

Anything less than a DIY digital home entertainment project means making the most of Apple TV

What true techie hasn't mused about how to get rid of CDs, DVDs, and all that media clutter in favor of an all-digital entertainment center? It's been a fantasy for years, but it's never really happened, despite attempts such as Hewlett-Packard's "media center PCs" and Microsoft Windows' Media Center add-on.

You can't buy a media-center PC today, so you may believe you can't build a media center. But it turns out you can. Undoubtedly you could spend days putting together your own media center from network drives, headless PCs, and apps such as the open source Plex -- if you're a geek, that Erector-set approach would surely be fun to build, but not for your family to use for its intended purpose.

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There's a much easier way that not only works well, but that everyone in the family can use. Think of it as the lazy geek's home media center.

No, it's not a cloud-based, streaming-on-demand strategy, à la Google Play, Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes Store, or Amazon Instant Video. Those can be part of your media center mix, but by themselves they raise two major problems:

  • You have to download media every time you want to view it, which will become problematic in the near future as Internet providers move to tiered data rates for fixed broadband connections. At 1GB to 2GB per video, you'll quickly see your cable bill skyrocket in the new world order of tiered broadband pricing. And periodic slowdowns and outages can make viewing unreliable.
  • Most of these services work only on a subset of mobile devices, so the "watch anything anywhere" scenario will be hard to achieve.

But even within your own network, there's no universal technology yet to allow ubiquitous media streaming from one device to another. Though the coming Miracast protocol may one day provide that ubiquity outside the Appleverse, that's a good year or more away from widespread adoption. However, there's technology that gets darn close: the combination of iTunes and the Apple TV. (Devices like Roku and Boxee TV are for Web-based streaming, acting essentially as a central hub for your digital subscriptions -- a subset of what the Apple TV/iTunes combo can do.)

iTunes is the best media hub when coupled with Apple TViTunes lets you make your locally stored digital media files -- as well as ones streamed from the iTunes Store, Hulu Plus, and Netflix, plus social video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo -- available to nearly all your screens. You can play them on your Windows PC or Mac; on your TVs if each set is paired with its own Apple TV; and on your iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches, though not on other mobile devices.

Plus, your iOS devices can play both locally stored iTunes content and any content streamed via Apple TV, so you can have multiple videos and music mixes playing simultaneously throughout your home. The family can watch a movie together on the big screen or view their choice of show on small screens, drawing from a mix of local and shared media files.

The hardware you need to create an iTunes-centric media centerTo do this, you need a wireless network for your mobile devices, along with either a wireless or wired network for your computers and Apple TV. I recommend an 802.11n network to get best performance; if you have an older protocol, you might consider getting a new router that supports the new 802.11ac protocol so that you're ready for the faster-than-802.11n computers and mobile devices slated to debut later this year.

You also need a $99 Apple TV (one of the black models), which connects to your stereo or TV via an HDMI cable. Running the January 2013 software update, Apple TV supports Bluetooth keyboards so that you can easily search your libraries and your Internet-based media sources. The current third-generation model supports 1080p streamed video, whereas the identical-looking second-generation model supports just 720p.

The Apple TV also supports an optical audio connection and, through Kanex's $59 ATV Pro adapter, VGA video and mini audio output. The former is useful for connecting to stereos for music streaming; the latter is useful for an older TV set.

Streaming video, music, and photos from computers and iOS devices via AirPlay iTunes on both Macs and PCs supports Apple's AirPlay protocol for the streaming of music, videos, and photos over your network.

Whether you stream from your iOS device or Mac, note that some apps and websites implement DRM (digital rights management), which prevents the video from being shown via Apple TV; you'll get a black screen with a notification message instead.

Using AirPlay from apps. It's supereasy to stream content from iTunes on your computer: Just click the AirPlay button () to choose the media's playback destination (that is, the Apple TV or AirPlay speaker you want to stream to).

Likewise, iOS apps often have the same AirPlay button to direct the media playback from iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. Some websites also display this button in their video players.

Tip: If you or your friends use Android devices, there's the free DoubleTwist Player Android app that can stream music and video via AirPlay via the $5 DoubleTwist AirPlay add-on. Just note that it works erratically.

The other thing you can do is use the free Remote app from Apple to have your iOS devices access content in the iTunes libraries on your computers, so they can listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks; play iTunes U courses; or watch videos stored on those computers. That turns your iOS device into a portable TV or stereo. (The Remote app also lets an iOS device act as a remote control for the Apple TV, substituting for the remote control that comes with the Apple TV.)

To access the media on your computers' iTunes libraries, you need to set up Home Sharing on the Apple TV (via the Settings button), in your computers' iTunes (by choosing File > Home Sharing), and on your iOS devices (in the Settings app's Videos pane) so that they all have the same account. Doing so ensures the devices see each other.

Tip: Don't make your Home Sharing ID the same as your iTunes account. By keeping it separate, you can share the Home Sharing ID with family and friends who you don't want to be able to make purchases from your iTunes account.

Note: You don't need a Home Sharing account to stream content from an iOS device or from a Mac via AirPlay Mirroring; you need Home Sharing enabled only to stream content from your iTunes library. Anyone with a compatible device can stream to the Apple TV, a great party game if your friends are Apple users. (You can also set up a password for your Apple TV in its Settings app to prevent random streaming by visitors.)

You can share photos from computers and iOS devices via the Apple TV to your TV and to other iOS devices and Macs. The Photo Stream feature in iOS's Photos app and in OS X's iPhoto and Aperture apps makes it ridiculously easy to share photos with friends and family. If they have iCloud accounts, they can even comment on them -- great for remodeling projects, family vacation planning, and so on.

Using AirPlay mirroring. If an app or site doesn't have an AirPlay button, double-press the iOS device's Home button, swipe to the left in the multitasking dock that appears, then tap the AirPlay button when you see it to choose a playback destination and enable screen mirroring. Now, nearly anything you watch on your iOS device can be streamed to your TV. I say "nearly" because some iOS apps, such as NBC and Amazon Instant Video, block video streaming via mirroring as part of their DRM.

Note: Some iOS devices don't support AirPlay screen mirroring: the original iPad, the iPhone 4 and earlier smartphone models, and the fourth-generation (late 2011) and earlier models of the iPod Touch.

If you own a 2011 or later Mac running OS X Mountain Lion, you can also stream your Mac's screen to the Apple TV. That AirPlay Mirroring feature lets you stream content from sources other than iTunes to the Apple TV. For example, you can use it to watch videos from Amazon Instant Video, which Apple TV does not support.

Using iCloud. You can also stream your photos, podcasts, and music via Apple's iCloud service. Be sure to enable iCloud on your iOS devices in the Settings app, on your Mac in the iCloud system preference, and on your PC in the iCloud control panel (you can get it from www.icloud.com/icloudcontrolpanel). In the list of iCloud options, be sure Photo Stream is enabled.

On the Apple TV, if your Apple ID/iTunes account is the same as the one you use for your iCloud account, you can access your Photo Stream (including those shared with you by others), your iTunes-purchased music, and your iTunes-subscribed podcasts over the Internet directly from Apple's servers. Apple calls this feature iTunes in the Cloud, and it basically lets you stream what you own directly to an Apple TV rather than go through your iTunes library on your computer or iOS device. If you subscribe to Apple's $25-per-year iTunes Match service, music you purchase elsewhere is also available this way. But videos and other media you got outside of iTunes aren't supported by iTunes in the Cloud.

Setting up the local media files and connecting them to your media serverAs I said at the outset, streaming media from the Internet raises issues around tiered broadband pricing, plus the selection of Internet media is limited. And you no doubt have hundreds of CDs and dozens of DVDs you've purchased or created (such as for home movies).

It makes a lot of sense to convert those media into digital files, stored in iTunes on your computer, ready for playback via an Apple TV whenever you want. But this part of an iTunes-based media center can be tricky to set up.

By default, iTunes is your computer's media server, storing any media files on your computer. That means everyone's computer can be a source of video and audio to an Apple TV via Home Sharing. But it also means that your family's media library can be highly fragmented across those computers.

What a media center should have. I recommend you set up a common media server that contains the videos and music for the whole family. People can also have their local music and videos on their own computers. (Do you really want your kids' music or cartoons in your library?) That way, you get the best of centralized media and the best of decentralized media.

That common media server is a computer running iTunes. It should be a power-efficient one like an iMac, as it will be on pretty much all the time, even if in sleep mode when not in use. This media center need not be a separate computer; you could use one person's computer as the media server for everyone. A recent PC or Mac has more than enough horsepower to be a media server and a work computer at the same time.

Where to store media files. One tricky area is where to store your media files. When you throw videos into the mix, you can easily fill a 1TB hard disk. An external disk connected via a fast bus (USB 3.0 or FireWire 800) is the way to go. I also recommend you have a separate backup drive for that media content, so you don't lose all those files if the media disk craps out; OS X has Time Machine backup included, whereas Window users will need a backup utility.

Then you need to tell iTunes to use that external drive instead of your computer's boot drive to get the media content. In the iTunes Preferences dialog box, go to the Advanced pane and click Change in the iTunes Media Folder section, then specify the external hard disk and folder.

Here's where it gets tricky: By default, iTunes copies media files to the media folder specified in the Advanced pane. If you're (re)building a media server from scratch, you want keep it that way, so all your imports are stored on that external disk. In that case, be sure that Copy Files to iTunes Media Folder is checked. Then import all your media files, as I explain shortly, so they are copied to that folder.

On the other hand, you may not want to store all your media on that external disk. For example, if you use a laptop as your media center PC, you may want to keep some videos for watching when on the road. In that case, go to the iTunes Preferences dialog box's Advanced pane, uncheck the Copy Files to iTunes Media Folder option, close the dialog box, and import the media into the iTunes Library. Any media imported while Copy Files to iTunes Media Folder is unchecked is not moved to your master media library folder. Of course, if your laptop were your media center, anyone else in the house would be media-deprived while you were out of town.

Getting your media digitized. Now, you need to get those physical media into digital form for iTunes. For CDs, that's easy: Insert a CD in your computer while iTunes is running, then click Import CD. In iTunes' Preferences dialog box's General pane, you can make this the default action when a CD is inserted. Do this for all the music you want to store in the media folder.

For audio and video files that are already in digital form, choose File > Open to import them from whatever disks they reside on, including your local media folder (the one where you stored your iTunes files before switching to the external disk).

For DVDs, you need to first rip the contents. I recommend the free HandBrake software for OS X and Windows, which can import most commercial DVDs' content so that you can add them to iTunes. (Reminder: U.S. law allows you to make such digital copies for your personal use only.) Use the Universal setting in the side pane so that the video looks good on everything from an iPhone to an HDTV. To ensure that you get the full 5.1 surround sound experience, go to the Audio pane, check the Mixdown box next to the audio track, and choose Dolby Surround from the menu.

Once HandBrake has created the MPEG-4 files, bring them into iTunes by choosing File > Add to Library.

You'll want to pretty up the imported files in iTunes by going to the Movie window, selecting them one at a time, and for each choosing File > Get Info to open the Info dialog box. Fill in the movie name, release date, and all other relevant information you have in the various panes. Copy an image of the DVD cover from a website such as Amazon.com into the Artwork pane. Or use the free MetaZ app for OS X or the $10 MetaX app for Windows to gather this information for you; it's a bit tricky to use, but it will save you a lot of time once you get the hang of it. Now those ripped videos will appear in your iTunes library like they do in the iTunes Store.

Syncing media files to your iOS devices. You can sync those media files to your iOS devices via iTunes so that you have them when on the road. Select your device from iTunes' Devices list, go to the appropriate content panes, check whatever you want synced, then click Apply or Sync.

Using media files on other computers. Other family members will first need to import the media files into their own computers' iTunes media folders to have them available for viewing when they're elsewhere or for syncing to their iOS devices. One flaw in iTunes today is that it has no support for families -- media are considered owned only by individuals and are thus managed that way. Home Sharing lets you federate your media for playback via an Apple TV, but not for syncing to different family members' local libraries or iOS devices.

The media center anyone can useThe beauty of an iTunes/Apple TV media center strategy is that it's easy to work with once set up. iTunes works the same on Macs and PCs, and the Remote app's interface on iOS devices is the same as iTunes when accessing iTunes content. The simplicity of AirPlay means streaming video to or from an Apple TV is child's play.

Competing media playback offerings from Google, Amazon.com, and Microsoft aren't as simple, nor do they support as many devices. One day they may. In the meantime, the lazy geek can use these two core Apple products to achieve the dream of an all-digital media center that anyone can use.

This article, "The lazy geek's guide to building a home media center," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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