How to utilise a gig – Project 1: Home Media Server [Part 1] – Hardware and Software

Before reading this article, I should admit that I’ve had the Plex server for a number of years.  The additional features afforded by the Gigabit WAN link are primarily for sharing media  outwit the local network, with family and on remote devices (Apple TVs in the case of this article).

So as I wrote in my last article, the next few weeks will chronicle some of the services that you can enable using the higher speeds afforded by gigabit connectivity.  This first article is a how-to on setting up a Media server.

So let’s take a look at some of the background as to what you might want a media server for, what facilities it can offer, what we need to buy and costs of software.  At basic a media server is a computing box, window, linux or OSX based, which runs dedicated media server software, and allows connected devices such as set top boxes, tablets, phones or Smart TVs to connect to it.  The media is loaded onto the servers storage, and when browsing to the device via app/plugin the service behaves much like your own personal Netflix.  The key difference is you have the actual media files, ripped/downloaded etc and have full control.. The more feature rich implementations also offer facilities for playlists, programme art etc.

So how do we do this?

Software/Media Centre Platform

The first question is the media server software that we are going to use. There’s plenty on the market.  Two of the most popular are XBMC and Plex, and whilst the applications come from a similar root, they achieve their aim in very different ways.

XBMC is very much a media player whereas Plex can be best thought of a client-server model, where you run a server with your media (this could even be your laptop) and then use a client on end devices (Apple TV/ Roku / Xbox One / SmartTVs).  Whilst XBMC is more configurable, and xxl_plex-logo-1200-80more feature rich, it is definitely not as stable, or s well supported as Plex.
The company behind Plex also offer paid subscriptions which make sharing your server remotely over the web, and various out tasks more easily achieved.  It’s for this reason that I moved to Plex some  years ago, and don’t miss XBMC or it’s stability/complexity issues.

Because of this approach we are going to dedicate a box to the task of running the media server, our Plex server will house all our media, and run the software to power the endpoints which in our case will run Plex client on  Apple TV4s.

Hardware

So with our software chosen, the next consideration is the “box” on which we’ll run our Plex Media server.  Your choices here are much more various.

Mac Mini in hands

2012+ Mac Mini- it’s really this small

My box of choice is unsurprisingly a Mac, and whilst I am frequently accused of bias when it comes to hardwire in this case the selection is justified.  The Mac Mini (2012-) is one of the smallest, neatest and feature rich boxes that you can use as a media server.  It can be specified up to quad core i7 processors, 16GB of RAM and can have multiple 1gigabit networking ports.  On top of that it comes with built in wifi, and runs a fan less design.

Front and back of boxes, small but plenty of expansion options!

Front and back of boxes, small but plenty of expansion options!

As you can see by the pictures on the left here, it’s really small, with a one piece design.  Even nicer is the fact that there’s no bulky power supply – just a simple infinity connector.  On the back you’ll find a multitude of ports to connect network cables, USB3.0 and thunderbolt devices, meaning you are spoilt for choice on how to about adding storage as your media server grows, be that network or direct attached disks.

New the boxes range in price from £400-1000  depending on the specification.  The i5 processor versions are dual core, whereas the i7 versions offer quad core processing.  Memory wise all the boxes will take 16GB RAM, and given the prices of RAM these days, a bump to 16GB should be the first thing you do.   The box can take internal drives, and there are various options to install 2 disks, more on that later.

I’d recommend shopping around on eBay or Gumtree, just as an example I found these two example:

Gumtree – 2012 i5 2.5Ghz with 4GB RAM for only £295

Ebay 2013 i5 2.3Ghz with 8GB RAM for only £349

Either of these boxes will be ideal, and the memory upgrade is now under £60 for 16GB and can be found here at crucial.com.

So that’s us got our hardware for around £350.  One wee note, if you are planning to run the server headless (if you want to pop it into a cupboard and hide it away) then due to a quirk on a lot of Intel based boxes, you’ll want to buy one of these HDMI dongles.  What does this dongle do? – Not to get to in depth, if your Mac (or PC) detects that it doesn’t have a monitor plugged in, it will not enable hardware acceleration of graphics, this results in f_cked up image display when you remotely access the box. Just know if you want it headless order one of these dongles.

Installing PLEX

First give your Mac Mini a fixed IP address.  You can do this easily by going into the control panel.  This means you’ll easily be able to troubleshoot if you have any errors further down the line.

If you’ve used a Mac before, installing Plex is exactly the same as any other Mac application. Head on over to Plex’s site and download the latest Media Server software.  You’ll get a DMG which you want to copy onto your Server box and install.  You’ll know that it’s installed as you’ll get an icon that look like a right pointing arrow in the top bar of your Mac (next to the clock).

There’s a few good housekeeping tasks – such as setting power management to keep the disks spinning for an hour, and disable any auto sleep functions.  I also tend to set the Plex Application to start open on startup (just in the case you should loose power).  If you only have a single user login for the server, then you can also set the box to login automatically (not the most secure but manageable).

A decent Mac Mini (post 2012) with 16GB RAM and Core i5 or above will happily serve a large household – I have managed to run 16 1080p streams to end devices, and transcode (will be explained later) to multiple iPads and the server still wasn’t running at anything close to 100percent CPU.  Better yet, because we’re using OSX we can add server functions and have this box perform other tasks for us.

In Part 2 of this walk through we’ll configure Plex, import Media and view the library from a client.