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.

 

Chrome – The Macbook Pro Battery Killer?

Macbook Pro RetinaI’ve had my Retina Macbook Pro for just over 3 months now, and during this time, it’s both impressed me and pleased me with it’s performance, good looks and battery life.  The other day I was reading up on the Apple support webpages for an unrelated problem, when I stumbled over a thread relating to poor battery life on the Retina Macs.  Interested I wondered what issues other people were having, and discovered that it seemed to be a widespread problem.  Many users reported that they were seeing only 3 or 4 hours battery life after full charge, when the quoted figure is 7 or 8 hours easily.  It hit me like a train: I’ve never seen battery life anywhere near as high.  Coming from an old Macbook Pro (circa 2008) I was impressed because comparatively my new Retina was miles ahead, but those 3 and 4 hour estimates set alarm bells ringing – did I have a shitty battery mac?

Luckily the support site had a couple of tips: zapping the PRAM was one of them, and secondly to kill off a corrupt desktop process.  I quickly bookmarked the pages for later reading, and set an alarm to follow up.  Back at home I ensured my Retina was fully charged – with the battery showing 100percent, I unplugged to go onto battery power and watched the power meter.  After a few minutes saying “calculating remaining time”, I got my figure – 3.5 hours!!!  To say I was dismayed was an understatement.  You don’t expect your £2 Grand pride and joy to have lost battery condition so quickly.  I followed up the bookmarks, and proceeded to zap my pram and wipe out the faulty process: improvement, we were now seeing 4.5 hours, but then witnessed this quickly fall rapidly down in 10 minute increments.

By now, this was really worrying me.  Having bought the Retina in Canada worries regarding warranty started to surface.  Where was all this battery going?  A glass of wine, and some thinking time followed.  I checked the activity monitor, but no processes were consuming huge chunks of CPU time…  Back to the basics, Layer 1: Physical, with virtually no applications running, the bottom of the machine was hot.  Checked a quick schematic of the machine, and the place that was the hottest was definitely where the CPU resided.  So how can CPU be running hard but no process consuming any CPU time?  Closed every application (even though only had Bit torrent, iTunes, Mail and Chrome open).  I could feel the machine physically cool, and the battery life start creeping up, 4 hours, 4hrs 20, 5 hours, 5 hrs 30.  So an application was causing crippling battery life.  In the past I’ve known iTunes to be a resource hog, so opened it on it’s own and started playing music: battery life stuck at 6hrs 25 minutes (on 75 percent battery) with no noticeable drop.  Opened Mail, again no noticeable drop, uTorrent is lightweight so no surprises, opened it and again no noticeable drop (even when hitting 1.5MB a sec).  Opened Chrome: BANG! battery started to drop like a stone!.

Google Chrome Icon

The evilest browser in the world

So what’s going on here? Chrome is draining the battery – I proved this by only having Chrome open.  Chrome closed: battery 6hrs 25, Chrome open for 5 minutes – battery showing 3 hrs 20 and machine running hot.

Conclusion

I can only assume that the current build of Chrome supporting Retina display is a bit of a resource hog.  I’d speculate that the fact that each tab runs a process taking 2.5- 3 % CPU quickly adds up and makes the machine run hot.  Certainly I’ve got 4 cores of Ivy Bridge at 2.6Ghz.  I’ve switched over to Safari, and done several tests – I can drain 20 percent battery using Chrome for half an hour, whereas using exactly the same sites in Safari barely dents battery life.  I’m not sure this is a problem that anyone else has had, but certainly for me I’ve checked this both on a 2012 Retina Macbook Pro (2.6Ghz) and a 2012 Macbook Air with similar results.  If anyone has any ideas as to what is causing this, or if they have had simliar problems I’d be interested to hear from you.

iPad Nano : more than a shrunken iPad

We’ll since my non-Mac loving partner has pretty much swiped my iPad 2, I’ve taken the plunge and bought an iPad Mini.  I preordered in the UK last week (25th October) and received the device at 10am on Launch day.

The first thing you notice about the device is that it’s obviously an iPad, but I was really surprised at how different it feels in the hand compared to the iPad 2 on which it is based.  The change in form factor, with the smaller side frames really changes how you hold the device and interact with it.  The extra sensing for the thumb on the glass takes a bit of getting used to coming from the full size iPad, but is a welcome addition that works really well to prevent unintentional inputs.

I went for the black and slate iPad: I’ve never really been a fan of the Apple white products…. they always seem to age badly in my humble opinion.  I was able to quickly setup the device from my iCloud account, and restore it as a perfect copy of my now lost iPad 2.

I’ve only had the briefest of chances to play with it, but it looks like they may have yet another run away hit on their hands.  I’ll update as I go.

Apple’s Strongest Line Up for Years? – tell the analysts

Apple Inc

As the ever vigilant and dedicated Apple fiend, I find it hilarious as a demonstration as to just how OTT the analysts go.

Apple have got easily the strongest product line up across the board (with the only gaps that you could mention being the Mac Pro and perhaps the Apple TV) and yet despite this, and the fact that they reported the strongest quarter ever, the analysts still knock the share price. Seems to me there’s too many of these guys over inflating Apple’s aims for the quarter – no doubt in a couple of years they will be expecting the iTimeMachine: and then moving to a sell rating when it doesn’t materialise.

The iPad MiiniFurther more, when they respond to Analyst’s calls for products (case in point the iPad Mini) – they are critisied for doing it as a panic move. Really a company can’t win: perhaps they can use some of that 125Billion + dollars to buy some counselling to get over the hurt 😉

What any rational human being can say without bias is that there’s never been a time for Apple when their lineup is so strong. The iPod Nano and Touch are as good as they have ever been, the iPhone 5 has given us the long awaited larger screen with custom silcon and LTE, the iPad has gained the 7 inch product as well as the best in class 9.7 inch pad, and the basic Macbook and Macbook Pros are doing great business, with the new Retina systems further increasing the German esque premium brand. The Mac Mini is now as powerful as the 2010 Mac Pro and only getting better, whilst the iMac is looking just as svette as ever, and now even thinner. The transition from optical media to the cloud is completed, we’ve got interfaces that will last the next decade and the OSs (both OSX and iOS6 are both just becoming more polished with age.

Add to this a strong cash position, the ability to quickly integrate Intel’s tick tocks and the ongoing advancements in ARM – as well as remembering that a port of OSX is probably already running on ARM hardware, and it paints a very vivid picture of success to come.

Oh yeah: and they have Sir Jonny Ive 😉