Cord Cutters Part 2: Media Servers

This is the second in a continuing series of how the “cut the cord” and move away from your cable or satellite TV service. It has become a popular concept these days, but, for many people, it is a daunting prospect. The thought of not having that simple, easy access is unnerving, but honestly, it is not as hard as it sounds.

In part one we examined some basics of using a computer in your home theater system. The HTPC has been around for some time, but has never gained the mainstream adoption that companies like Microsoft had hoped for. Still it remains perhaps the single best option in my opinion.

Remember to check out the first part of the series here: Part 1: Media Center and alternatives

And, if you plan to go that route, or even another type of DLNA device, then another piece of hardware to consider is a media server. Now before you get scared off by the “server” word you should understand that it doesn’t carry the same stigma that it did years ago when setup and maintenance required professional personnel. In fact, servers today are right at home, well…in your home. No computer science degree is required.

You do not need to go out and buy professional grade hardware, although that certainly does not hurt. However, an old desktop computer you have sitting around can serve the purpose just fine. To that end, I actually used an old HP tower for sometime before scoring a free Dell Poweredge from a business that was cleaning house.

The Software

It is not about the hardware, it is about the software. For that, you can go as high or as low your budget allows. The spectrum ranges from free to “the sky is the limit”. Depending on your choice here, you may need simply the operating system, or you may also need to add some additional third-party app as well. We will look at several of the more popular choices in this article.

The Hardware

It may be about the software, but that does not make the hardware irrelevant. Sure, you can use an old tower, but you will certainly need the storage space to handle your media. That is why a tower is important — you will want space for at least two hard drives, preferably the largest size your budget allows. If additional space is needed then external USB or eSATA will be your best friend.

Windows Home Server

For Microsoft fans this is likely the most popular option, but it is far from the only one and, as of a few months ago, it is officially dead. The company, however, will continue to support it for years to come, so don’t write it off just yet.

This has a number of reasons to recommend it. It is not just a media server, but provides backup for all of the computers on your home network. This can easily stream your media to almost any HTPC or even an Xbox or other type of extender — more on extenders in a future post to this series.

WHS has many plugins available that will automate the process and sort your media. TV shows and ripped DVD’s can be stored on it with ease and drives can swapped out when a problem arises. Plus, it is affordable — under $100.

FreeNAS

FreeNAS is my home storage option of choice. It is based on FreeBSD, a form of Unix and is surprisingly easy to set up — no geek-cred required here.

Like WHS, it runs “headless”, meaning no monitor, mouse or keyboard are required once setup is complete. Also like WHS you can access it from any computer on your network via a web browser. A URL takes you to a dashboard that allows for complete control, even for rebooting the server.

Backup is NOT automated, but there are many third-party apps that can handle that. It can also send media to any computer or extender and even has specific media server features built right into it.

Plex

Plex is a bit different from the previous two platforms. It is not a stand-alone server operating system, but instead is a piece of software that runs on Windows, Mac, Linux and various network attached storage devices.

Simply download and install the free app and then add your media locations to it. It can then stream all of it across your network to, not only other computers, but also DLNA devices like Smart TV’s, Roku and more. It also has a few additional benefits, such as remote access and sharing.

PlayOn

PlayOn is very similar to Plex in how it is set up and and its streaming capabilities to other computers and DLNA devices. However, it has an additional feature that may lure you to this service.

The service also allows you to watch a number of TV channels. While some basic ones are contained in the free version, you will need to pay an annual or lifetime fee for the majority of the channels. However, you can order a Roku LT set top box along with a lifetime subscription for $69.99. You can also pay a small fee for unlimited cloud DVR functionality.

Others to Consider

There are several other good solutions you may want to look at before making your decision.

  • TVersity
  • Cyberlink Media Server 2
  • Nero Media Home 4
  • Twonky

Conclusion

This list is only a small portion of the software available. Some of it is free and some is not. In fact you can go from free and using an old computer all the way to pre-built devices like like those from Vidabox. The level of difficulty for setup also varies, but none require you to consult a network engineer. In fact, most experienced computer users should be able to handle them with little difficulty.