UPDATE 7/8/2015 - All current documentation for my media center and home network is at illigmediacenter.readthedocs.io.
Now that I’ve solved my media center problem, let me do a review of what
I was trying to do, what I did, and some of the lessons learned along
Goals of my media center solution:
- Access to my DVD collection. I have a lot of
DVDs and, yes, I
do like to re-watch them. The problem I’m running into is the same
problem I ran into with my music collection - inconvenient access. I
think about a movie I want to watch, then I have to go through the
collection, find it, fire up the system… it’s a lot less “at my
fingertips” than I’d like. It’s also nearly impossible to browse, so
if I want to look for something to watch, I have to either riffle
through the binders of discs, use an outdated printout list of
movies, or fire up DVD
Profiler and scan through
- Backup solution. My dad and I both have had DVDs go bad. Ideally
I’d like to be able to re-burn a disc if I have the original go bad.
UPDATE: I’ve changed my position on this since the original
setup and I’m only storing the movie files
- Full quality, all features. I want to be able to navigate and
view the DVD as if I had put it into a DVD player - full menus, no
reduced quality, all audio tracks, all extra features. UPDATE:
I’ve changed my position on this since the original setup and I’m
only storing the movie files
- Wife acceptance factor. I want it to be easy and accessible to
Jenn so she can use it, too, without having to memorize the
37-button-sequence to get it working.
- Network storage. I want everything to be stored centrally so the
data can be accessed by any device.
- Simple, simple, simple. As few “moving pieces” as possible. I
know there are ways to get very fancy setups going if you want to
invest the time and effort in tweaking, perfecting, and messing
about with the system. I’m not a hobbyist, and investing that level
of time doesn’t interest me. I want to set it up and have it “just
work” in as much an appliance fashion as possible.
- Expandable. If I need to add storage, add another media
front-end, etc., I want the flexibility to do that.
- Good form factor. I don’t want something ridiculously
ostentatious sitting in the living room. I want it to look good.
- Music and picture access. DVDs are my primary goal, but if I can
get access to my music and pictures through the system, so much the
What I settled on:
- Storage - Two Separate Systems:
- Windows Home Server. For music, home movies, photos, and
documents I went with a Windows Home Server as the central
storage mechanism. It gave me some great first
and I learned a lot even two weeks
but I’ve never looked back. WHS got a bad rap early on with some
data corruption defects that have been fixed and I think people
really need to give it a chance. It has a great form factor, is
totally expandable, and has all of the
pre-configured for easy access to music, pictures, and videos
for compatible devices. It plugs in and “just works,”
appliance-style, and even provides additional features like
monitoring your network health and backing up your PCs. Dollar
for dollar, I’d take this over a generic NAS any day. (That
said, there are some recommended
might want to do to make the most of your server.) UPDATE: I
originally used Windows Home Server as the single storage
solution, but ended up adding the Synology NAS and switching the
DVD images to that.
- Synology NAS. I went with the Synology
for movie storage. I did this because I ran into some odd
with the home server (bad drives) and since I didn’t have enough
disk space to turn on duplication for my DVD images, I wanted to
figure out some sort of fault tolerance if a drive went out. The
DS1010+ will let me run RAID 5 and is super fast, so I moved to
that for the DVDs.
- Front-End Software - Windows 7 Media Center and XBMC. I looked
Xbox Media Center, just using the Xbox 360 as a
media extender, and several other front-end software packages, but
Windows Media Center initially won out for several reasons. First,
it comes bundled with the OS - fewer moving pieces (unlike an
additional application you’d have to install, e.g., TVersity).
Second, it’s handled VIDEO_TS DVD rips for quite some time (unlike
Front Row, which only just recently got it and has no real
documentation out there available for it). Third, it handles almost
all of the other formats I use for pictures, music, etc. (unlike
Xbox 360 as a media extender, which doesn’t support full DVD rips).
- UPDATE 12/14/09: I updated to Windows 7 from Windows Vista
and it made a lot of difference in performance - smoother
playback, faster loading of the DVD Library, etc.
- UPDATE 12/29/11: I have just started using XBMC as the
instead of Windows Media Center because the rendering of the DVD
library is much faster than Windows Media Center, especially
with a lot of movies. It also has a much nicer UI with art and
info than the more sparse WMC UI.
- Video Format - VIDEO_TS. I blogged about the pros and cons of
and in the end I picked VIDEO_TS as the format I’d rip my DVDs into
since it was most compatible with the various software packages and
didn’t require any additional tweaking in Media Center to use. Plus,
it gives full access to the disc features (menus, etc.), you don’t
lose any quality, and you can re-burn VIDEO_TS to a DVD and have a
watchable disc just like the original.
- Front-End Hardware - Dell Studio Hybrid PC. I picked up a Dell
to be the hardware sitting in my living room. It has a great form
factor and all the right connections (DVI, HDMI, S/PDIF
audio) to make it a perfect
media center PC. I had considered getting a Mac Mini, as several
other folks have done, and run Boot Camp to boot into Vista, but the
Studio Hybrid was far cheaper and more powerful than the top-end Mac
How it works:
I set up the “DVD Library” in Windows Media
rather than using the popular My Movies
plugin because, again, I really wanted as few
“moving pieces” as possible and My Movies didn’t seem to offer me
anything I truly needed. If, at some later time, I want to start using
it, I haven’t engineered myself out of it - I can install it and import
the movies that already exist with a minimal amount of work.
I rip my DVD movies onto the Synology DS1010+. The Dell Studio Hybrid
PC, which is connected to the TV in my living room, reads the list of
movies from the NAS over the network and displays them beautifully on
the TV for me to select from. I was running this nicely over wireless,
but started running into interference issues, so it’s now a wired
My photos are accessible through not only the Windows Media Center, but
also through my Xbox 360 and PS3 via the DLNA sharing that comes for
free out-of-the-box with my Windows Home Server.
My music is accessible to DLNA compliant devices (Xbox 360, PS3) through
Asset UPnP on the Windows Home
Windows Media Center doesn’t natively play Apple Lossless (though with
Windows 7 it does play AAC) so I don’t have it running through the Media
Here’s a picture of the current network topology, with a little added
detail around how things connect to my TV. It’s pretty simple, not a lot
of moving pieces, and the majority of things are wireless. As much as
possible is also connected directly to the network (like my printer) so
I can access anything from anywhere.
- Everything in Home Theater PC-land is tribal knowledge. It took
the majority of my time to figure all of this out because there are
far too many options with far too few people providing information
in accessible locations. Most information on this stuff lives in
forums, making it hard to pick through and figure out what’s going
on. When you ask questions, people assume you already know a bunch
of stuff you don’t know, so you get very cryptic answers, which you
then have to go research and ask more questions about.
- Format wars are a pain. I’m specifically looking at you, WMA vs.
AAC. There’s no good reason I can find that the Apple formats aren’t
supported out of the box by Media Center other than the desire to
remain proprietary. Garbage. (With Windows 7, AAC is supported but
Apple Lossless still isn’t.)
- Even in a simple environment, things are fiddly. Getting
everything stored centrally, updated properly, displaying right,
with correct access… it’s trivial, annoying, fiddly stuff. Tweak
this registry setting, add a symbolic link to this folder, map this
drive, configure this setting… it’s a pain, and if you don’t get
it right, things don’t work as smoothly as you’d like.
So, now that it’s done - two years in the making - what am I going to do
- Music access: I’m looking at
MCETunes to enable access to my iTunes
content in Media Center.
[UPDATE: I found you can get Media Center playing iTunes files
by adding some codecs and metadata tag parser support. I also found
you can use Windows Home Server
to stream music to Xbox 360 and PS3 that wouldn’t normally work.]
[UPDATE 2: I’m using Asset UPnP for DLNA streaming/transcoding
of Apple Lossless, etc., to Xbox 360 and other DLNA compatible
- Front-end upstairs: I have a spare desktop (the ThinkCentre)
that I may put upstairs so we can access the same DVD content in
another room. It’s not as nice of a form factor, but that’s less
concerning in the game room.
[UPDATE: I did end up moving that ThinkCentre upstairs and it’s
- Finish ripping movies: I have 90 movies on the server right now,
but 500+ titles. I’ve gotta get these things ripped. I won’t rip
every single one of them, and probably won’t rip the “extended
features” discs, but that’s still a lot of work left to do.
[UPDATE: I finished ripping all of my movie discs - no extra
features discs - and have 770 VIDEO_TS folders taking up 4.91TB of
space on the Windows Home Server. That’s about 6.7GB per image.]
- Upgrade my MPEG2 codec: The built-in DVD player for Media Center
is notoriously mediocre. It looks decent enough, but by upgrading
your MPEG2 codec (and configuring Media Center to use
you can get better playback quality. A lot of folks swear by the
NVidia codec which you can buy
separately or get
[UPDATE:: XBMC uses FFmpeg to play DVDs and I’ve had some
better luck with XBMC as the front
Some discs that looked exceptionally bad… still don’t look
awesome, but are at least better.]
- Fix the video resolution: The TV in the living room is a native
1366 x 768 resolution. The closest the Dell Studio Hybrid gets to
that is 1280 x 768, which looks crisp but leaves a bit of a black
letterbox on either side of the picture. I’d like to get it to
display full-screen, but it looks like it involves some very fiddly
stuff and a tool called
[UPDATE: Connecting the PC through HDMI to a newer TV yielded
full 1080p resolution with no
[UPDATE 2: I upgraded the TV in the living room to a 1920 x 1080
set and still have no problems.]
I’ve done a lot of work to get this far, so there are quite a few
related posts I’ve made that may be of interest. (Most of these, and
more, are linked in the above article, but for your convenience, here
are some highlights.)