As mentioned sporadically throughout the first four media server posts, the original setup has changed. While the server has stayed mostly the same, nearly every aspect of playback has changed in at least some small way. As one may expect, not every change made was for the better. However, 9 months of incremental tweaks have resulted in a stable environment that has provided hours of hassle-free enjoyment. Complete elimination of the Lenovo Q190, server hardware changes, and an adjustment to remote playback are all discussed in detail below.
Elimination of Lenovo Q190
The biggest change is undoubtedly the elimination of the Lenovo Q190 with OpenELEC as the main media client. The initial idea was to treat the server like a server and keep it tucked away in a basement corner. To that end I did everything to try making the Q190 work. That even involved moving away from OpenELEC and installing XBMC in Windows. It seemed no matter the configuration, I just wasn't getting the payback quality I desired (or frankly, paid for). Movies experienced intermittent stutter that was both barely noticeable and incredibly noticeable at the same time. I'm still not sure if it was my home network (highly doubt it) or the Q190's specifications (likely) but in the end, removing the Q190 fixed all playback issues.
So what replaced the Q190? The server. I wasn't able to keep the server "just a server" for long and now it's pulling double duty as the server and playback client. Though initially frustrating to have an "XBMC" user account for client-only duties, frustration quickly turned to joy after a few hours of flawless video playback. Since the server is built in a beautiful Lian Li Q25 case, it's definitely not an eyesore, either. That is, whenever I actually see it. My TV sits on a large entertainment center placed diagonally in a corner, which means I was able to sit the server behind the TV without even noticing it was there. Except, of course, for the fan noise which was easily remedied with a coupe brand new, low noise fans.
Server Hardware Upgrades/Additions
With the server sitting directly behind my TV, the included fans were producing noticeable noise. Uncertain about the source of the noise, I replaced both case fans and the CPU fan with three brand new, low-noise fans:
I have purchased a lot of computer hardware over the years but never fans. These were selected after seeing Noctua fans listed in endless posts regarding low-noise computers. Though price caused a little hesitation, one look at what comes in the box (and even the box itself) and all price worries went away. Each fan came beautifully packaged with enough accessories to mount and connect the fan anywhere and anyway imaginable. Noctua spared no expense with these fans and even adds rubber feet on every corner where metal may touch the plastic housing. New fans installed, the always-on server is only noticeable to those that know what to listen for.
Fans weren't the only hardware upgrade. In addition to its primary use, I use the server as a place to collect backups from other household devices. Previously, that was an always-connected external drive. Growing tired of the intermittent disconnects and other failures of an old external drive, I upgrade the OS drive to a 1TB 2.5" Western Digital Red:
Though it took a bit of work to get everything reinstalled and setup properly, all is now well and running smoothly. Installing Windows updates was the biggest pain whereas setting up FlexRAID was as easy as importing a backup of my configuration.
Beyond the new fans and OS drive, I also added two more 4TB data drives over the course of a few months. Fortunately, the drives that were originally $189.99 each were now less expensive:
- Seagate Desktop HDD 4TB 3.5″ 5900RPM Internal Hard Drive - $173.73
- Seagate Desktop HDD 4TB 3.5″ 5900RPM Internal Hard Drive - $159.99
With all of the changes/additions above, the cost of the project has obviously increased, though some of that cost was increased storage. At a grand total of $1546.01, I'm a bit above my original $1000 budget, but the project has grown in usability and functionality well beyond my initial intent. With over 16TB of usable storage, there is enough room to store 276 Blu-rays, 170 DVDs, 1064 TV Show episodes (Blu-ray and DVD), and still have over 5TB of free space. At its current configuration there is room for three more 3.5" hard drives (though that would also require the addition of a PCI SATA expansion card). I don't anticipate needing additional hard drives anytime soon so this exact configuration should last for quite some time.
Speaking of current configuration, a quick note on costs. Based on the hardware in place and the average file sizes of current media, here a few statistics:
- Cost per GB - $0.10
- Average Blu-ray Movie - 24.74GB ($2.57/movie)
- Average DVD Movie - 4.28GB ($0.44/movie)
- Average Blu-ray TV Show 30 minute episode - 3.71GB ($0.39/episode)
- Average DVD TV Show 30 minute episode - 0.86GB ($0.09/episode)
Before undertaking such a project the costs above should obviously be considered. While storing all of this media isn't free, I have found it to be more than worth it--especially for TV shows. Being able to watch any episode of any TV show I own within seconds makes my original purchases worth the cost. Gone are the days of skipping something I wanted to watch because I didn't want to find and insert the disc. Within just a couple clicks I have access to every movie and TV show I have ever purchased, both at my main TV and nearly anywhere else I can imagine thanks to Plex. Speaking of Plex...
RasPlex to Chromecast
For secondary viewing (away from my main TV) I originally used RasPlex--a Raspberry Pi version of Plex Home Theater. Though functional, RasPlex wasn't without its pitfalls. The first is the Raspberry Pi's performance. Running such a media intensive piece of software meant a bit of lag that was usable but irritating. The second issue was that it needed a keyboard and/or mouse to operate. The Logitech K400 is great keyboard/mouse combination that works well for this purpose but was necessary overkill for a few seconds of use. Luckily, Plex recently updated their Android app to support Chromecast.
For those that haven't heard of it, Google Chromecast is an HDMI dongle that allows you to send a video from your phone (or Chrome browser) to your TV. Current app support is limited but as of December 2013, Plex is in the small-but-growing list of supported apps. Though this Plex feature currently requires a PlexPass membership, it should someday be made available to all users. If you can't wait, want access to other amazing features, or just want to support Plex development, pick up a premium membership and start casting today.
Watching a video on my bedroom TV from Plex is as simple as playing a video in the Plex app and clicking the Chromecast icon. I watch at least one TV show episode every night and I have yet to have a single issue. Additionally, you can Chromecast Plex Channels. Though currently not supported by all channels, those with support work just as easily as with local content. With the addition of Chromecast support, Plex is rapidly climbing the charts of amazing software I have used. Stay tuned for a future article dedicated to the many amazing features of Plex.
The conclusion of this fifth media server post wraps up the media server series. From concept to reality, the current media server represents the culmination of months of planning, building, and rebuilding. While the final outcome matched my original vision, I never thought it would actually turn out the way it did. With the exception of a few missteps along the way, the whole process was quite enjoyable and one that I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a more convenient and tech-savvy way to enjoy their media collection. The only change I would make for next time? Skip the missteps and jump right to what works.