Setting up a Home Media Server - The Hardware
Creating your own home media server involves both hardware and software working together to first “rip” and later easily access and play back your personal movie and home video collection. As I described in my February 27 blog on this same topic, a home media server typically consists of substantial storage space on one or more hard drives attached to a media-savvy computer with software installed that is designed to manage your digital assets.
Ideally, your home media server hardware and software, if chosen carefully, will simplify the task of converting your video content to an easily accessible and viewable form. Here are the specific hardware choices I made, though with some trial and error along the way. You will observe that most of these choices have an Apple-centric focus, as that is my digital environment of choice. However, much of the advice I will offer here should have equal application to Windows users. My next blog post will describe the software side of my home media server.
The digital world clearly has grown to be much more platform-independent, as the web browser has established a strong footing for software solutions that used to be reserved for an operating system-dependent environment (when Macs and PC’s had moats built between them). So if you’ve chosen Windows as your favourite platform, do not change the channel. You might just find that the next few blog posts can serve your needs just as well. And who knows? You might even be tempted to read my other posts and consider coming over to the dark side.
Let’s focus on the hardware side of a home media server in this post. The heart of my media center hardware is a late 2015 27-inch “SSD” iMac that I’ve had for about 3 years. [A bit of a diversion here - the “SSD” designation means that the internal hard drive for this computer is a “solid-state drive”, which is a hard drive with no moving parts (no mechanical spinning disk) and therefore has much faster read-write access.] SSD drives are still quite a bit more expensive per megabyte, so the capacity of this SSD drive is only 500 GB. I have an older (late 2012) iMac that remains my primary “production” computer, as it has a much larger 3 TB internal hard drive.
For me, the SSD iMac has turned out to be an excellent choice for my home media server. Its relatively small internal hard drive is not a limitation in this case, as the media library content does not need to reside on its internal drive. I have this computer running all the time so that its external media library is always available when I sit down in front of the TV to watch a selection from my media library.
Most any late model desktop computer should function quite well as a media server. If you’re starting fresh, however, you might want to look at Apple’s recently refreshed “headless” Mac Mini. Even the base model in the Mac Mini lineup would be quite capable as a dedicated media server. A “headless” computer like the Mac Mini can be controlled from another desktop computer on your home network, avoiding the need for its own display, keyboard and mouse or trackpad.
The content of my media library sits on an attached external 8 TB La Cie Thunderbolt/USB hard drive. After ripping my entire collection of about 400 DVD and BluRay disks, I have used 5.2 TB of its 8 TB capacity thus far. Not yet ripped to this media library are dozens of digital video “home movie” tapes that sit in a box awaiting the day when I charge up that particular hill. That adventure will also involve the wholly separate task of editing down hours of camcorder home video to distill the essence of those captured memories, once the raw footage has been ripped to the library.
Before proceeding further with the hardware discussion, let’s take a quick side trip and define the term “ripping” here, as its use may not be familiar to every reader of this blog post. You can think of “ripping” as the opposite of “burning”, a term with which you are probably more familiar, since most computer users living through the CD and DVD age were encouraged to “burn” (or “write to”) optical disks as forms of data backup before the advent of cloud storage (such as iCloud, Dropbox and GoogleDrive). If “burning” is copying data from your hard drive and placing it on an optical disk (CD or DVD) for storage and use, then “ripping” is copying data from an optical disk and placing it on your hard drive for storage and further use.
Well before purchasing the 8 TB external drive housing my media library, I was using the 3 TB external drive on the 2012 iMac as the repository for the initial ripping of my DVD collection. It quickly became clear that a much larger external disk (or multiple disks) would be needed to house the full extent of my purchased DVD library, not to mention the box of camcorder tapes that I accumulated in the days before iPhones became the video camera of choice.
Some early experience in ripping commercial DVDs was helpful in determining how much overall disk capacity might be needed. In late 2015, I dipped my toe in the “media library” pool for the first time and ripped my first set of DVDs, with reasonable success. This gave me an idea of what might be needed to house my movie collection.
The maximum storage capacity of a standard DVD is 4.7GB (or double that capacity for dual-layer DVDs). A feature film on the DVD (at standard definition, often referred to as 480p) will generally consume about 2 to 2.5 GB of disk space, with the extras typically accompanying the movie consuming the balance of the available storage on the optical disk.
BluRay disks were introduced to allow movie content to be issued to consumers at “high definition” (or 1080p) as the popularity of HDTV’s blossomed. The storage capacity of these disks range between 25 GB and 50 GB, depending on whether they are single or dual layer). My experience ripping BluRay disks revealed that the typical feature film at high resolution clocks in at between 25 GB and 35 GB, so you’re probably getting the idea by now that very large capacity disk drives may be needed to house your library, if you have a sizeable number of titles.
While I started the ripping process well before gauging the total amount of disk space I might need, it was clear from the outset that I would need several terabytes of storage space if I were to follow this project to its logical conclusion. As with many personal technology projects that I undertake, this one evolved in an iterative process, whereby I experimented with various approaches with the hardware and software before settling on what turned out to be an optimal setup (optimal, that is, within the constraints of current technology and available funds).
A further word about the 8 TB La Cie hard drive: it has both a Thunderbolt 3 cable connection and a USB 3.0 cable connection. I should note that, when I created my home media server library, I was using the 2012 iMac for ripping, which only had Thunderbolt 2 ports, so I was limited to the slower USB 3.0 connection. While I was supposedly sacrificing some throughput, as the transfer rate of USB 3.0 is less (5 GB/sec) than Thunderbolt 3 (40 GB/sec), the use of the slower USB 3.0 port had no practical effect in the speed of ripping the DVD’s, as the primary speed limitation would have been the read/write heads on the external Pioneer CD/DVD using a USB 3.0 connection. Though the SSD iMac I now use as the home media server has Thunderbolt 3 ports, I have yet to employ the higher speed connection, as the current USB 3.0 connection has exhibited no noticeable latency during playback.
Much of the ripping of the standard DVD’s in my collection was done using an Apple-branded external DVD drive (purchased when Apple stopped including an on-board DVD drive in its iMacs). However, when I reached the point of needing to rip BluRay disks, I had to search for an external BluRay player to do the job. I initially settled for a relatively inexpensive no-name BluRay player I acquired through Amazon, but in 2018, I replaced it with a Pioneer BDR-XD05S BluRay player which has proven more reliable. The price was $99.00 CAD when I purchased it from Amazon one year ago.
So with the home media server hardware picture now in place, stay tuned for my next blog post on home media server software “coming soon” to this TV + Home Theater category.