Setting Up A Home Media Server - The Software

Setting Up A Home Media Server - The Software

If you are starting this blog post without having read either “Home Video - A Brief Evolutionary History” or “Setting Up a Home Media Server - The Hardware”, you may want to read those posts first, as this post is the third in a series about creating a personal home media server. 

From a software standpoint, setting up my home media server really involved only three software applications - one app to rip the DVD’s, one app to rip the BluRay disks, and one app to catalogue and organize the hundreds of video titles (movies, trailers, movie extras, TV series, etc.) and be able to play back this content on demand on my device of choice.

To convert my DVD media from optical disk format to data files on a hard drive, I used a Mac application called MacX DVD Video Converter Pro Pack by Digiarty Software.  This “Pro Pack” is a combination of two of their stand-alone apps: MacX DVD Ripper Pro and MacX Video Converter Pro.  The bundle is currently offered at a sale price of $45.95 (regularly $109.90).  

So far, I have needed to use only the MacX DVD Ripper Pro portion of this combination package.  MacX DVD Ripper Pro is also available as a stand-alone product and a lifetime license is currently on sale at $39.95, so if DVD ripping is your only need, you can save a few bucks by purchasing just the “Ripper”. The MacX DVD software does an excellent job of ripping standard DVD’s but it can’t convert BluRay disks.

To rip my BluRay disks, I used a beta version app called MakeMKV which offers a long window of free use before you need to either purchase a license (currently $50) or request another beta key.  MakeMKV is available for MacOS, Windows or Linux.  As a beta app, MakeMKV is a no frills app but nonetheless gets the BluRay ripping job done as efficiently as MacX DVD does for DVD’s.  By the way, “.mkv” is the file type used to designate high-resolution 1080p files pulled from a BluRay disk, whereas “.m4v” is the file type used to designate a (MPEG-4) movie file pulled from a DVD.

For both MacX DVD and MakeMKV, the process of ripping your optical disks is pretty straightforward.  MacX DVD Ripper Pro offers a few more options to choose from than MakeMKV before you start the ripping process, but the key steps for ripping both DVD’s and BluRay disks involve the following:

1. Insert the optical disk in the attached BluRay drive (my drive happens to be a Pioneer BDR-XD05S)

2.  Allow the software to fully read the disk and load the listing of video clips before proceeding.

3.  Review the listed data files before commencing the ripping process.  If necessary, preview selected video files to understand the content of the video files to be ripped.

4.  Exclude (by unchecking) unnecessary files listed that don’t need to be ripped, such as the short clips of the FBI warnings that precede a movie, or duplicate files with alternate audio tracks, for example.

5.  Determine the correct destination location on your media hard drive to store the media to be ripped. I organized my media hard drive by creating nested folders to display each movie and TV series alphabetically in the Finder.  Speaking from experience, it is easy to forget to double-check the destination location before beginning the ripping process and find that the files have to be moved later.

Here’s a screenshot of the MacX DVD Ripper Pro user interface:

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Once you have ripped your DVD’s and BluRay’s (or a representative sample of your collection) and now have the files on your media hard drive, you are ready to move on to the “fun part” of your home media server project.  While the raw DVD media files you have captured on your media hard drive attached to a Mac can be played directly on the computer using the QuickLook feature in the Finder or the built-in QuickTime player, the real value of aggregating all these media files on a media hard drive becomes apparent when you begin to employ the server software needed to make your video collection truly sing by making it available to your HDTV and mobile devices.

After reading up on choices for media server software and experimenting with a few options, I ended up choosing “Plex” to catalogue and access my home media database.  Plex has a free version and a premium version, but, for me, the free version does everything I need it to do.  You will have to decide for yourself whether the features offered in the premium version will be worth the price of the monthly subscription or lifetime license.

At its core, the job of Plex’s home media server app is to scan your media hard drive (or multiple hard drives) and construct a visually attractive database that catalogues and organizes all of your media files.  The software searches the web for the metadata (images, synopses, timing, media quality, cast, etc.) corresponding to these media files to enhance the value of your library. The Plex media server software uses a web browser interface to create and manage your media server. The software can be downloaded and installed by going to www.plex.tv and following the instructions on the web site.

Without duplicating the extensive guidance that you will find on the Plex website for creating your server, let me note just a few key pointers in creating your video library using the Plex server software, based on my personal experience:

1.  Do some advanced planning as to how you want to organize your video library.  While I created a single “server” which I named “May Media Library”, I chose to divide the DVD content I ripped into ten separate “libraries” (Plex terminology), creating separate libraries for “Movie Extras” and “Movie Trailers” rather than intermix these with the feature films in the “Movies” library.  These 10 distinct “libraries” can be seen further on in this post when I display a screenshot of my Plex server.

2.  Pay attention to Plex’s guidance on naming the files containing TV episodes.  TV shows are handled differently from movies, in that TV seasons and episodes are to be identified by starting the filename with something like “s03e09”, which would identify this file as the 9th episode in Season 3.  This will help Plex organize your TV series much more logically.

 3.  Be prepared to correct some of the metadata Plex downloads for your movies, etc.  I’ve grown quite adept at using Plex’s editing features.  Suffice it to say that, with patience and experience, you can have every file in your library correctly the metadata exactly the way you want it.  The software provides quite a few tools to hone your data and having it look like a professionally designed media library.

Creating and refining the media library catalogue will be somewhat of an ongoing project, but you don’t need to wait until you’re achieved perfection to put your media server to work.  Plex has supporting Player apps that provide you the means to view the library and play any video in your collection from pretty much any video device in your house, including desktop computers, mobile devices and streaming boxes like Apple TV and Roku.  These apps sync to the Plex server on your home network and once a secure connection is established by the Plex Player with the Plex Server, you shouldn’t have to continually reconnect.

My primary use of Plex’s various Player apps is from the Apple TV’s in my living room, office and kitchen.  I also occasionally view my media library entries from my iPad or iPhone.  The Plex Server viewed through your web browser allows you to play any library entry, but I use this feature primarily to edit and troubleshoot the entries to make sure the right metadata is associated with the right file.

I am including here a screenshot of my Plex server page so you can get an idea of the user interface you will use for managing your own Plex server.

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Let me highlight a few things appearing in the above screenshot:

  1. The sidebar on the left side of the screen lists my libraries. With the “Movies” library highlighted, you can see the beginnings of an alphabetical list of the 354 feature films in that library, with movie artwork representing each movie. You can jump to another section of the movie listing by clicking on any letter listed on the righthand side of the screen.

  2. The icons in front of each library name on the left sidebar indicate the type of content (movies, TV shows, videos, etc,) . You will notice that Plex can also manage music and photos, but I don’t use that option, as I find my Apple iCloud account to provide the best integrated source for my music and photos.

  3. You can filter and sort your library content “eight ways to Sunday”, with filtering categories too numerous to mention. Not shown on this page is a feature whereby you can create “collections”: for example, a collection of all the Indiana Jones movies, or all the Road Runner cartoons (you’ll see that I have a separate “Cartoons” library, which contains no fewer that 50 “Goofy” cartoons).

  4. There is a “Manage” section of the left sidebar, where you can change settings, add new libraries, etc.

  5. You will see an “Online Content” section in the left sidebar, where you can access news feeds, podcasts, as well as a host of other online resources.

  6. Lastly, I will note that my Plex library currently is only available on my home network.  There are ways to make your Plex server available on the internet for remote use, but I’ve chosen to forego this added complexity for now.  If I change my mind on this, there will likely be a future blog post chronicling the matter.

I hope you have found this rather lengthy description of my Home Media Server project to be of some value or at least some interest.  After I posted the introductory Home Media Server blog post on February 27, a former work colleague commented with interest about wanting to organize his own collection of DVD’s and other media.  As a result, I decided to accelerate writing parts 2 and 3 of this series.  

I expect my former colleague to give me good feedback on whether this series of posts turns out to be on point.  I can only say that I thoroughly enjoy “tiptoeing through the tulips” of my own Plex library and on a whim, selecting a gem that otherwise would have lain fallow in the stacks of DVD’s no longer used.  I wish you the same if you embark on a Home Media Server journey of your own.

The Ears Have It

The Ears Have It

Setting up a Home Media Server - The Hardware

Setting up a Home Media Server - The Hardware