The Modern Home Media “Server”

posted by on 21st January 2015, at 10:13pm | Discuss Article

Decentralization has been the key to success in the real world of government and the economy for years. Decentralization can bring many great benefits, two of which are less rigid system design and the ability to add onto the system should the need arise. I’ve talked about media before, in particular accessing media that resides on any device by any device on the network. AirPlay provides a great solution for this but there’s one final hurdle that I mentioned back in 2011, the internet gap.

In enters Plex. Plex is a media solution that is not only a media server but creates an entertainment hub around your local network. Plex can be installed on your computer, whether it be Windows, Mac, or Linux, once this is done you set up media libraries containing TV shows, movies, home movies, music, or anything. Plex can also read your iTunes library and mirror its contents. After this Plex can be installed on any computers, mobile devices, or media appliances (Xbox, PlayStation, Smart TV, etc.) For those who use an Apple TV you can install Plex on an iPhone or iPad and simply AirPlay whichever video you like to your Apple TV. Plex when installed on desktop computers can access the media libraries of other Plex installs should they choose to provide a media library.

That handles the local side of the question but what about online? Yes. Plex can stream to your tablet over the internet. Before we go too far down this road let’s remember a couple of things. First of all, in North America at least, we are pinched with the amount of mobile data that we are provided. Secondly, public WiFi or hotel internet is notoriously unreliable at being able to provide speeds for streaming online content. These two caveats aside providing you have access to a decent broadband connection accessing your Plex server should be no different than streaming video from Netflix or Youtube.

Now that Plex has been established as an easy to use media solution for your home I’d like to talk about why decentralizing makes sense today. Back when the first video podcasts started it was thought that eventually we’d have computers connected to our TV sets. Microsoft bought into this with numerous versions of Windows tailored for that specific use case. As time evolved we saw smartphones and the general move from a PC based ecosystem to a device based ecosystem. This means that rather than having a full PC connected to a TV most of us are now using Smart TV functionality, Apple TV, Chromecast, an Xbox, a PlayStation, or something similar. Streaming from Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and more also became popular removing the need for more dedicated storage. This puts people who have existing media in a position where decentralization is possible.

While the home media landscape is begging to be decentralized there are those that do have the ability to run dedicated servers on Plex. Plex supports this and has an actual version for those who want to do such a thing. Servers make sense for those who actually want to leverage the power to do something else other than serve media but for most people a standalone PC acting as a server is overkill. The benefits of running Plex on a standalone server is that you will be able to use your (other) computer without taking a CPU hit when Plex starts transcoding a stream. Of course you’ll also have the benefit of knowing your server won’t get shutdown by someone if you are out of the house. Finally, having a server for home backup is fun and provides a nice level of redundancy for your PCs.

The above paragraph is something that from my perspective sounds very fun to do. However, I’ve come to the realization that decentralizing media can accomplish most of what the above can do with a significantly smaller footprint and albeit a lower chance for problems to occur. Any time Linux is involved and a normal user tries to make configuration changes there’s always the chance something will break due to the terse nature of Linux. There’s also the costs of running another piece of hardware, both maintenance and energy wise. The upshot from all this? If you have multiple computers and a Smart TV (for example) you can have a fully decentralized media solution. A media solution that would have required a large amount of investment (both monetary and time based) a decade ago.

At the end of the day we’ve already decentralized the devices we use. We stream our movies from Netflix or Hulu. We stream music from Pandora or Spotify. We only take a sliver of our media library with us on our iPhone or iPod. There’s no reason not to decentralize the home media space either.