From family photos and wedding videos to our favorite songs and movies, we have a wealth of digital content on our computers. But while you may have invested in a high-quality external monitor, chances are you’re viewing images and video on a relatively small computer screen, and playing music and movies through your computer’s simple speakers. Imagine how great it would be view your digital files and the best of the web on your television screen or home theater projector – as you lean back on your comfortable sofa.
That’s just for a computer whiz, gadget geek, or over-the-top entertainment equipment snob, right? Wrong. And you don’t need an ugly cable running from your computer to your television, either. Your TV is way better than an average computer monitor, and you can take advantage of its features and user-friendly controls by setting up a home media network.
When you set up your home media center, you get to watch everything from HD television to streaming web videos and music. You can also record live TV shows and movies on demand. And here’s the best part: it’s free!
You’ll be as shocked as I was about the overall financial savings. And once you read about the features you get, the short list of components you need, and the simple steps to set it up, you’ll be surprised how easy it is too.
Benefits of a Home Media Network
With a home media network, you’ll be able to do the following:
1. Access free, live digital HD television.
You may already know how to watch free digital HD TV channels in your area, including high-definition shows and movies. You just need to attach a high-quality antenna to your TV using standard coaxial cable. With a home media network, the antenna connects directly to your computer, which acts as your media server. Thus, even with an older television that isn’t compatible with digital TV, you’ll avoid needing a digital converter box. Your media server will handle that role.
2. Record and play back shows and movies.
Once you set up a media network, you’ll have your own personal video recorder (PVR), and you won’t need to pay an expensive monthly fee for a TiVo subscription or a rental DVR unit from your cable or satellite company. When you combine the free access to your favorite TV programs and hit movies with your PVR capability, you’ll be able to record and play back at your own convenience, and even skip commercials.
Not so fast: You can’t keep your cable or satellite subscription (i.e. DIRECTV) and use this tip as a way to avoid paying for a DVR unit. Your home media network won’t be able to record media that comes through your cable or satellite box. Cable and satellite providers encrypt their signals, making it extremely difficult to record them on your computer. Your home media network will only work with free over-the-air television, which is not encrypted.
3. Access media on your local hard drive and websites.
With a robust network, you’ll combine the media on your hard drive with all of the content you can stream from the Internet. This capability includes free sites like YouTube and Hulu, along with paid services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. It’ll all be on your TV, so you won’t need to huddle around a computer to view vacation photos and home videos or streaming news, original programming, and kitten videos.
4. Use a full digital TV guide and remote control just like with a normal cable package.
Don’t worry. Your home media center won’t force you to carry a mouse and keyboard around the house to change the channels. You’ll have full remote control access via a user-friendly interface on your TV. With it, you’ll be able to access live content, record shows and movies, access your hard drive, and bring up websites and Internet content. Just like with on-demand features from your cable company, you will be able to preview, play, or pause all of your recorded movies, television, and music.
Connecting Your Computer and Your TV
You don’t need a degree in computer science or electrical engineering to set up your network. You don’t need to be a child genius who grew up with all of this stuff either. You just need to learn a few new terms that might look ugly, but they’re relatively easy to understand and then put to use.
You’re going to create a client/server setup. Your computer will be the media server, and you can keep it anywhere. The client is a device called a media extender, which is a small, quiet box that sits on or near your television. Your media extender will access content on the media server – your computer – and convert it so that you can play it back on the television. It will also provide you with a user-friendly menu interface to access your content with PVR playback capabilities. Keep in mind that you’ll need one extender for every TV you want to connect.
You can connect the media extender to your computer with a wired connection, using an Ethernet cable, which is the same type of wire you use to connect your computer to a cable modem to gain access to the Internet. Cables will be simple to set up, and they’ll stay neat and clean if you keep your computer and TV near each other. You can also use wireless networking, if you hate the clutter of wires, especially if you’re connecting multiple TVs throughout the house to the same desktop computer server. You just need a wireless adapter for your media extender.
Now that we have the basic setup explained, let’s get into the components you’ll use to design your home media network.
Components of a Home Media Center
First, you need a personal computer, preferably a desktop computer. A tower is more practical than a laptop computer because you’re going to add television tuner cards and you’ll need substantial additional storage. You do not need to go out and buy anything fancy; any computer built in the last five years should be sufficient.
And you’re not just buying a machine to wire your entertainment systems. You should be able to use the computer for all standard functions, even while it’s running your network. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to leave it on all the time so you can record and access video content. If you don’t already have a suitable PC, you can expect to spend around $400 to buy a new one, or you can find a used one for far less.
A media server needs a television tuner card to record programs that your computer receives. A TV tuner card is a device that plugs into your motherboard and lets your computer record television on your hard drive. You can spend a little more to get a card with two tuners on it, and then you can record or watch two programs at a time.
I have both a single and a double tuner card from a company called Hauppauge, so my system can play or record three channels at once. The double tuner card, the WinTV-HVR-2250, typically sells for under $150. Once you install a tuner card, your cable from your antenna will connect directly to your computer, not your television. You may continue to connect it to your television as well, even if only as a backup.
When it comes to storage, a media server is the way to capitalize on the power of one of the $80 hard drives that store an amazing 2+ terabytes of data. Seagate, Western Digital, and others now make inexpensive “green” drives that consume very little power. Just one of these drives can hold over 100 DVDs and hundreds of hours of television. In the future, as your media library grows, and the price of storage continues to drop, it will be even less expensive to add more drives and computer hardware upgrades to your system.
As an example, the Western Digital 2 TB Caviar Green SATA Intellipower Desktop Hard Drive currently sells for $80.
You’ll use media server software to catalog and manipulate all of your digital content through a simple interface on your computer or television. I evaluated many different media server programs and found that a program from a small company called SageTV fit my needs for around $80. I like SageTV because it’s very flexible, customizable, and user-friendly. It works flawlessly with their proprietary media extender, and they maintain a community of developers who are constantly coming out with free add-ons and enhancements.
However, SageTV is an underdog compared to the 800-pound gorilla: Windows Media Center. I decided against Windows Media Center for my system because I felt the software features weren’t as easy to use. But you may already own a copy of this program since Microsoft includes it in many recent editions of Windows including: Windows XP Media Center Edition, Windows Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate), Windows 7 (Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate). If you already own it and don’t find it too tough to navigate, you may choose using Windows Media Center over buying a new program, since you’ve already paid for it.
5. Media Extenders
Now that your computer is loaded with the hardware and software it needs, you need to bring those files to your television. The media extender takes the data from the hard drive on your media server and displays it on your television. It also connects the remote control that you’ll use to access content. You can think of the media extender as the cable box necessary to receive the signal from your server and play the content on your television.
One simple media extender that has worked well for me is SageTV’s HD Theater 300. I mounted the extender near my television, and it’s barely noticeable. The SageTV product is designed to work only in combination with the SageTV Media Server software that I bought. You can buy the SageTV HD Theater 300 bundled with the SageTV Media server software for $200 total, and additional extenders are $150.
I have three extenders, one for each television in my house. If I had more TVs, I could buy more extenders, and each television could simultaneously access content from my server. SageTV has plenty of bigger competitors, most of which are designed to work with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center. The Apple TV product is another option for Mac lovers out there.
Oddly, Microsoft does not sell their own dedicated media extender to allow you to control the server from your television. You can either use the Xbox Media Center Extender or choose from a handful of third-party media extenders.
6. Connecting the Devices
The antenna connects to the tuner card in your computer with a coaxial cable that you can buy at any hardware store. Between your media server computer and your media extenders, you need some way to network the devices together to transmit the digital information. To do so, you can either use an Ethernet cable or set up a wireless network.
You may already have a wireless network in your home that you use to connect your family’s computers. If you’re new to using a wireless network, you need to make sure that the extender you choose has a compatible wireless adapter. You also want to be sure that the wireless system has enough capacity to transmit high-definition television. Your last step before victoriously flipping on your TV and connected computer is to just connect the media extender to each television with an HDMI or RCA cable, just like you would use for a DVD player.
Putting Together Your Media Network
There are no monthly fees, since you’re maintaining your own network. You just need to consider the initial costs of the new devices you’ll need. An adequate system for three televisions will cost about $900 in total. If you don’t already have a PC to use, then you’ll be looking at about $400 extra on top of that, but that’s all.
Depending on the cost of your cable or satellite television service, you would easily break even after a year or two. Personally, I like the fact that I own the system and that my monthly cost for using it, aside from electricity, is zero. I also have no need for DVD or Blu-ray players next to each television anymore. When I have a new DVD format disc, I just put it on my media server, and I can play it on any television in the house.
Required Technical Skills
To set up a network, you’ll get down and dirty with your machinery, but it’s not really a huge technical challenge. Even if you don’t have a long list of computer skills, you can complete a basic media network on your own or with a little bit of conventional support.
The toughest task for most people will be installing the tuner cards and hard drive for added storage. Fortunately, any reputable store that sell these to you will usually do the installation for a nominal fee. Alternatively, if you have a friend or neighborhood kid who you rely on for your occasional technical question, you can trust that person to take care of this installation in about ten minutes. Talk to your tech savvy friends or the people you’re already buying equipment from. You should be able to avoid hiring someone to come to your home.
Software installation and configuration isn’t very challenging, but like any new product there is always a learning curve. Fortunately, there is a huge online community of people who share their tips and tricks for getting the most out of their media networks. Anytime I posed a question to the user forums on SageTV’s website, I quickly received a flurry of helpful replies. Talk to your computer-minded friends about what software and settings they recommend.
Building a home media center does require an up-front commitment of time, money, and knowledge. But the rewards far surpass the cost. In return for missing out on some cable programming, I now have a complete library of all my recorded television, movies, music, and pictures available on demand from any television in my house. In the past, I could count on my cable bill growing every year, and instead now I wait for new advances that will grow the capabilities of this system. I am constantly discovering new television programs and movies through the Internet, and I have one less bill to pay every month.
Have you considered building your home media network, or have you already set it up? What software and hardware choices did you make? What problems did you face, and what has been the most positive change since you got started?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)