Network Media Centre

June 19, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Posted in Computers, Hardware, Internet, Media, Online services, Security, Software, Technology | 1 Comment

In recent years, how we consume media has changed markedly. Video rentals stores have mostly died. Some have cancelled their cable service. Flat screen TV’s, then Smart TV’s (with built-in computers) have become common. On-line media sources as well. Movies now offer digital copies and so on.

If you mainly get your services from online sources like Netflix and Hulu, then you want a Smart TV or attached media box with a wireless keyboard and a smart remote like LG’s Magic Remote. (a standard TV remote is near useless for web browsing and such)

But if your main source is local digital media, like your movie, photo and music collections, you need a local storage solution. It might seem like hooking your computer up to your TV is a great idea, but that’s not likely to be convenient for how you normally use it. It will also create issues with backup sizes. Plus, I’ve found that TV media serving software tends to bog your computer and doesn’t update changes reliably.

Custom-building a PC as a media server may seem like a great idea, but the form factor and energy consumption are not as good. And PC’s need all those fricking updates.

Your better solution is a NAS (Network Attached Storage) that includes a media server. These are energy efficient boxes designed for handling large media files. They’re somewhat similar to an external hard drive except they plug into your network (typically the router) and contain a small computer that allows them to handle several drives. They’re a natural for the job.

You do need to check it will work for your setup though – will it hold drives large enough for your growing media collection? And does it have the right kind of media server for your TV? Typically a DLNS is supported by Smart TV’s but do check yours. Can your TV even connect to a network? Smart TV’s do.

In my own case, I have an LG Smart TV and their Magic remote.

Normally with a NAS, the drives are set up to appear as a single massive drive or are mirrored in pairs. A mirrored drive creates an immediate backup of everything that’s on the main drive. This is a common practice on servers. You get half the available space but a perfect backup.

Buying a NAS, they don’t typically come with drives pre-installed – you choose your own. The exception would be some home offerings like HP’s My Cloud models. They’re more limited and pricey but get good reviews. The reviews oddly seem to compare wildly different types of NAS (with huge variations in price) rather than separating out home and business systems. Ideally, you get matching drives – especially if you’re going to mirror them. But you can start with one and add the other later.

I got a Shuttle OmniNAS KD20 on sale. This is a basic model made by an established small-format computer maker. It’s not a fast NAS but is much less expensive than many and does fine at turning your TV into a media centre from local content. We’re not talking about your office data centre here. The box is well designed and I found it very straightforward to set up. They indicate it’s supported by Win XP+, Mac and Linux.

In buying drives, the OmniNAS supports 2 drives up to 4TB each for max of 8 TB. That’s a lot of media. The WD Reds get the best reviews for the purpose, but this is a budget project. I found 2x 3TB Seagate external drives that were on sale for much less than the bare drives. Removing them from the case is straightforward but this does void the warranty. Thus it’s a good idea to test the drives in their cases prior to removal, if you take such a route. It’s also a slight bit more work.

Also note that setting up the NAS will erase anything on the drives, so copy anything off them before installing in the NAS. They’re generally configured to be in an array in a NAS. That way they appear as a single drive on the network.

In my case I was disassembling Seagate Expansion drives and used the free Seatools to test the drives prior. Seatools is not restricted to Seagate drives. This video reviews both the testing and the drive removal for that model. Shims do a better job than a screwdriver to avoid breaking the clips or damaging the surface – then you have spare cases for another external drive.

The OmniNAS supports both PC and laptop-sized SATA drives. Installing the drives is straightforward. Just follow the Quickstart Guide. You screw them onto the drive tray, then slide them in. Screws provided, as was a network cable. Plug it in and turn it on, voilà!

You then install Finder software on your PC. You can get the newer version from the web site. This finds the NAS on the network, then opens a browser window to configure the device.

It will ask for an Admin password, then later wants to set up a username and password. Make sure you have strong passwords, especially if you plan to share the media through the Internet. A tool like LastPass can help you track all your passwords securely.

I highly recommend you install the Firmware upgrade through the browser interface. (see the Downloads tab) The problems I saw reported with the unit when I researched it prior are addressed with this update. If you loose access to it on the network prior to updating, shut it down and then restart.

Be sure to edit the Workgroup name to match your LAN if it’s not the default “Workgroup”. (on your computer, right-click My Computer and select Properties. Scroll down to see the Workgroup name)

In my case I set up mirrored drives as the backup was more useful than all that drive space. I can easily change that later if I need more space.

Share Box sets your NAS up to serve media onto the Internet as your own “private cloud”, accessible from your Internet connected devices. Basically your own Dropbox service. This is done through an Omninas domain portal. You can skip that and set it up later if your main desire is for your local network and TV.

The box has a Twonky DLNS media server included free, which the LG TV happily and easily supported. Anything added to the “disc” folder is available to the TV. I added a lot of files – this took a bit of time to copy over on my non-Gigabit network – but the NAS had no trouble serving it all. In contrast, the LG PC software choked on a fraction of it and didn’t update reliably.

It also has an iTunes server, if you’re in Mac world or like serving your media that way. If not, turn it off.

And it has a print server to share your USB printer on the network. And an SD card reader and USB ports if you want to add or copy media that way.

It even has a torrent server, although you have to disable the media server for that. Several reviews criticised that but it may be a security measure.

The OmniNAS also comes with a copy of Acronis imaging software if you wish to use the NAS for your backups as well. It will work fine with recent editions of Microsoft Backup and Mac Time Machine as well – in fact any software that will backup to network locations.

If you want your backup to also serve as a remote access store, use a tool like Cobain Gravity that copies files rather than images them. Imaging software is ideal for the operating system and programs but copy software is better for your files to ensure immediate access in the event of trouble.

If you Map the network drive, then the NAS shows up as a drive in Windows Explorer and such making file transfer easier.

For simplicity, I set up the free Microsoft SyncToy to echo to the NAS some of the media folders like Photos. I like copies of those on my computer, so when I update them, Synctoy will match all the changes to the NAS.

Then you can have slide shows, music playlists, and more on your TV. It becomes today’s stereo. If you have surround speakers, it’s better even than an old Quad system. Any other devices on your network also have access to all the content now too.

And if you also want to access that media on your tablet, smartphone (Android or iPhone  apps in the Stores) or laptop on the road, Share Box to the rescue. No worries about storing your stuff on someone else’s servers. If you’re a small business person, you can backup your documents to the NAS, ensuring both a backup and that you always have access. No worries about remote access to your PC. (note the comments about backup types above if you want document access – don’t image those files)

I’ve been much happier with the OmniNAS than serving from my laptop. It’s been more reliable, frees up computer resources, and provides another layer of backup.
Have fun!
David

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  1. […] your collection is digital, such as on a NAS or media server, EMDB includes a file Location field. You can index an entire digital collection by file name (if […]

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