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How to set up a home media server and HTPC

Plex Media Server
Plex Media Server
Plex - Wikimedia Commons

The cost of having either a cable or satellite subscription is getting higher each and every year, and now many people are opting to ditch cable in favor of having a HTPC (home theater PC), but how do you get the most out of it after you have purchased the parts, and assembled your HTPC? Your home theater PC is a master of many things, and streaming video, music, and internet radio rank high on it's skill list. With just a few pieces of software, and streaming devices (such as a Roku) in different rooms, you will be able to store, and stream all of your content, not only to your big screen, but to every room in your home.

How to build your media library

The first thing you will need to do in order to have a HTPC that is capable of streaming your DVD collection, your music collection, and photos to any room in your home will be to copy your media to your PC. I will not lie, this part of the process can take a while, and the speed of the whole process will be determined by how powerful your PC is, but once this job has been completed you will be good to go.

The first thing you will need to do is download two free pieces of software. The first piece of software is called Handbrake. Handbrake is perhaps the best media converting tool available, and it's sole job is to take your media, and convert it to play on any device. Handbrake will remove any of the unnecessary menu's and previews from the movie and will copy just the main body of the movie itself, which is great because those features actually take up a lot of room on your hard drive. The software can look a little daunting, but it is really easy to use. If you do get stuck there is a very easy to ready guide, and a flourishing online community who will be more than happy to help.

The second piece of software is called AnyDVD. AnyDVD is a premium piece of software, but it does come with a free 21 day trial, so if you can get your DVD's ripped to your computer within 21 days, the software is essentially free. Once you have installed AnyDVD you do not have to do anything with it, the software simply runs in the background. AnyDVD will automatically detect that you have inserted a DVD movie and it will make the files on the DVD accessible to your media converting software.

Copying your music to your HTPC is as simple as placing the music CD into computer. Most computers already have the ability to rip music from your CD's, however if this is not the case you can download a piece of software called Power2Go, which is free to download and use. Power2Go will detect your music CD, and will copy the music, and all album and track information into whatever file you specify on your computer. Again this process can take a little time, but it is worth taking the time to do this.

Once you have all of your media backed up, and stored on your HTPC you are ready to stream the media to your other connected devices, or simply watch it on the TV the HTPC is connected to.

How to stream your media

One of the best things about having a network (wireless or wired) in your home is that if you setup a simple home server, you will be able to stream any media that you have on your HTPC to any room in your home. While Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and Spotify will give you access to movies, TV shows, and music, you can use your HTPC to share your own media over your home network too.

Getting your HTPC set up to stream your own media is as simple as downloading a piece of software called Plex. Plex is a free to use program that creates a library of your content. Once you have Plex set up on your PC, you can then download the Plex app onto your iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone, Android phones and tablets, Chromecast and Roku players. The application is free for Roku users, but does cost $4.99 on other devices.

Once you have downloaded Plex you will need to create a free account. The free account will enable you to connect to your server from any other device on your home network. When you have set up your account, all that's left to do is build your library within Plex. To build your library in Plex, all you have to do is tell the software where your media is located. When you backed-up your movies you probably put them in the default Video file on your computer, and your music probably copied to the default Music file unless you specified a different location in the beginning.

When you are ready to add media to your Plex library simply hit the plus (+) symbol in the menu on the left hand side of Plex, you can then give a name to your library (music, movies, etc) and then you can choose the file where your music or movies are stored. Once Plex has been told where to find the media, it will automatically add the media to your library, and it will download music album art, DVD case art and any other relevant information about that artist or movie.

When the Plex media server has been setup you can now either access the content directly on the TV you have your HTPC connected to, or you can stream the content to your phones, tablets, or other streaming device that has a Plex application.

The end result

Streaming video is a great way to view and share content, and it will put your HTPC to great use. Content providers such as Hulu, and Netflix are a great way to watch your favorite content, but add in the ability to stream and share your own DVD, and music collection and you have one powerful media streaming device that will enable you to enjoy all kinds of content in your main living room, and other rooms in your home.

Setting up a media streaming HTPC can take a little time, but the amount of money you can save by using services such as Hulu and Netflix, along with streaming your own content are well worth the effort.

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