Home Streaming

If you’re like most people today, you don’t really buy physical movies anymore. You have half a dozen streaming services and watch what’s available. You might keep a DVD player for that pile of old disks you bought years ago or a Blu-ray player for the new releases you can’t stream yet, but you mostly rely on some Big Tech company’s services to get what you want.

If you’re like most people, you also don’t like all of the messages your money is used to push. “Family-friendly” these days doesn’t mean it corresponds to your values as a father or mother, it means “sanitized”, and sanitized content may be worse than overtly bad media. It’s more attractive to the very audience least capable of discerning the difference: children.

If you’re like most people, you also wish the services you subscribed to could keep their content around instead of cycling it in and out. You pay to watch what you want, when you want to, after all.

So, what can you do?

The Alternative

If you want to get away from Big Tech media companies, you can either turn off the TV for good, or you can make yourself independent. When I was first starting to design my home server – years before I actually built one – my inspiration was the thought that I could host my own TV channels. Odd, sure, but I thought the idea of recreating some of the old scheduling from my childhood would be fun to see again, and being somewhat technically-minded, I realized I’d probably be able to pull it off.

When I finally did start to build a home server, a media streaming service was the first thing I tried. I ran it right on my desktop Windows PC and streamed it to our TV, and it was easier than I thought.

If you’re going to build a media server, there’s really just two steps:

  1. Setting up the service
  2. Collecting material

In this post I’ll walk you through some of the steps to get this going. When I get to it in the Home Server Series (latest post here), I’ll cover the details of setting it up in that context. When we’re done, you’ll even be able to stream to devices anywhere in the world.

For now, you can get things started on any computer you’d like.

Welcome to Your Own Streaming Service

I’ve tried a few home media services, but the best I’ve found, by far, has been Plex. Plex can stream virtually any media you have, from video to music to pictures. You can set up categories for TV and movies, have it automatically add posters, art, and metadata, and you can create playlists and even – with a little work – set up virtual TV stations that work like cable channels with scheduling and a TV-guide-style interface.

Setting up Plex on a home computer is pretty easy. Just download the installer here based on your operating system. Plex has a great guide to get you started, but for a simple installation it’s pretty self-explanatory.

Building a Collection

The toughest part of running a Plex server is finding content. It’s tedious, but you can rip disks pretty easily with HandBrake. I’m in the midst of ripping my wife’s absurdly large DVD collection as we speak. Most libraries have movies to rent, so you don’t need a collection to get started.

I also recommend using the YouTube Downloader I wrote about months ago. There’s an impressive number of movies and TV shows on YouTube you can easily grab with it.

The best method, though is probably Plex’s built-in recording system. I haven’t used it, but from speaking with those who have, it’s pretty easy. You have to pay $5/month to Plex for the service (you get other benefits, too), but my philosophy is that supporting small tech companies is just one more way to fight Big Tech, so I’m subscribed. Any recording device will work as well if you have one set up.

You need to consider the various trade-offs. By recording, ripping, and downloading content, you are relying far less on Big Tech companies for your media, and you’re hand-picking the media you want in your home. I’ve found this is extremely helpful with children; I can have my kids watch anything they’d like in their own Plex account and it’s fully curated by my wife and I.

The downside is you’ll be spending time setting it up and getting content and using up storage on your computer to host the files. I think the trade-offs favor a hybrid approach; you grab what you like from your services and slowly ditch them as you stop accessing them. And really, since Plex is free and fairly easy to set up, you can always dedicate an evening to trying it out to see if it will work for you. I’ve found that ripping about one disk a day takes little effort on my part and I’ve ended up with far more content than I thought I’d ever have.

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