That Damned Media Server

I know, Plex is great! I even said so! Well, no, its not. It has its issues, so I’ll go through some of them here in my attempt to make a computer that can serve media locally and have it available on our two TVs in our RV.

Here’s the setup we have in the RV: All internet is routed through the Mobley with AT&T service. The wifi router then connects to the Mobley and distributes a wifi network inside the RV. This allows us a couple of options. For one, we can connect more than five devices to the Mobley, exceeding its normal built in limit. Next, it puts everything on the same network without issue. This way we can transfer files, or print from anything, and still connect at the speed of the Mobley.

Now that is all assuming the Mobley has a connection. Where we are now, in rural southern Kentucky, the Mobley is useless. It gets one bar for about thirty seconds, then loses even that and can’t connect at all. But that shouldn’t be a problem since we aren’t streaming from the internet, we are just sending files through our wifi network from the front of the RV to the back. It is a problem though. Plex requires an internet connection to function. It doesn’t send anything through the internet, but it still needs to talk to their server and the client devices need to see the Plex server on their remote servers, and then it can get a connection to a local server to retrieve media from twenty feet away. Seems like a complicated way of doing things and while it would work normally in a house with a stable cable internet connection, its useless to people like us who are on the road, in remote areas, and don’t always have a good internet connection.

So where does that leave us? Back at square one. I have a hard drive with a ton of movies, tv shows, and music on it. All I want is to be able to access that from the other devices in the RV. My media, just let me get to it. So how do we do that? I’m back to iTunes, as much as I don’t want to be. iTunes is great for organizing media. Its good for going through music and I love the Genius feature to play similar music so I don’t have to listen to Pandora all the time. But its also bloated and a resource hog. And it doesn’t have the ability to stream to the Roku, only to other iTunes apps and the Apple TV.

Before we moved into the RV, we had two third generation Apple TVs. All of our media was on a hard drive connected to a Mac mini. That Mac mini was a beast with a 2.3 quad i7, 8GB ram, and a one terabyte hard drive. But it also ran on AC power and used a decent amount of electricity. I wanted something smaller, sleeker, and dedicated to just serving media. I figured having this computer was overkill, so in foolishness, I sold it. Instead, I bought a Lenovo IdeaCentre 300 stick PC. It is underpowered, but it is tiny, fits behind the TV, and is powered by USB with very little draw. I thought this would be a good situation, but its turning out not to be enough. It only has one USB port, so I had to get a Y-plug for the hard drive and plug one end into the stick and the other into the USB powered hub so it would get enough power to run. I have a bluetooth keyboard for it that works well enough, but it is small and gets lost frequently.

So we are back to iTunes and the Apple TV. Ideally, this would be a great solution since everything else we own is pretty much a part of the Apple ecosystem. We don’t need the newest Apple TV, which is now 5th generation and supports 4K TVs, so we can afford to get an older one. When we watch TV in the living room, we can just watch it off the stick PC in iTunes and it should work fine. The Apple TV interface is great and streamlined, but we can wait to get a second one for a few months. Its in the plans though, but not an immediate need.

But there’s more! We have two Macbooks, one Pro, one Air. Both work fine, but I wish I had something smaller at times and I also wish I had a dedicated computer for the heavy processor intensive tasks we do, like video editing. The Pro is great, but I primarily use it for internet browsing and writing. I occasionally do some work in the Adobe Suite on it, but that is rare lately. When I traded my 2016 Macbook (12 inch) for it, it was a great deal. I ended up using the Pro much more and the Mac mini less. That also lead to the mini being sold eventually. So if we could somehow get a Mac mini again, set it up in our not-yet-built desk area with two monitors and make it also a media server, that would be ideal. I found a place in Florida that sells older Macs, so I’m hoping they have a Mac mini of the same specs I had before and I can just get a new one again. The 2012 Mac mini was actually more powerful and more upgradeable than the latest version that was released, and buyers out there definitely know it. I sold mine for almost what I bought it for, nearly four years after I bought it. I’m not sure I could buy another one at this time though, but as with everything else, its on the list.

So that leads us to our immediate concern, how to get media from the hard drive to the Roku? Tonight, after doing much research, I think I’m going to try to use Kodi once again. It has a lot of options we don’t need, but it does work on Windows 10, it does work with the Roku, and it shouldn’t need an internet connection to stream movies to the bedroom TV. The only problem however, is that we have really bad internet coverage where we are at now. I can download it, or at least start the download, but its probably something that is going to have to go overnight. I assume when I get up tomorrow, it will be done, but I will still probably need to add codecs and add-ons and all sorts of other stuff to get it customized to how we want to use it. The good thing about Kodi though is that it is relatively resource light and its free. We have everything we need already to make it work, aside from time and download speed. I might be able to set it up tonight and let it organize everything overnight, but even that might not be enough.

Last time I tried using Kodi, it was on a Raspberry Pi 3. It worked, but it was slow and getting the hard drive to work with the Pi was a pain. It should have been simple and straightforward as most walkthroughs online would suggest, but it was not. I also wanted to make it so I could share the hard drive over our network and back files up to it from our computers, which also turned out to be a hassle. I have the stick PC set up to share the hard drive with our Macs though, so that at least should be set.

Kodi also has a lot more features than I know how to use or implement, so it might be worth it for the longterm. If we can use that to watch things other than our ripped movies, that would be great. Will it happen? I don’t know at this point.

So the plan for tonight is to download and install Kodi, and hopefully get it set up enough to start organizing the library. It should go faster than it did on the Pi, but it might not with Windows stuff working in the background as well.

More reports later when we have something set up and working.

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