The lazy geek's guide to building a home media center

Anything less than a DIY digital home entertainment project means making the most of Apple TV

What true techie hasn't mused about how to get rid of CDs, DVDs, and all that media clutter in favor of an all-digital entertainment center? It's been a fantasy for years, but it's never really happened, despite attempts such as Hewlett-Packard's "media center PCs" and Microsoft Windows' Media Center add-on.

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You can't buy a media-center PC today, so you may believe you can't build a media center. But it turns out you can. Undoubtedly you could spend days putting together your own media center from network drives, headless PCs, and apps such as the open source Plex -- if you're a geek, that Erector-set approach would surely be fun to build, but not for your family to use for its intended purpose.

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There's a much easier way that not only works well, but that everyone in the family can use. Think of it as the lazy geek's home media center.

No, it's not a cloud-based, streaming-on-demand strategy, à la Google Play, Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes Store, or Amazon Instant Video. Those can be part of your media center mix, but by themselves they raise two major problems:

  • You have to download media every time you want to view it, which will become problematic in the near future as Internet providers move to tiered data rates for fixed broadband connections. At 1GB to 2GB per video, you'll quickly see your cable bill skyrocket in the new world order of tiered broadband pricing. And periodic slowdowns and outages can make viewing unreliable.
  • Most of these services work only on a subset of mobile devices, so the "watch anything anywhere" scenario will be hard to achieve.

But even within your own network, there's no universal technology yet to allow ubiquitous media streaming from one device to another. Though the coming Miracast protocol may one day provide that ubiquity outside the Appleverse, that's a good year or more away from widespread adoption. However, there's technology that gets darn close: the combination of iTunes and the Apple TV. (Devices like Roku and Boxee TV are for Web-based streaming, acting essentially as a central hub for your digital subscriptions -- a subset of what the Apple TV/iTunes combo can do.)

iTunes is the best media hub when coupled with Apple TViTunes lets you make your locally stored digital media files -- as well as ones streamed from the iTunes Store, Hulu Plus, and Netflix, plus social video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo -- available to nearly all your screens. You can play them on your Windows PC or Mac; on your TVs if each set is paired with its own Apple TV; and on your iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches, though not on other mobile devices.

Plus, your iOS devices can play both locally stored iTunes content and any content streamed via Apple TV, so you can have multiple videos and music mixes playing simultaneously throughout your home. The family can watch a movie together on the big screen or view their choice of show on small screens, drawing from a mix of local and shared media files.

The hardware you need to create an iTunes-centric media centerTo do this, you need a wireless network for your mobile devices, along with either a wireless or wired network for your computers and Apple TV. I recommend an 802.11n network to get best performance; if you have an older protocol, you might consider getting a new router that supports the new 802.11ac protocol so that you're ready for the faster-than-802.11n computers and mobile devices slated to debut later this year.

You also need a $99 Apple TV (one of the black models), which connects to your stereo or TV via an HDMI cable. Running the January 2013 software update, Apple TV supports Bluetooth keyboards so that you can easily search your libraries and your Internet-based media sources. The current third-generation model supports 1080p streamed video, whereas the identical-looking second-generation model supports just 720p.

The Apple TV also supports an optical audio connection and, through Kanex's $59 ATV Pro adapter, VGA video and mini audio output. The former is useful for connecting to stereos for music streaming; the latter is useful for an older TV set.

Streaming video, music, and photos from computers and iOS devices via AirPlay iTunes on both Macs and PCs supports Apple's AirPlay protocol for the streaming of music, videos, and photos over your network.

Whether you stream from your iOS device or Mac, note that some apps and websites implement DRM (digital rights management), which prevents the video from being shown via Apple TV; you'll get a black screen with a notification message instead.

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