Turning a Cheap PC Into Your Very Own Home Media Center
I have never been satisfied with media center devices. Whether it be something straightforward as a Chromecast or a Roku set-top box, there have always been compromises to be had. The main negative of such devices is that most seriously lack codec support for popular file types. Most support the basics, such as h.264 and mp3. But what if you want to play a Blu-Ray rip? Nope, not possible (at least not without encoding/transcoding it first).
This is not to say that all standalone media devices aren’t worth your time. Western Digital make some pretty decent boxes that support all sorts of codecs and a lot of recent smart televisions can play most media files outright. What is the benefit on building a HTPC then? Customisability and performance.
With a HTPC you can adjust it to your needs. From bluetooth remotes to custom interfaces, a properly configured HTPC will make it easy for the whole family to use and it’ll flawlessly play everything you throw at it. For these reasons alone I decided to invest in what will hopefully by my media center for the next 5-10 years.
Are there any downsides? Well, if you are reliant on streaming services such as Netflix, iPlayer and Hulu then a HTPC won’t be the only device you will need to have hooked up. While you can use these sites via a web browser it is less than ideal and in fact a hassle to have to switch away from your media player. Not very user friendly, especially if you don’t have a keyboard and mouse handy. Luckily I still have my Chromecast.
First off, the hardware. This is up to you, but generally you are going to want something small with a low power consumption. So small that you can perhaps hide it in a cupboard near your television. A popular route to go is the Intel NUCs. One thing to bear in mind with these is that you have to add your own memory and SSD/HDD. A Chromebox is also a viable option. You could even repurpose an old unused desktop computer. Personally, I went with the Acer Revo One. Due to a great deal I found during Black Friday and the more than capable specs I knew that this would be more than adequate for my media center.
Jump forward a few days and I had it in my hands. As the system already had Windows pre-installed there was no real need to install a different operating system. If your HTPC does not come with Windows then OpenELEC is a great free alternative. Once the system was all setup I could finally install Plex Media Server (PMS) and Plex Home Theater (PHT). PMS will manage our library and PHT will provide us with a clean interface to browse and play from the server. The setup procedure is straightforward and Plex have some fantastic guides on how to get started. With PMS you can browse your content on all devices connected to the local network, Plex even has a feature to allow you to remotely access your media.
Depending on your hardware and operating system you may need to fiddle with settings to get a perfect setup. I initially had a problem where the screen would flicker, turns out putting the app in fullscreen fixed it.
Plex is a joy to use, its simple and intuitive. With a modern UI it is also great to look at, and there are plenty of 3rd party skins you can download if you ever want to try something else. My HTPC came with a remote and Plex recognised it straight away. For users without a remote the mobile apps are a fantastic alternative. A popular solution is Flirc, a small IR receiver that you can use with almost any standard television remote.
Here are some tips for Windows users on how to get a totally seamless experience:
- Make sure that Windows only updates when you won’t be using it, 3-6am is a great time to use.
- Close (or uninstall) unneeded programs. The less running the smoother your HTPC will run.
- Set Plex to start on boot.
- Allow Windows to login without needing a password.
HTPCs can now be small, sleek and affordable devices. A must for users with a large local media library. For more information on Plex, you can visit their website.