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How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He’s written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami’s NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read nearly one billion times—and that’s just here at How-To Geek. Read more.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

Local media servers have gone out of style. Microsoft no longer makes Windows Home Server and is phasing out Windows Media Center. But there are still great solutions if you want to run a home media server and stream to all your devices.

Sure, you could just connect a PC to your TV, but these provide convenient interfaces across all your devices. That means apps for TV streaming boxes, smartphones, tablets, and web-based interfaces for everything else. They even work over the Internet.

Bring Your Own Media

There are some good free software packages for this, but you’ll need to bring your own media. If you have a large collection of local video and music files — perhaps videos ripped from DVDs and music ripped from audio CDs — this may be the ideal way to access that content on all your devices without relying on streaming services like Netflix and Spotify.

These apps often allow you to browse and access photos, too — perfect if you’re the type of person who keeps a local photo collection, too.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

Plex vs. Media Browser: Choose One

The two biggest solutions to recommend are probably Plex and Media Browser. Both work similarly, offering a server you install on a desktop PC, laptop, NAS device, or dedicated home server. You could also try Kodi, formerly known as XBMC — it can be a bit more complicated to set up and works a bit differently.

Plex and Media Browser both offer servers that run on Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, BSD, and various NAS devices. You can install it on a desktop computer, a dedicated server, or get a pre-made NAS device that supports the server software.

Plex offers clients for the Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox, and PlayStation platforms — as well as Chromecast support. They offer mobile apps for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows 8. There’s also a web interface and powerful Plex application for computers, if you hook up a computer to your TV.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

Media Browser offers clients for the Roku and some other TV-streaming devices, including Chromecast support. There are also mobile apps for for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows 8. Want to use it on a computer? There’s a convenient web-based interface.

Both have fairly similar features, although Plex definitely offers a more comprehensive suite of apps — PlayStation, Xbox, and Fire TV support, for example. However, some Plex services cost money. The iOS Plex app costs $5, and the Xbox and PlayStation app both require a “Plex Pass” subscription that will cost you $5 a month.

Media Browser and its apps are completely free, so there’s no monthly fee or per-app purchases you’ll have to deal with — then again, Media Browser doesn’t even offer PlayStation or Xbox support you could purchase if you wanted to. So, you’ll need to pick one — or, better yet, consider trying both and figuring out which one works best for you.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

Set Up the Server, Install the Apps, and Start Streaming

The setup process should just take a few minutes, no matter what server you choose to use. Install the Plex or Media Browser on your system of choice and set it up to point at your media. Both Plex and Media Browser offer an optional account system, which can simplify signing into the mobile and TV apps and connecting to your server remotely over the Internet.

You can then install the appropriate apps on your TV-streaming boxes, smartphones, and tablets. Use them to access your streaming media. This part is fairly easy. If you have a Chromecast, remember that you don’t need any special Plex or Media Browser app on your TV — you can install the appropriate app on your smartphone and then use it to cast media directly to your Chromecast.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

You’ll also need to run your own home server for this. If you have a desktop PC or laptop and are happy just accessing the server while your computer is running, you can just install the server software on your desktop computer.

You could also set up a dedicated server system to run the server, of course. That’d be a computer you could leave running all the time and even access your media server remotely over the Internet. It doesn’t have to be a full, high-powered computer — it could be a low-power, small-form-factor NAS device with a large hard drive for holding all those media files.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

For years, there was a lonely Raspberry Pi 3 gathering dust on my desk, right next to a cup of pens and a stack of Post-Its. Occasionally I’d pick it up and absent-mindedly twirl it around, as if it were a stress ball. But during a long holiday break, an idea started forming in my head: Could I actually turn this glorified paperweight into something useful?

Working here at TechHive as I do, I was aware of at least one enticing way to put a Raspberry Pi Remove non-product link to work: as a media server for videos and music files. Now, I’m not an expert at building PCs, nor do I consider myself an audiophile (although I think I know good sound when I hear it), but I was drawn to the idea of putting my modest CD collection (and some old DVDs as well) into my own personal cloud, where I could stream it to my phone, my tablet, my home theater, or just about any device I wanted to.

Now, I’m not here to give you a step-by-step guide on how to build your own media server (we already have those). Instead, I wanted to share a few things I learned during my own experience, starting with…

It’s surprisingly easy

Setting up a home media server may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. For my own first project, I took the middle road, choosing to use the Linux-based Raspberry Pi (which involves spending quality time with the command line in Terminal) with Plex, a popular, off-the-rack, and relatively easy-to-use media server package. (We reviewed Plex as a DVR, but it’s also a capable music and video server.)

There are plenty of online tutorials on how to install Plex Media Server on a Raspberry Pi, and within an hour or so I had Plex up and running. Mounting an 8GB USB thumb drive (I decided to start small until I knew what I was doing) on the Pi turned out to be a little trickier, although I even had that licked after another 45 minutes or so. I then tossed some old MP3s and home video files on the memory stick, and before I knew it, my unused Raspberry Pi had turned into a media server.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device Ben Patterson/IDG

I’m no expect at building PCs, but I had my first media server up and running on a Raspberry Pi in only a few hours.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need a Raspberry Pi to set up a home media server. In minutes, you can simply install Plex Media Server on a Mac or Windows PC, pick some folders filled with music, videos or other media, and start streaming away. There are limitations to installing Plex on a desktop PC or a laptop—namely, you’ll need to keep it running whenever you want to stream media—but it’s a great, low-effort way to see what all the fuss is about.

It doesn’t have to be expensive

It’s certainly possible to spend thousands of bucks on NAS drives, “endpoints” and other hardware for your home media server. Being the beginner that I am, I opted for a rock-bottom budget, spending just $25 for an external DVD drive Remove non-product link (after realizing that I’d long ago shed my old PCs with optical drives) and $30 for a new 256GB USB memory stick Remove non-product link (which holds my entire 200-CD music collection, in lossless FLAC format, with tons of room to spare). Oh, and I later sprung for a $40 powered USB 3.0 hub Remove non-product link and a $15 power strip Remove non-product link (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment).

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Plex DVR

Now, being cheap with your home media server has its downsides. Installing media server software on underpowered hardware can lead to sluggish performance, while skimping on high-quality endpoints means sacrificing some audio quality when the bit stream is converted to analog. But there’s something to be said for starting small when you’re a beginner, and you can always upgrade your media server piece by piece if you get the urge.

Media server software doesn’t have to be expensive, either. Plenty of free options are available, while the free Plex software lets you unlock some nifty advanced features (such as music downloads and Plex’s iOS and Android apps) for $5 a month. Roon, a slick media server for music aficionados (read our review), goes for a more pricey but still reasonable $13 a month.

You can (and should) re-use components you already have

Few things make me happier than reviving old components that I have sitting on my shelves, and my home media server project gave me plenty of opportunities to do just that.

The starting point was that Raspberry Pi that had been languishing on my desk, but then I started thinking bigger. That 10-year-old MacBook Air I was going to give away: could I turn it into an always-on server for my media? Why sure (with a little help from Amphetamine, a free MacOS app designed to keep your Mac awake indefinitely). An old 512GB hard drive sitting on another desk became a media storage device, and when I dug out another dusty 512GB HDD from a drawer (I thought it was dead, but it came to life when I plugged it in), I decided to combine them into a 1TB RAID drive (which you can do in a few clicks using the MacOS Disk Utility tool). One powered USB 3.0 hub and a power strip later, and I had my dedicated media server—sluggish, noisy and temperamental, mind you, but extremely satisfying from an economic perspective.

It can be a gateway to high-resolution audio

For years, I’d settled for the iffy 128Kbps MP3s that I’d collected from iTunes and Napster (the old Napster, mind you), or for the somewhat better 320Kbps Ogg Vorbis streams on Spotify. But I’d long felt that something was missing when listening to my MP3 library; I was hearing the tunes, sure, but I wasn’t really enjoying them in the same way that I did with my old CDs. For my media server project, I decided to start fresh, ditching the MP3s and instead re-ripping my CDs (using the free Exact Audio Copy utility) into lossless FLAC files.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

A media server is a hub for all your media content. It can either be a regular or dual core computer or a dedicated home media device, but did you know you can create your own DIY home media server?

To help you make one and set it up seamlessly, our team is here to guide you through the steps and what you need.

How to Create a DIY Home Media Server

To create a media server, you want to be familiar with the NAS, or Network Attached Storage. There are a few steps to follow to set up your own media hub in no time, and that includes finding the best NAS devices. You will either want a NAS, or a dedicated desktop computer to do the job.

When you have identified your ideal NAS or desktop computer, you want to then install a hard drive, or hard drives if you intend to store a lot of media content.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

Our experts say to connect the media servers using a cabled connection like the ethernet to a network. Even if wireless is available, a connection with a hardwired cable will yield a stabler connection to your Network Attached Storage.

Then comes the easy but time consuming part of transferring your media files and content to the NAS or computer hard drives. You can also take the opportunity to set up any apps or software you want to use. When the transfer is complete, you can take advantage of your DIY media server by using it for media streaming, storage and more.

Things You’ll Need

Above is how to set up your DIY media servers in a nutshell, but now our experts are going into more detail on the components you will need.

A NAS is essentially a mini storage or computing device for your media content. Since the media server is used to bring TV shows, movies, music and more to your devices, you want your system to be connected to your home Wi-Fi network.

While you can purchase your own NAS, such as a NAS that is readily built from Synology, you can also build your own using hard drives and an old computer.

Buying a ready-to-use NAS will save on storage space, because this kind of NAS is usually smaller, you won’t need to set up anything on your own, and media servers that are already completed are easily implemented into your established system setup.

That’s not to take away from building your own server. Some like the research, assembly and configuration. If you do decide to build your own media server, it won’t come with the software like Plex.

Our experts recommend Plex Media Server. Plex Media Server is a free software that turns your computer into the media player with all the media files or content. All you need to do is add your movies, TV shows and other files and give Plex Media Server an access.

After you have decided on a ready-to-use NAS or building your own, you should consider the hard drive. How many hard drives you want depends on how much content you have. The more TV shows, movies and other media streaming data you have, the more hard drives you want.

Computers usually come with a 3.5 inch hard drive, but you may need to add more. If you DIY your own server, then you will have to look into an external hard drive. The next step is to connect the server to your home network, so you want an ethernet cable for the most stable connections.

To sum up, you need a NAS, a hard drive, and an ethernet cable to create your DIY server.

Set Up Your PC as a Media Server

If you have decided to go the admirable route of creating your own media server with your PC as the NAS, instead of buying a home theater PC , then this section is for you. It’s quite a bit more complicated than just using a ready-to-use free option like the Plex Media Server, but that’s part of the fun.

After you have your dedicated PC as your home media hardware choice, you need to then choose the operating system setup you run. Aside from Plex, Windows and Linux systems work well as media servers. The next step is to install the external drives if you need more. All it takes is to mount the hard drives in the tray.

After installing the drives, hook up your system to your home network. Once that is done, then you will be ready to share the files to the NAS. When the NAS is full of your video files, you can install the server app.

If you like the idea of a free apps, then our experts suggest going with Plex App. Plex is also a highly compatible choice, so you won’t have to worry about the Plex settings and suitability with your particular operating system.

Benefits of Using a PC as a Media Server

Are there really any benefits to using a PC as a media server when you can easily purchase one off the shelf? Our experts are here to give you some answers.

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

Since you have built your NAS from the ground up, it’s easily more customizable than a purchased NAS enclosure down the line. Like most technology that is self-built, the PC has more processing power.

The processor within the computer will be much more powerful. Unless you have decided to go for a computer with an old and slow processor. However, the processor can always be replaced with better options.

If you decide to use an old and obsolete computer, it may save you some cash. Just make sure the processing power, RAM, and storage is enough for your needs.

Another huge pro our experts can say about using a PC is compatibility. You have more operating systems to choose from, and Plex Media Server also makes things easier. The Plex Pass is also worth looking into when you have a PC media server as it gives you the best experience.

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How to set up a home media server you can access from any device How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

How to set up a home media server you can access from any device

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