Goodbye Media Centre & Virgin, Hello Roku and Plex and NowTV

17 Jun

For a while now, my home media setup has been a HP Microserver downstairs running Windows 7 under the telly with a HDMI card to provide HD graphics and audio to the TV. I’ve also got a webcam in there so the family can all Skype, a stack of disks to hold all my data and media, a Black&Gold Dual DVB-T2 tuner and a Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse.

The setup has worked pretty well for many years (I’ve been using media centre for over 7 years now). The main goal was always to have all the same exact content on all the TV’s around the house. Originally I used Linksys DMA2100 Media Centre Extenders throughout the house. These worked pretty well, but were a little slow when changing menu items. I recently bought an Xbox 360 E for the bedroom (with a 16GB Flash Drive for storage) to replace the DMA2100. This worked a lot better, but was a little bit noisy, it did however play the HD channels and HD Videos, something that the DMA2100 would not do.

The great thing about having the tuners and disks in the server meant that all the DMA2100 extenders could be relatively low power and solid state which meant no noise. I could then resume watching anything from any room, I also had my entire music library in every room as well as all my TV shows and all my movies and I only had to keep my central server updated.

I used MyChannel logos to create a nice looking interface with the logos:

mychannellogos

mce1

mce2

I used MediaRenamer to rename all my media files to the same format:

mediarenamer

I also used MyMovies5 to organise these and create a really pretty looking interface in Media Centre and all the extenders:

mymovies5 mymovies5-2

mce3 mce4

There were issues with Windows 8 not supporting the media centre extenders and the news recently that Windows 10 will not support Media Centre effectively means that Microsoft is really killing it off, which is a great shame as it was a great product with a huge fan base and a lot of potential.

So for a while now I’ve been thinking of a replacement system, but my requirements were quite specific and the system has to be wife and child proof of course.

  • I have a TV in the lounge with a cable TV point, Ethernet, coax from the antenna in the loft and so this has pretty much all the connectivity I need.
  • The Bedroom has Ethernet and cable TV, I could run coax to the loft but haven’t as yet
  • The Den downstairs has only Ethernet and there’s no neat way (I don’t like cables on show) to run coax to it from the loft. (This was never a problem with the DMA2100 as it would stream live TV and recorded TV from my media server. this TV often plays music when we are in the garden too.

The wife likes to watch a lot of the American TV shows that we have stored aswell as the British Soaps and the little one likes the cartoons on Nick Jr.

I have a Virgin TV package that’s costing a lot and I’m looking to heavily downgrade as I simply don’t use it. I have the XL TV Package, a Tivo, extra HD Box upstairs, evening and weekend calls, Baby TV, BT Sport, 60Mb internet. We were on a half decent deal but the price has grown to the point where it’s almost £80/month now.

I would also like to get a bit more use out of my HP Microserver, I only ran Windows 7 because I needed the Media Centre features, and without that requirement I’m looking to load Server 2012R2 on there instead and then run a few Hyper-V VM’s inside it. (One thought is to maybe run Windows 7 as a VM on there, replace the B&G tuners with USB ones and then use Media Centre to record TV shows as .WTF files. I can then view these files on and Roku devices as Plex can Transcode these, more on this later.)

Last night I stopped at PC World and picked up a Roku3 for £79.99. There are a few versions of the Roku, with the 4 maybe out later this year and possibly supporting 4k too!

rokuversions

I needed a non IR version as the Roku would be hidden, so that ruled out the Roku2. I also liked the idea of the headphones plugging into the remote and the Ethernet port made sense as I already have Cat5e throughout the house, and so this is why I opted for the Roku3.

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The Roku3 was dead easy to setup, although oddly when I connected it to the wired network I got an error in the initial setup that it could not access the network. I tested the cable with my laptop and there wasn’t a problem. After a bit of Googling I came across a post which suggested going to the hidden menu and performing an update, for which it accessed the internet just fine, go figure. Anyway, after a firmware update it ran through the setup wizard just fine.

To update the Roku software from the secret screen:

  1. Press the home button 5 times
  2. Press the fast forward button 3 times
  3. Press the rewind button 2 times

There is also a neat Roku app for your phone which connects of WiFi to your Roku box and allows you to use it as a remote. This is especially handy if you are searching as you can use the on screen keyboard to type, making it much quicker and easier.

screen322x572

 

There are also custom themes available for your Roku, although I’m yet to play with these.

So my new home media solution is as follows: A central server that holds all my media and runs Plex. I then have my first Roku3 in the Den. It has HDMI, a Ethernet port (something the Roku stick was missing) and also a headphones port on the remote which I think is a really great feature, oh and no IR in the remote, which is useful as the box is hidden away behind an access panel in a false wall.

20150616_221748000_iOS

FYI: Behind the TV, the HDMI and power runs down the inside of the wall and can then be accessed via the lower access panel.

(See here for my project on fitting the DMA2100 behind the false wall)

I added NowTV to the Roku, and this can be used on up to 4 devices. I went for the Entertainment package at £6.99/month as this has most of the premium channels that we might watch:

  • Sky 1
  • Sky Living
  • Sky Atlantic
  • Gold
  • Comedy Central
  • Sky Arts
  • ITV Encore
  • FOX
  • MTV
  • Discovery Channel
  • Nickelodeon
  • Disney Channel
  • Nick Jr
  • ABC Studios

nowtvchannels

There were a few more Roku apps (or Channels rather) that I added also:

  • iPlayer
  • Plex
  • Roku Media Player (Allows playing media direct from the USB connected to the Roku)
  • YouTube
  • Sky News
  • ITV Player
  • 4OD

I’m sure this list will grow as I use it more and new ones become available.

Plex is really great. I’ve only used it for a day now and it was highly recommended by a couple of friends.

The Plex software is free and it sits on my server and acts as the media centre library. From the WebGUI you can create your own libraries and add in Movies, TV Series, Music etc. It then goes off and sorts all the artwork and covers for you. Another really nice feature is when you browse any TV series, it plays the theme tune whilst you are browsing the episodes – nice touch!

Plex is free to use and you can view you media library on pretty much any device from pretty much anywhere.

The Plex Roku channel is available on a 30-day free trial, following that you have 2 choices:

1. Subscribe to a Plex Pass which has a few subscription models:

plexpass2. You can enter “Preferences > Channel Status” to see the current status. If it’s listed as “Trial” status, then a Purchase the channel option will be available.

(Update: there is also a new Plex Roku Client in development, currently only available for PlexPass subscribers to test but it will be released to anyone who has previously purchased the app once it is publicly release, see here and here)

Plex was dead easy to install, however it took a little while to add all my content, although there is quite a lot there. You also need to open TCP port 32400 on your firewall and NAT this to your Plex server.

A brief view of my Plex media library:

plex

 

Plex will also transcode your media and so it really doesn’t matter what format you have it in, it will encode it on the fly so that it will play on your remote devices. This does however require a lot of CPU power on your media server, so bear that in mind.

Another great feature of Plex is the ability to share media with your friends. You can select which libraries that you would like to share with each friend and then all of their content is available on all of your devices. I tested viewing a cartoon last night and it worked very well indeed. As a lot of my media was optimised for the DMA2100 extenders I now need to re-rip my DVD and Blu-Rays in much higher quality.

plexfriends

The Plex Pass includes the following features:

  • Gracenote Music Generation
  • Vevo Music Videos
  • Mobile Sync
  • Plex Home
  • Cloud Sync
  • Camera Upload
  • Trailers & Extras
  • Early Access
  • Free Apps

So now we have the Virgin Tivo in the lounge which records the basic TV channels, mostly Soaps for my wife and MOTD for me etc. The bedroom and den will each have a Roku which will play iPlayer and the other basic channels and these will also play the NowTV premium entertainment channels and also all the media from my Plex server and my friends Plex servers. I can now also use Plex on my mobile devices too. I’m very curious to try out the Mobile Sync feature of Plex Pass to see if this can replace iTunes for me perhaps.

I’m toying with the idea of adding a Roku into the lounge although I just read that Plex is available on Tivo so I will try this tonight (Update: Plex is not available on Virgin Media Tivo’s) and there is also Plex Home Theater which I will look at this evening also:

plexhometheater

On a side note, and I need to contact Roku direct on this one, but it would be nice if I could somehow sync, or centrally configure all of my Roku boxes on my LAN so that I don’t have to manually go to each one and add each new app etc. (Update: If you are signed in using the same login, then apparently your apps will sync, I’m yet to try this just yet however)

With projects like this, I mostly enjoy the setup and getting it working, I rarely watch TV if I’m honest, I never got into any of the big TV series such as Breaking Bad, Lost, Game of Thrones etc, and I rarely find the time to watch films.

So there we go, that’s my new media setup and so far so good. Hopefully many more apps will become available on the Roku and this will be the solution for the near future at least.

I’ve looked into getting OTA TV on the Roku boxes but as yet I haven’t come across a good stable solution, again, more to come on this at a later date I’m sure.

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