If you’re always on the look out for deals you may have seen small computer servers popping up with big reductions or cash back offers. The small servers can make a great addition to any home with a connected TV or other streaming devices.
These pint sized devices are often called ‘microservers’. They’re smaller than you might expect for a server, which we normally think of as being heftier than a desktop PC. The most popular models with these deals are often from manufacturers Lenovo and HP.
But how can this small box make a big difference to how you use your music, TV shows, films and photos at home? With open source software and some modest additions these grey business boxes can make all of your media accessible around your house – and available over the internet – with great interfaces and clever built-in organisation.
Introducing the home media server
If you’ve heard friends and family talking about media servers, Plex, DLNA and other incomprehensible acronyms it can sound like using gadgets for gadgets’ sake.
Our collections of TV shows, films, music, photos and home movies – known collectively as media – are growing all the time. You might have a collection of DVDs for your favourite sitcoms and dramas, an iTunes library with your music and folders on computers with the family photos. You may have this spread across computers, hard drives and smartphones. Bringing all of your media together in one place makes it easier to watch and listen to, as well as easier to share and backup.
Once you have your data in one place you can access it like a normal folder on your computers or stream media over your network to TVs, tablets and smartphones.
There are two parts to a home media server: the physical hardware and your choice of software to make it all work.
The hardware doesn’t need to be anything special, or even a traditional server. It’s possible to use a laptop or PC for this task too, but you’ll find accessing your media simpler if your server is normally switched on and at home. The most popular software options are Plex Media Server and Kodi. These free, open source packages take care of organising your media and making it available to other devices in your home and on the road.
Getting started with a microserver and Plex
Whilst these servers can be keenly priced they are not as simple to start using as a desktop PC or Mac. Often they come with no software and sometimes no hard drive. If you’ve dabbled with computers you’ll probably enjoy the process of setting up your new server. However, if you’re not confident with the process but do like the idea of having a home media server you can buy off-the-shelf media servers or invite a friend to help.
A recent deal saw the HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 come in at £139.90 after taking advantage of a £40 cashback offer. This is a fantastic price for a well built server – but be aware that there is no hard drive, no CD/DVD drive and a slightly limiting 2GB of RAM.
A 1TB internal hard drive currently costs about £45 and doubling the RAM from 2GB to 4GB will cost another £42. As long as you have a blank USB stick to install the required software rather than buying a CD/DVD drive the total is now closer to £230.
With the hardware ready to go it’s time to choose the software. The Ubuntu operating system is similar to Windows and Mac OS X – but it’s developed and supported by a huge open source community. This means the software is free to download and use. With the operating system ready the final layer – the media server – can be installed. The Kodi software is also open source and the Plex media server is free.
Both packages offer excellent guides and instructions to help you setup your new media server.
Streaming media around your home
Before you can start streaming your media you’ll need to copy it to the media server. You can do this through Finder on Mac OS X and My Computer on Windows. If you already have your files on an external hard drive you can also connect that to your server and copy the files from there. Media server software needs some help to understand your library, which means files will need to be named and organised in a certain way. The conventions are common sense approaches and Plex has easy to use instructions to help with this.
Once you have a library on your server you can view the contents and play your music and video files in your chosen web browser. You can also install an app (such as Plex) on your smartphone or tablet, or stream to your TV if it’s connected to your network and supports the DLNA protocol. You can also stream to your Google Chromecast or Roku device to make it even quicker and easier.
Taking the plunge with a home media server
Hopefully this has given you an idea of what’s possible with a home media server, the hardware and software you need and approximate costs when purchasing a server with one of these deals. Soon we’ll put this into practice and break down the steps so you can follow along with your own project.