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Combining a PC, media streamer and NAS box

Posted on 16th Aug 2012 at 07:33 by Antony Leather with 36 comments

Antony Leather
I have a love-hate relationship with NAS boxes. Part of me adores them. They offer a form redundancy for your data, can perform many functions such as FTP, photo and media servers, Bit-Torrent clients and many more, without the need for a PC. And they’re also smaller than a shoebox. The mere fact they’re designed to carry out a set number of tasks – far fewer than a Windows PC – means they’re very streamlined and usually easy and simple to use.

Combining a PC, media streamer and NAS box Is the lovechild of a NAS and a PC the answer?
Click to enlarge - NAS boxes are constantly enlarging their feature sets to the point they're now basically mini-PCs

However, I also prefer to use a small, low-power PC for a majority of the tasks a NAS box offers. It’s more flexible, can offer support for video and music streaming services such as Netflix or Spotify, and for multitasking, even an old Core 2 CPU such as an E5300, which I currently have in a mini-ITX system under my TV, is happy to deal with backups, various download clients, 1080p streaming and playback, All at the same time, while remaining whisper-quiet.

Combining a PC, media streamer and NAS box Is the lovechild of a NAS and a PC the answer?
Click to enlarge - Windows offers the best flexibility but even the best media centre-like UI's can't do everything and often need hours or days of research, trial and error.

However, a PC still isn’t a perfect companion for a ‘dumb’ TV. Using BBC iPlayer, Netflix or other streaming services that are slickly integrated into media streamers such as the WDTV Live, is fiddly and clunky in comparison. The array of Windows Media Centre add-ons go some way to solving this, but none are as simple and easy to use as a media streamer, and of course, few, if any, have the flexibility or power to carry out the basic features a NAS offers. Likewise, a media streamer is good for just that – streaming media. It can’t backup your files, offer anything by way of FTP or Bit-Torrent servers, and it can’t run cloud services or play games.

Combining a PC, media streamer and NAS box Is the lovechild of a NAS and a PC the answer?
Click to enlarge - Media streamers are the best option for watching movies on your PC, but they all have limitations

It’s a conundrum that’s infuriated all of us at bit-tech – there’s no one device that can sit under your TV and do everything. However, Thecus’ N2800 we looked at last week opened a door on an interesting idea. In fact it’s not even an idea, more a fact that if a company with a talent for building a small multi-capable devices puts its mind to it, it can create something that is tailored for these needs. Why then can’t companies like Thecus and Synology and Western Digital create a device that most people want?

For a majority of us, it needs to be able to connect to the Internet, and also straight to our TVs. It needs to be compatible with the usual video and music streaming services. Its UI must be clear and easy enough to use from a simple remote while you’re sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, but also able to set up various servers and configure backups from local PCs. I want to be able to install at least two hard disks in it, and it needs a smattering of USB ports and flash card slots. Its media player needs to support all popular music and video formats, and the ability to use Steam to play basic games would also be useful. It also needs a Blu-ray drive and the ability to connect to home theatre sound systems.

I know that’s a lot to ask, but it’s only one paragraph. It addresses all the shortcomings of HTPCs, NAS boxes and media streamers, which are still, after all this time, trying to be too much like each other, and not like the devices we all actually need.

As much as I wanted it to work, Windows Media Centre just hasn't been properly supported, but at the moment I'm soldiering on with a combined wireless keyboard and touchpad which is sufficient to navigate through Netflix, iPlayer and Spotify on my TV, while also offering full command of the Windows 7 PC it's connected to for dealing with the likes of downloads, backups. However, when I use things like XMBC, or a decent media streamer, I'm immediately reminded just how much easier things could be.

I'd be interested to know what set-ups you have in your lounge for dealing with this barrage of tasks, and if you too are pining after this 'perfect box'...

36 Comments

Discuss in the forums Reply
dark_avenger 16th August 2012, 07:46 Quote
Well instead of Windows Media Center why don't you run XBMC with plugins for iplayer, netflix, uTorrent, SABnzbd and just about everything else under the sun....

Then you can use windows in the background for media storage, downloading, etc and the xbmc for media streaming?
badders 16th August 2012, 08:08 Quote
Agreed ^

Windows media centre has been a shambles every time I've attempted to use it over the years.
XBMC on top of a windows or linux system, on the other hand, is hugely expandable, and you can always drop out of it to perform any other tasks you may need to.
iwod 16th August 2012, 08:16 Quote
I left a message about Android with ARM SoC making a better router, it think it will also be the same for NAS / Media Player Box.
nchhabs 16th August 2012, 08:22 Quote
XBMC, as others have said, is fantastic for a TV-centric user experience, in comparison to Win Media Centre. It's extensible, easy to use and reliable. There are other similar apps such as Plex, but I'm not sure whether it's as stable as XBMC tends to be.

Personally, I use a tiny Mac Mini box which runs SABnzbd+, Couch Potato and Sickbeard, which all communicate with XBMC. The Mini is connected to a 50" LED TV. To interact with the OS, I use a bluetooth keyboard and wireless mouse. Movies and TV series are added to XBMC automatically, and a notification pops up telling me they're available to watch. I can even get it to send me a tweet or e-mail!
wuyanxu 16th August 2012, 09:08 Quote
not sure about combining NAS with HTPC/streamer. the NAS has hard disk in them clicking away and generating heat+noise. the array of hard disks should really be in another room.

i put my NAS box in a cupboard running everything under the sun. then i stream using a jailbroken Apple TV, which was bought instead of other options for Airplay purposes.
Tris 16th August 2012, 09:27 Quote
Same as most of the above, XBMC on linux, works like a charm (after lots of struggling with windows media player).
I use a mini-itx system with an SSD under my TV for streaming and everything else and have a small NAS tucked away for storage. Works just fine and the noise is non-existent.
Ferret 16th August 2012, 11:12 Quote
HP Proliant Microserver (when it has £100 cashback), Bunch of 3TB hard drives, full blown ubuntu and xbmc and a fanless graphics card. Although it is not as quiet as I would like.
Nexxo 16th August 2012, 11:22 Quote
Passively cooled mobile Core Duo PC with 1Tb WD Caviar Green HDD, running Windows Media Centre. 30W of quiet functionality. Good enough for me.
faugusztin 16th August 2012, 12:37 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by wuyanxu
not sure about combining NAS with HTPC/streamer. the NAS has hard disk in them clicking away and generating heat+noise. the array of hard disks should really be in another room.

i put my NAS box in a cupboard running everything under the sun. then i stream using a jailbroken Apple TV, which was bought instead of other options for Airplay purposes.

Clicking ? I hear my fans running at low RPM in the server, but not the hard drives.
goldstar0011 16th August 2012, 12:50 Quote
I've 2 HTPC's running old hardware with XBMC and he "server" is on Win7 and all the xbmc's access the shared files

Even the Mrs understands it and uses perfectly, if she's happy I'm happy

When I buy a house plan to have a hidden server running 24/7 for everything and have the house wired for music and media, mrs's is gonna love me soooo much
Rob Lang 16th August 2012, 12:52 Quote
I run the old WDTV Live (time to upgrade, it's not got iPlayer on it) with a NetGear Ready NAS hidden away upstairs. All our phones (Android) backup images and vidoes straight to the NAS when connected to wifi. The NAS zips and backs up into the cloud (SkyDrive). My gaming PC backs up to the NAS too. We use an old 1st gen iPod to stream music to the kitchen.
ashchap 16th August 2012, 13:11 Quote
Quote:
For a majority of us, it needs to be able to connect to the Internet, and also straight to our TVs. It needs to be compatible with the usual video and music streaming services. Its UI must be clear and easy enough to use from a simple remote while you’re sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, but also able to set up various servers and configure backups from local PCs. I want to be able to install at least two hard disks in it, and it needs a smattering of USB ports and flash card slots. Its media player needs to support all popular music and video formats, and the ability to use Steam to play basic games would also be useful. It also needs a Blu-ray drive and the ability to connect to home theatre sound systems.

You forgot support for multiple Freeview/Freesat HD tuners.

I have a decent gaming PC with 4x freeview tuners in a Silverstone SST-GD04B connected to my TV. I use it mainly as a PVR and a gaming machine. Xbox controller means console style sofa comfort combined with PC quality graphics on a big screen and I have found Windows media Center to be an excellent PVR with adequate support for playback of downloaded / streaming video & audio. The PC is whisper quiet during video playback and not noticeable when playing games.

My main HTPC records TV and stores it locally in a shared folder, so if I want to watch something on my laptop, it appears straight away (the Recorded TV library includes this shared folder). I was disappointed to hear that MS isn't upgrading WMC for W8, but I'm glad it's still there as I don't know what I'd use for a PVR otherwise - I'm not aware of anything that can match it at present. Because of this I can put up with its shortcomings with regards to non-recorded content.

Two recent purchases have greatly improved my HTPC experience: Logitech Anywhere MX Mouse and Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400
. They have worked perfectly without any dropouts so far which is a huge step forward from the cheap tat I was using before!
PaulC2K 16th August 2012, 13:57 Quote
Same as almost everyone else here :D
HP Proliant Microserver (they're still doing £100 off, only now 1.5ghz for about the same price) with XBMC, Sickbeard & SABnzbd.
I've also gone with WHS2011, its got the GPU acceleration that WHS lacks, automated backups of other machines in the house (4 HDDs, room for an SSD and more in the 5.25" bay area of the HP MS) and its pretty much on par with Win7 but can be picked up legit for around £38.
Media friendly, file storage (and backup), it all comes together to make a cracking little box.
Anakha 16th August 2012, 14:50 Quote
It used to be old linux box running MythTV, Transmission and FlexGet, then I dropped the cable TV subscription and just went to Transmission and Flexget. Frontend used to by my Original XBox, but since getting a new TV with built-in DLNA, the linux box got Serviio installed and everything's just great.

As many others have said, XBMC is your best bet for a frontend (running under Windows if you must for Steam support), and keep all those noisy HDD's in a closet somewhere (the basement or loft) attached to an old PC running Linux.
Sheiken 16th August 2012, 16:22 Quote
I am actually in the progress of setting up my dedicated mediacentre/homesever box right now. Amd A6-3650. And I have previously had a lot of success with using xbmc. What I'd really like though, is an app for my android phone which enables me to browse my music selection and control the playback, so I wont have to turn the tv on. Any recommendations?
fdbh96 16th August 2012, 16:34 Quote
I suppose windows 8 should solve all these problems with a decent enough app, providing you can navigate win 8 with an xbox controller (haven't tried).
Jipa 16th August 2012, 16:35 Quote
If I were to build a HTPC, a storage server or really just about any multi-purpose rig I'd probably go for the Llano. It can play some games, has all the connectivity and doesn't cost too much.

That said, I don't really have any use for such rig. I already have a standalone NAS-box and all the media comes directly from my desktop.
faugusztin 16th August 2012, 16:41 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sheiken
And I have previously had a lot of success with using xbmc. What I'd really like though, is an app for my android phone which enables me to browse my music selection and control the playback, so I wont have to turn the tv on. Any recommendations?

XBMC Remote ?
jon 16th August 2012, 16:58 Quote
I've got a media server running off a C2D e5300 with two 1tb hdds. Stores all my movies and music. Also has enough room for essential backups, and serves as my torrent and ftp box - I use VNC to remote into it for those last two. My main TV accesses the mediaserver share drives via a networked blu-ray player (LG570) that has built-in Netflix, Vudu, and several other "apps" (though I'd love the ability to add new ones), and optical out to my 5.1 receiver (which my wife hates).

I'm buying a Raspberry Pi for media streaming / netflix to my kitchen TV, and allows the wife to browse for recipes at the same time, which has a high WAF (wife acceptance factor).
Sheiken 16th August 2012, 17:05 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by faugusztin
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sheiken
And I have previously had a lot of success with using xbmc. What I'd really like though, is an app for my android phone which enables me to browse my music selection and control the playback, so I wont have to turn the tv on. Any recommendations?

XBMC Remote ?

Something tells me that this might not be such a bad recommendation...
faugusztin 16th August 2012, 17:09 Quote
To be more technical :
- XBMC Remote allows you to control your XBMC, all of it. So if you are satisfied with XBMC music features, then use this one (of course you need to use separate speakers instead of the TV speakers for audio output) : https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.xbmc.android.remote
- Another option is MPD and one of the Android clients http://mpd.wikia.com/wiki/Clients
Jqim 16th August 2012, 17:32 Quote
netflix dont work with xbmc in here in the uk otherwise i would be all over it
Tichinde 16th August 2012, 20:16 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by faugusztin
XBMC Remote ?

Seconded on this.
The remote app for XMBC is great. Better on Android than iPhone in my opinion.

Just built my HTPC and I've been blown away by XMBC.
Didn't even consider any other version of Windows to be honest, just slammed 7 on it, then put XMBC over the top.
Still playing with plugins to find what's the best fit for me at the moment but finding the Rooster Teeth plugin made my week :D
Sheiken 16th August 2012, 22:04 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by faugusztin
To be more technical :
- XBMC Remote allows you to control your XBMC, all of it. So if you are satisfied with XBMC music features, then use this one (of course you need to use separate speakers instead of the TV speakers for audio output) : https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.xbmc.android.remote
- Another option is MPD and one of the Android clients http://mpd.wikia.com/wiki/Clients

What bothers me a bit after trying it, is that I cant just press "play" and make it shuffle through my whole music collection. Or am I missing something?
Combatus 16th August 2012, 22:16 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by dark_avenger
Well instead of Windows Media Center why don't you run XBMC with plugins for iplayer, netflix, uTorrent, SABnzbd and just about everything else under the sun....

Then you can use windows in the background for media storage, downloading, etc and the xbmc for media streaming?

AFAIK the Netflix addon for XBMC doesn't work to well for those of us in the UK - still far easier to do this in a browser :(
faugusztin 16th August 2012, 22:45 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sheiken
What bothers me a bit after trying it, is that I cant just press "play" and make it shuffle through my whole music collection. Or am I missing something?

Listen to Music, click on the folder icon (the last one), long press on the folder, queue or play ? Don't ask me how to shuffle it, i didn't use this feature (for music play i use a remote login and then i use the Rhytmbox on server).
dark_avenger 17th August 2012, 00:53 Quote
Currently running an unRAID server with ~9TB which is stashed away in a cupboard. Running SABnzbd, Sickbeard, Couchpotato, AirVideo and Minidlna.

Did have a C2D machine for streaming but has been rescrently replaced with a Raspberry Pi with plans for more Raspberry Pi's around the house for all house music and connections to multiple TV's for streaming video.
Ciber 17th August 2012, 12:52 Quote
I have a tiny shuttle under my PC. I think it's called an XS35. It is fanless so very quiet. It does have downsides such as no WOL and only taking 1 laptop size drive but 500gb is all I need in a NAS at the moment as I store very few video files. I run windows XP on it and I use the Gmote app on my tablet as mouse and keyboard which still feels very cool to me. Sometimes I like to use my bluray player with its simple remote to do iplayer etc but I think they are about equal on ease of use. The computer of course does everything a PC does as well. Making video calls from the sofa on the with no keyboard etc in the way feels pretty good too!
aLtikal 19th August 2012, 19:15 Quote
My computer is on all the time so I just use it as a PC and Media Streamer and NAS.
SABnzbd + Sickbeard + CouchPotato + Serviio and a DLNA enabled TV.

Sharing the media stuff allows anyone on the home group to use it too.
Sheiken 20th August 2012, 14:08 Quote
Music Pump XBMC Remote is GREAT for controlling the music playback. It has all the features I was looking for.
sixfootsideburns 20th August 2012, 17:40 Quote
I've been working on exact solution for almost year... between designing the case, buying parts, building the machine, fiddling with hardware, getting drivers straightened out, configuring my Harmony One, etc etc. it becomes quite a time consuming adventure.

If a company could combine all this well, and leave enough room for the customizability that most consumers (of this type of product) would want then I think there is a lot of money to be made.

The future of home media is in a all-in-one device that doesn't require a server room to run. First person to get it right will be well off.
Black Knight X1 20th August 2012, 18:24 Quote
Attached to a 37" LCD TV I have an HTPC with the sound going to an integrated amp. & through 2 quality speakers & subwoofer.The HTPC case is a Zalman HD501 with medium to high end components so I can also use it as a gaming machine using an xbox controller. It also has a Samsung Blu-ray player. The O/S is W7 64bit and I also use XBMC which is far superior to Windows Media Center. The curser is controlled by a blue tooth Logitech diNovo Mini that is so compact but easy to use, I find it invaluable.
My film collection is on a 2TB drive on a PC upstairs. The network is a mix of Ethernet cable & 500 AV Devolo homeplugs & I use a WD MyBookLIve for all the back-ups.
When I want to watch a film I use the Depicus App on my iPod touch to power up the HTPC & the PC upstairs that has the film collection, all from within the lounge. It is streamed and watched using XBMC.
HourBeforeDawn 22nd August 2012, 02:56 Quote
the problem with other OSes unlike Media Center they dont handle blu-ray as well, besides with Media Center I use it as the base but then I have MediaBrowser.TV load on top of that which gives me all the customization I need and blu-ray disc playback
faugusztin 22nd August 2012, 09:48 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by HourBeforeDawn
...

Seems like this BR thing is really big in USA. Because pretty much the only ones who complain about missing BR support from something are from USA.
JoeFez 4th September 2012, 15:09 Quote
The day XBMC brings a solid PVR functionality into its windows builds will be the day that your dream comes true.

Currently XBMC stands head and shoulders above anything else in the market and if you're not worried about PVR functionality, you're pretty much already set, especially with the tvcatchup, iplayer, 4OD and ITV plugins.

As there are so many builds to suit specific hardware setups, I dont think it is an issue of finding one machine to rule them all. More a case of build a machine that suits you and let XBMC pull it all together.

I've got a Antec Fusion case (with the VFD taken out to fit another HDD behind) core i3 2120, 2 x 2TB, 1 x 1TB and a 64GB SSD. HDD noise isnt such a big problem as they tend to spin down fairly quickly when not in use and as most programs run off the SSD they only start up when playing local content. Plus the computer is right by the tv so while it's on you don't really hear it.

I've also got a TBS Dual Freesat card, taking care of PVR duties under WMC7. My biggest problem is constantly swapping between WMC7 and XBMC when watching films and Live TV. There is a little plugin that lets you jump between the two programs but Ideally I'd love to get shot of WMC7 entirely. Codec support under WMC7 is awful from the get go, forget subtitles, dual audio files, exotic formats and the like, not least the UI design which leaves a huge amount to be desired. Fortunately this is where XBMC excels (especially the Aeon Nox skin).

I'm going down the Pi route for other rooms / bedrooms, but had the OUYA already been here, I probably would have given it a try, given the partnership they have already formed with XBMC (or vice versa).

I wouldn't say my setup is 100% perfect, but it's very nearly there. For me at least :)
Lantizia 30th September 2012, 01:51 Quote
When you've got XBMC playing all the content off 4OD, BBC iPlayer (except live streams), demand5, etc... as well as perhaps a vast army of DVD's ripped to disk.

The argument for a TV License (trust me, it's only needed if you watch TV channels broadcast normally or simulcast on the net).... becomes, well... a little silly.
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