Creating a Great HTPC Media Server
In order to play your h.264 media over a network, there's a certain level of PC you'll need as well as specific software. Inside, you'll find our recommendations for both these integral pieces of your server.
If you don’t know what “h.264" is, don’t beat yourself up about it – it’s actually a relatively “new" idea in streaming media. H.264 or AVC is a type of video encoding that is done in order to allow you to watch your HD movies and TV shows using less bit-rate. The idea itself is rather interesting.
Let’s look at it from a pipe analogy. Originally, for larger quality, larger sized movies, you’d require a much larger pipe than to say, watch a youtube video. Then, in 2002-2003, a group of technical experts known as the Moving Pictures Experts Group (this is where MPEG comes from) decided to see if they could pipe through the same HD video into the smaller pipeline. The results were astonishing, by using a new technology, they were able to route the same HD video into the much smaller pipeline and still get the video to play without lag and without slow-down. Why am I telling you all this? You came to this article in search of how to make your own MPEG-4 h.264 media server – essentially a media server capable of playing h.264 media, and I am here to help you. However, you must first understand the technology behind the h.264 format to understand why you need more computing power in order to make your media server. To make things simple for you, I’m going to outline what specs you’ll need to accomplish this:
H.264 Media Server PC Specifications
CPU: Dual-core, Intel or AMD, has to be over 2.3, 2.4 at the very minimum.
RAM: 2 Gigs minimum, 4 if you like things to be incredibly snappy on the PC.
GPU: Anything over a GeForce 8200, 8400 will do, it doesn’t need to be a game-playing card – try to scope out those cards that are more tuned for video viewing and not gaming.
Hard Drive: If you’re going to store the files locally on the server, go for broke and buy a 1 Tb drive. If you’re only going to run the program on the PC and stream over your network, then buy the cheapest drive you can find that’s above 150 GB.
DVD/CD: If you’re looking to play Blu-Ray movies right off the disc in this new PC, you’re going to need to buy a rather expensive BD drive. If not, get a standard DVD player with reader/writer – shouldn’t be anything over $30 or $40.
Power Supply: Buy one with at least 500W of power.
Motherboard: Nothing too crazy here, just one with plenty of PCI slots, PCI-E 16x, and four RAM slots, and make sure it’s compatible with the CPU above.
H.264 Software Specifications
Operating System: You can go for Linux if you’re feeling adventurous or you already know how to use it. If not, use Windows 7 if you have access to it or use Windows XP. DO NOT USE VISTA – YOU’RE RUNNING A LOW-RAM SYSTEM!
Media Software: You have two options in this category, both equally as competent.
Boxee – This is the newest contender in town for Media PC domination. Boxee runs off the XBMC engine (more on that below) and is incredibly small. The interface is light, clean, and easy to use. It’s not highly customizable yet because it’s only in the alpha stage of release, but it does the job quite admirably. It’s free and open to the public currently on www.boxee.tv.
XBMC – This is the grizzled veteran of the media server game. Unlike Boxee, you don’t need a decent box to run XBMC with the ugly skin that it comes with originally. XBMC was originally made to run on the Xbox (you read that right, not the 360, the original Xbox), and so the specs are tremendously low. However, unlike Boxee, the opening interface isn’t very refined or pretty, and so, if you’re going to skin the system with something like AEON (a skin), you’ll need a beefier PC. XBMC is also available for free at www.xbmc.org.
After running 3 different media PCs, a rule of thumb seems to be that a PC will run either Boxee or XBMC tremendously well, but it cannot run both. For whatever reason, this is the rule that seems to work with most PCs, even looking at forums, you’ll hear the complaint quite often. Remember to set aside a good amount of time for making your server function properly and to learn the controls. Once your server and software is set-up, you’ll look on in awe as 1080p movies are streamed over your Wireless G network flawlessly to your media PC.
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