I don’t think much of it anymore, but many people still keep their media (audio and video) on shiny pieces of plastic which they store in pieces of furniture near their entertainment areas. Dutifully extracting them from their cases each time they want to listen to or watch them. I was a very early adopter of digitizing my audio and then of video and now take it for granted that I can have all my media anywhere I want it.
Devices such as the iPod and services like iTunes Match and Spotify make this easier for music and for individual devices, but there is still a challenge with keeping huge amounts of media available and sharing it with different listening or viewing devices in the house.
I’ve built a system at our house that works for me. It is clearly a geek system and not for everyone, however, a number of people have asked questions about it, so I thought I would share some of the details for others to benefit. Before I get into the details, I will state from the beginning that I am a huge fan of the Apple ecosystem and while not all components of my system are Apple branded, most of them are. If this is not your style, that’s cool, but you may not find this as interesting.
The first realization one has when digitizing media is that it requires huge amounts of storage. An average CD can run from 100MB to 150MB which is not so bad anymore, but a movie can easily top 1GB. Therefore, the heart of any system is storage. Many people, myself included, started by storing their media on their computer itself. This is the simplest way to do so and the default for any media program (my choice being iTunes). However, as your collection grows and as many of us switch to either using laptops as their primary computers or switch to using SSDs, storage is limited on your computer. External hard drives can extend this lifetime for a little while, but they quickly become clumsy. Network storage becomes the answer.
In my system, I have a dedicated storage server on my network (you can read about its early creation here). This server runs Open Indiana (a descendant of Open Solaris) given that operating system’s ability to handle huge amounts of storage. It currently has approximately 11TB of storage space. This is clearly overkill for most people and more technical hassle than most people want to deal with (myself included, sometimes). But, there are plenty of low maintenance network attached storage (NAS) devices on the market that can serve the same purpose. I used to use a device from ReadyNAS (now a part of Netgear) and it did a great job with minimal fuss.
Any of these systems will let you access your music over your home network. I configure iTunes to use the server as its primary storage location, so it is transparent to me.
As I mentioned above, I use iTunes to manage my media. While iTunes is not perfect, it does bring with it many benefits as part of the Apple ecosystem. Syncing my music and video to my iPhone or iPad is simple and transparent. Streaming audio and video to other devices (more below) is also simple.
While iTunes is capable of ripping CDs to be used digitally, they do not provide the same facility for getting video you already own on physical media onto your computer. There are any number of apps out there to accomplish the task, I have been very happy with Handbrake. Once I have the media files in iTunes I can properly label the movies or TV shows.
Watching and Listening
While listening to music and watching video on a computer is ok, it is hardly ideal. Being able to use a TV or stereo to listen to your collection is ideal. For music, I have an Airport Express hooked up to a great 70′s era Harmon Kardon stereo in the living room. iTunes is able to stream audio to that device from my computer and have it play through the stereo. It can be controlled from the Remote app on either an iPad or iPhone. The Airport Express hooks up to your wireless network, so it can be placed anywhere in your house. (It can also act as your only wireless base station if you need it to be.)
For video, I rely on the AppleTV. I now have both a first generation and a second generation one. The second generation ones are far superior to the originals. The new units allow you to stream any media from iTunes to an attached TV. It can also stream video from Netflix to expand your viewing options beyond the media you own.
Given the connection to iTunes, media can be transferred or streamed to any Apple iOS device.
I am very happy with what I have set up. but there are limitations. iTunes is designed to be used by a single user on a single computer. While I store the media on a server that other computers in the house have access to, only 1 copy of iTunes can manage it. This poses some challenges for us as both Tiffany and I have our own computers and portable devices. We haven’t come up with a great solution yet.
All of my setup is designed to be used within the house. The only way to move media outside the house is by transferring it one of our devices (iPod, iPhone, or iPad). This is great if you know what you want when you go on a trip for example, but not so great if you are traveling or at work and all of a sudden want o listen to music you didn’t bring with you. again, I don;t have a great solution. I can get to my home network and transfer files, but it is always clumsy. I looked forward to iTunes Match being able to help with music, but I exceed their 25,000 song limit. Hopefully that will be increased eventually.
As I said earlier, media is big. If you plan on moving lots of it around your network, a fast network is critical. While we have wireless at home and that works great for playing media, all of the machines that might need to copy files around are wired for greater speed.