My automated, cord-free Media Setup

The articles about the speculative entry of Apple in the TV business are reason enough for me to write down how I married my computer with the big screen.

For one and a half-year I’m using a HTPC for almost all media consumption in my household. The classic TV with cable has deprecated for getting information live and synchronically (think of sports or live coverage from Fukushima immediately after the earthquake). Thanks to the Long Tail, the web has so much more relevant content to offer for free. On the other hand, it’s just ridiculous to watch good content on the smallest interface with the poorest speakers.

Room with a view

Now you may ask which media center I use. Is it the all-rounder XBMC, it’s social companion Boxee or something minimal like an Apple TV2?

In fact, I tried all of the above but stick to Miro (available for all platforms). Think of it like the Google Reader for video. You throw in feeds from RSS Podcasts, YouTube users/playlists or Torrents and the program will automatically download newly available files to your hard drive.

The embedded player remembers at which point you paused a video for easy resuming and plays several files in a row. This is a bigger deal than it looks like, because only with that feature (that’s missing from most other solutions) you get the leanback experience one is used to on traditional TV sets.

I clustered my feeds in several folders: Sports, Film, Info, Fun, Tech and Music. (For examples of content see my post about YouTube creators.)

When I select Music and hit the play button, Miro gives me all unwatched music videos from the different sources I subscribed to. Sort of like a automatically renewing playlist.

Not every feed that’s available on iTunes can be subscribed to via standard RSS. Flipper to the rescue. It’s a free iTunes Podcast to RSS converter that generates links digestible for every normal Media RSS reader.

To keep the storage needs low, Miro offers to delete watched files after a certain period, e.g. 7 days.

Clips from video streaming sites like YouTube get downloaded in the highest available quality, means up to 1080p. Depending on your internet connection you may need to tell Miro maximum download and upload rates to keep some bandwidth free for other internet tasks.

Miro can watch harddrive folders for new videos. Video files that I want to add to my Miro queue are easily put in a dedicated Dropbox folder on my notebook. These get synced to the HTPC and automatically moved to a folder Miro watches for new content.

At this point I should mention Mediathek, a famous tool for Mac owners, that downloads shows from the german video-on-demand channels ARD, ZDF or Arte. (Please don’t compare this to Hulu, otherwise I’ll get really angry. For US-based readers: You don’t appreciate how lucky you are.)

Use a third-party tool to transfer video links from your “browsing PC” to the HTPC. When I come across a lengthy video that I like to watch on my LCD, I hit the bookmarklet. As soon as the video is added to my profile, Miro scans the site’s RSS and downloads the queued link. While this is not the nature of the service, it works surprisingly fast. Maybe I’ll take a look at Squrl, which is intended to manage exactly this purpose, though.

To utilise the “next big protocol after RSS” I have AirPlayer. There are different scripts to move video directly to e.g. XBMC.

So, Miro can deal with new watchable content pretty good, what do you do with existing films on hard drives or DVD’s? You could import them in Miro, too, but personally I want to separate throw-away content that is only watched once and, let’s say the Blu-Ray edition of my favourite blockbuster.

Therefore I import and consolidate this kind of media as well as mp3 music files in iTunes. You may find better media libraries but when you own an iPhone this should be the way to go. In fact, iTunes Home Sharing with additional VPN (to get your library on other computers that are not in the same WiFi network) is pretty cool.

If you don’t want to use the iTunes interface in the living room, please give Plex a try — a media frontend based on XBMC for your iTunes library. The Plex App uses Direct Play and Direct Streaming to deliver a really instant playback feeling.

Needless to say, despite my efforts to make it as easy as possible, it’s not “Grandma-friendly” and could change at some points. For example at the moment I’m thinking about how to solve the remote control problem. Sticking with different remotes for dedicated stations or getting a Logitech Harmony?

This article was first published on April 22, 2011.