The Film Library Project: Part One

Some time ago, I decided that it was dumb and a waste of space to keep my library of around 300 DVDs in their plastic boxes stacked on shelves inside two rather large cabinets. So I purchased a Sony 400-disc DVD jukebox, transferred all the silver discs into it and discarded all the boxes and booklets, leaving me with a simple way to manage, sort and view my movies and TV shows on DVDs.
Then I went Mac. The Apple platform is more suitable to digital media storage than Windows. It just is. Believe me, I tried it both ways and the whole Windows Media solution sucks. They layered too much crap over it all, and even though it will record and store television broadcasts, I’m too tied to my TiVo to have ever abandoned it, particularly after succumbing to Comcast’s attempt at digital TV recording in Hi-Def which capital-S Sucked.
Initially I tried to copy my DVD library to a Mac mini with 750Gb of attached external drive space, but that mini simply wasn’t up to the task. Using Handbrake to extract a 2-hour film from disc to drive took all night long. Plus, Handbrake previously had some bugs that chopped off the final few seconds of a film (not a big deal when talking about end credits, quite a big deal when talking about the 2-disc Lord of the Rings extended editions) and it wouldn’t support Dolby Digital tracks in 5.1 arrays. And even if it did, the Mac mini didn’t have a Dolby license to be able to interpret it into 5.1 tracks.
The advent of Apple tv 2.0 has altered the landscape considerably.

I already had all my music sequestered on the Mac mini external dives (which I named in my glassdog network) and was enjoying the ease with which I could share my entire music library — currently consisting of 12,000 tracks on over 1,000 albums covering 40.2 days of continuous music streaming — on my laptop in my bedroom as well as my hi-fi set-up in the living room. I could even, if I chose, plug in another Airport Express in any room I wanted to and use it as another hub on the to stream music into another room, all from a centrally located music hub discretely housed on the cute little mini in the living room.
When I started trying to transfer my DVD library, I ran into the aforementioned problems. They weren’t necessarily huge problems, but they were annoying nonetheless, so I stopped trying to use my mini as an all-in-one digital media hub and kept using the Sony Jukebox, even though its interface wasn’t nearly as clean and simple to use as Front Row to figure out what was where.
I purchased an Apple tv after Robert, my boyfriend (for those not keeping up) purchased his own and had remarked that he was using it “more than (he) thought” to download rented movies from iTunes. The Apple tv has a few distinct advantages over a plain and simple mini when you want to stream digital entertainment, and a couple of drawbacks as well.
Apple tv Advantages:

  1. HDMI out
  2. Dolby Digital support
  3. HD rentals via iTunes

Apple tv Disadvantages:

  1. Limited storage capacity
  2. No keyboard or mouse support
  3. No DVD/Blu-ray or any other media drive
  4. No access to the operating system
  5. Dead USB port

In essence, Apple tv is a hobbled Mac mini, but it’s the only mechanism that will get you 720p video from the iTunes store, and it’s the only way to get Dolby 5.1 tracks from your digital library to your amp.
Luckily, the Apple tv can see and share iTunes libraries. So now all I had to do was rip all my movies and television episodes from my 300+ DVD discs to my Mac mini’s iTunes library and then share that with the Apple tv.
Also luckily, Handbrake 0.9.2 fixed several existing problems and added support for Dolby Digital tracks via AC3, so now there was a way to retain all 5.1 channels off a DVD film and get those individual tracks interpreted by the A/V amp, thereby losing absolutely nothing in the transfer from media to file.
The added advantage of keeping my music on the Mac mini is that with two further pieces of software offered by Nullriver (Connect360 and MediaLink) I can also stream music to both my Xbox 360 and my Playstation 3, though the PS3 is limited in its handling of that music. On my Xbox, I can pull up any song, album or playlist and stream it in-game, replacing whatever thundering death metal the game designers licensed with my own gay-brained equivalent. On the PS3, I can listen to the music as long as that’s all I’m doing. Seemingly, and stupidly, one has to physically copy the music to the PS3’s own drive in order for it to do anything else with it.
So if you have a library of films and music currently held hostage in several different places, and you have several hundred dollars lying about looking for a reason to help the economy along, here’s my set-up for having a single media server housing all music and video that allows you to stream any of that anywhere you want it.
I’m linking to the Apple store for “one-stop shopping” but most (all?) of these are available at Amazon for probably a little bit cheaper, and if you live in California you won’t pay sales tax on any Amazon purchases (until you claim the purchases on your state taxes, of course).

  • Apple tv ($229, but often available refurbed for $199)
  • Mac mini ($599 but sometimes (not too often) available refurbed for $499)
    Remember, this is a fully functioning computer, so once it’s hooked up to your A/V set-up, you can surf the web, write emails, chat, and pretty much anything you do with any other computer.
  • HDMI cable ($20 — and don’t spend any more than that, you don’t need to.)
  • An HDMI-capable A/V receiver. Mine is a Denon 3808ci, which is over $1000, but there are plenty of good alternatives, some for less than $400. Choosing an A/V receiver is worthy of an article unto itself, so I won’t go into that much detail here.
  • A wide screen LCD or Plasma display. I’d probably shoot my wad on this if you haven’t already taken the plunge. Prices are falling, but budget between $1500 and $2000 for a good bordering on great flat screen. Panasonic and Pioneer for plasmas, Sony, Samsung and Toshiba for LCD. Plasmas generally offer deeper blacks, while LCDs will suck slightly less energy and may cost less in the long run.
  • Additional external storage. I use the LaCie Mini HD 500Gb Hub because it fits right under the mini’s footprint, but you may like the looks of the Western Digital My Book Studio line, which are created to compliment the Apple silver-and-white look. The My Book Studio comes in 1Tb and 2Tb models which should store just about anything you want to cram into them.
  • If you’re going to hook the Mac mini directly to your A/V setup, you’ll also need a DVI cable, a digital audio cable, a keyboard and a mouse. The mini has Bluetooth built-in, so any Bluetooth keyboard and mouse will work, but I elected to stay inside the Apple look-n-feel and got me the wireless keyboard and the somewhat stupidly designed Mighty Mouse. I use the mini infrequently as a stand-alone computer so they do the job admirably, plus they’re small and easy to hide away in my component cabinet.
  • Handbrake is the software I use to rip movies from DVDs. It has an easy to understand front-end to select the various audio tracks (each DVD comes with several) and the optional captioning (for your foreign language films, because no one likes a dubbed movie, do they?) and supports just about every format you might want, from MP4 to Apple tv to iPod and iPhone.

Getting all my digital media into a media server has made almost everything about watching films and TV and listening to music less about figuring out where it is and how to get to it, and more about deciding what the hell I’m going to watch now that it’s all readily and easily available.
Now, all I need to do is back it all up. There’s just never enough hard drive space, is there?

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