Media centers: the exciting, the boring; the solved, the unsolved

Kodak asked me to write them a short essay on home media servers for a campaign they're running with Boing Boing. I decided to look at what excites me about media players (what we could build if every senior entertainment exec dropped dead tomorrow) and what seems to be easy and solved (hooking up a monster hard-drive to a PC with some A/V outputs).

It's been years since I've been excited about home media servers. Partly that's because 80 percent of the problem is *so* easy to solve: a commodity PC, a couple terabytes of storage, and a free, easy OS like Ubuntu Linux with a full set of free drive encryption tools solves almost all my needs. With that box, you've got household backup (using *any* backup software you want, since the server just shares its drives to the LAN), you've got somewhere to rip and store all your music and videos (use any music player you want on whatever PC is handy, again, mounting those huge drives over the LAN), and somewhere to put your photos and ripped ISOs for your game CDs and so on and so on. Attach a DVD drive and a copy of Handbrake and you've got an easy DVD-ripping station (if your script-fu is strong, you can even set things up so that every disk you rip is automagically transcoded to thumbnail-sized versions for your portable player — the free ffmpeg is good for this).

Add DynDNS and some firewall rules, get an ISP that doesn't suckily throttle your inbound connections, and you can access the whole thing from the road. The problem of making a giant, secure archive of files available to four or five people is solved. You may need to find a clever 15-year-old to work out the details, but it's the 21st century, there's a massive glut of 15-year-old geeks. A "media" server is just a server attached to a box like the Neuros which feeds your TV an on-screen menu of stored files.

What's Easy, What's Hard