Streaming your Own Media at Home

You’ve cut the cable and now you want to be able to watch videos, listen to music, and look at the (thousands!) of digital photos you’ve taken; but you (or your spouse) don’t want that “big, noisy, ugly computer” in the living room, where your biggest HDTV is.

Fear not, my friend! If you already have a Roku digital media player and a network at home (wired or wireless; I prefer wired, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to poke cables through the walls and floors), you’re already three-quarters of the way to streaming your own movies, music, and photos. There are other ways, of course, but this is definitely the least expensive option; Roku players start at around US$50, and the most expensive streaming option we’re going to talk about here is US$15. You can’t buy a general-purpose PC that can play steaming video well for US$65, and even a wireless remote by itself would cost around half of that, so this is the most cost-effective solution I have found.

What you need:

  • The afore-mentioned Roku player
  • A wired or wireless home network.
  • A computer that will act as the server for your streaming needs. More on that below.
  • The server software.
  • The client-side app for the Roku.
  • Software for converting files to the necessary format, if they aren’t already in that format.
  • An account at the Roku Web site (which is free).

Preparing your home media center:

While it’s true that Microsoft has a popular Windows Media Center package, the biggest problem with it is cost (you have to either buy a new PC with Windows installed, or spend US$90 or more to get Windows). Other issues are the noise and power requirements (which translates into unwanted heat in the summer), and that bulky computer. So, the first thing you need to do is get the Roku player set up and connected to your TV and network (and presumably the Internet; that was why you got a Roku in the first place, right?).

Next, select the home PC you’re going to use as your media server. This does not have to be dedicated solely to the purpose, but it’s not a good plan to have someone playing games on the PC while you’re trying to stream video from it. If you have only one PC, and it’s running Windows XP or Windows 7, it will work. Again, if it’s going to be a shared-use PC, plan accordingly, because most games will cause degraded streaming. Right now, just about the least-expensive PC you can buy with Windows 7 (or Windows Home Server) will be more than sufficient for your server, so if your budget allows, you probably ought to consider it. Whatever you decide, we’re going to call this PC your “server” from now on.

Make sure the server is set up in a place with adequate ventilation (to prevent overheating) and where any noise it makes won’t bother you when you’re watching the TV. Also make sure it has a reliable connection to your network. This is critical to the success of your home media enjoyment; if you can use a wired connection to your router, it is your best choice.

Now you’re ready to decide which server-client system you want to use. Since you can always change your mind, it might be a good idea to start with the least-expensive (e.g., free) choice and make sure everything is functional before you spend any more of your hard-earned cash (even if it’s only 99 cents).

The Server Options: In order of cost we have three tested choices.

  • MyMedia for Roku is freeware.
  • roConnect is freeware, but the Roku client app will cost you 99 cents. There is also an Android app available. If you want to stream to an Android device without hassle, this is really your only choice.
  • Roksbox is $15. There is a 30-day free trial period.

Putting it all together: I’m going to address only the video streaming in this article, but please be aware that all three solutions also support audio streaming as well as still pictures.

First we’ll talk about the free system, MyMedia. The detailed instructions are linked above, but here’s the short version:

  1. Install the private channel on your Roku.
  2. Register (for free) the app that you just installed.
  3. Download and install the server-side software on the PC you’ve chosen for that purpose.

Because the server is written in the Python language, it’s not going to be simple to run as a service (a “service” in Windows runs in the background without needing to have any desktop windows open). Thus you may want to set up a special user account on your server, if it’s not dedicated to being a server, use that account to run the MyMedia server, and then “switch user” to a different account, to prevent someone from accidentally closing the server window.

You will have to configure the server and client to “talk to” each other; all those instructions are on the MyMedia pages.

Because MyMedia is freeware, it’s the best way to be sure your network is going to support streaming video; it won’t cost anything that you haven’t already spent, except some of your time. This is the client/server combination I used for over a year with satisfactory results. If you try it and you are happy with it, feel free to stop reading here.

Next up: roConnect

roConnect has a slick setup program that installs everything you need on the server in one bundle. If you’ve looked at the roConnect Web site, you can see that the developer has a well-developed sense of pleasing design, and the roConnect interface is undeniably pretty. Everything (other than file conversion software) is integrated into the Web-based front end to the package, and when it works, it works smoothly. There’s an active community of users who try to help each other out when things don’t go right, as well. For roConnect, you will follow these steps:

  1. Download the installation package from the roConnect Web site.
  2. Install it on your server.
  3. Add the roConnect app on your Roku. This will cost you 99 cents. Come on, be a sport!
  4. Run the Web interface either directly on your server, or from another computer on your network, and configure the server (so it can find your media).
  5. Run the Web interface and “connect” the Roku.
  6. Index your media.

Because roConnect has built-in IMdB integration, it can find a great deal of information for each video, if that video is named properly and if it’s listed at IMdB. The developer recommends running with IMdB auto-lookups turned off, however, and my experience agrees; you’re better off to “edit” each video’s info after indexing. roConnect will still perform the IMdB lookup, but it won’t hang up your indexing when a video can’t be found on IMdB.

When I first installed roConnect it was on version 1.2 and I had to fiddle around a bit to get it working. The client end is a lot more “elegant” than MyMedia’s rather Spartan look, closely matching the Netflix look on the Roku. Unfortunately, I was never able to get the current version (2.0 as of this writing) to index completely. Not everyone is having problems with it, though, and the nice Web interface and Android app are big pluses, so you should still consider roConnect.

My final choice: Roksbox

  1. The first thing you’ll do here is add the Roksbox private channel. Instructions are provided in the Roksbox tutorial. It won’t cost anything immediately because you have the free 30-day trial period.
  2. Next, you’ll choose and install a Web server package, and configure it for use with Roksbox. This is a lot easier than it sounds. Instructions are provided for several Windows server packages, Mac OS X, Linux, and two ready-built NAS systems. I recommend using Apache on Windows, mostly because it can be easily installed to run as a service, and configuration is in plain text so you can easily see what you’ve done. I am, of course, assuming you’re not using a USB drive plugged right into the Roku (which Roksbox supports).
  3. Decide how you’re going to index your files. Roksbox lets you choose either a “regular” file system or an XML file. I tried both ways, and for my money, the simple file system is better; I had 969 video files when running my tests, and the XML would have to be regenerated every time I added another one. That’s too much work.
  4. Configure your Roku client app to tell it where the server is.

At this point, you’re ready to start streaming video, music, and photos.

Why I settled on Roksbox in the end:

If you go to the Roksbox Web site, you’ll find detailed instructions for setup of the server, and for creating beautiful “movie sheets” using the freeware program Thumbgen. While this part can be time-consuming, the end result is very worthwhile on the Roku. Here’s a sample sheet, using the default template (I actually use a different template; you’ll find links to download other templates both at the Roksbox site and on the Thumbgen site):

[Click to Enlarge]

Summary:

You can stream your media for free (MyMedia), for very little (roConnect), or for only a little more (Roksbox), and keep that annoying PC noise out of your TV viewing area. You can even stream to (and from) Android devices without a lot of hassle, in addition to the Roku.

The age of streaming home video is here. Don’t be left out.

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About icesnake

Icesnake, known to Law Enforcement the world over as Rich Tietjens, retired from the US Army in 1992 and has spent the intervening years attempting to die with the most gadgets, and thus, win. To this end, he has written software both as a freelance programmer and a paid consultant, tested network products and built driver disks for Intel, operated a Web hosting service for ten years, built more personal computers than any sane man would ever want, collected seven cats, and finally settled down in Oregon as the Information Technology Training Coordinator (fancy talk for "help desk and PC tech") for a small manufacturing firm. Rich started playing Dungeons and Dragons in 1976 and has never given up the RPG habit, progressing through Diablo, Everquest, Asheron's Call, Diablo 2, and World of Warcraft. Most evenings you can find him on Trollbane-US playing his mage, Icesnake - who is an Engineer and is trying to collect all the cool gadgets in Greater Azeroth... And so it goes.