My Adventures in the Connected Home

584e5b3b8ff3e4755498e7ebe5a13e82Prologue

As a sad gadget freak I have always been interested to explore connecting gadgets in the home and a recent home renovation gave me the opportunity to do some exploration of connecting media around the home.

The starting point came several years ago when I used some frequent flyer points to claim a TiVo box as a reward. The initial reaction from my wife was a clear “what’s that thing, I’m never using that” before she became enamoured of it and now watches everything through TiVo.

At this point we had an old Victorian home with nothing more exotic than a wireless ADSL router in the family room that provided wireless internet access in most of the house. Then we started the renovation …

Basic Connectivity

I was determined to have network cabling around the house and started investigating options.

First, I looked into the Clipsal C-Bus system. A local company showed me how it all worked. Quite frankly it was overkill for what I wanted – which was just network connectivity, audio and video distributed around the home. I am not a Foxtel subscriber and I did not need to dim lights, open doors and make tea from an iPhone app, so it was quite easy to say no to spending $30,000 on a C-Bus installation.

Next, there was Sonos for distributing audio around the house. With 2 teenagers addicted to their iPods/iPhones and several iTunes libraries on various computers this seemed a good option. When I costed it up we were adding around $10,000 to the cost of the renovation and all we would get was the ability to play music around the home with pre-dominantly Sonos speakers. Since I had recently acquired an Apple Airport Express to extend my wireless network I had become interesting with AirPlay so I discarded Sonos as too expensive and too proprietary.

There was some interesting, but also expensive, kit from Crestron. This would allow me to connect up multiple TV’s and send video (using HDMI) to different TV’s around the house. It looked and sounded awesome but was also pretty expensive and proprietary so I discarded that as well.

In the end all I asked the builder to do was:

(1) wire up the house with CAT6 and put network points in each room;

(2)  install a central switching cabinet in the laundry (for me to re-locate my ADSL modem, add a gigabit ethernet switch and store any other servers I cared to);

(3) Install a home theatre system in the main living room, with 4 speakers in the ceiling, a central speaker suspended (out of sight) under the “floating marble shelf, some cupboards to house the A/V receiver, BluRay player and TiVo boxes, a wall mount for the TV and plenty of network and coaxial connections hidden away in the back.

The Internet Connection Saga

Prior to starting the renovation I had a rock-solid and relatively fast internet connection using a Cisco ADSL router with an iinet connection. iinet have always been good to me and I love their customer service so I stuck with them but the next year of internet connectivity was extremely frustrating.

The source of the problem was my builder severing the lead-in cable when digging up the garden and “fixing” it with a soldered connection, sealed in gel. This caused endless problems with drop-outs on the ADSL connection. Eventually the problem was solved when we got the builder to replace the lead-in cable from the Telstra pit to the side of the house, upgraded the duct and installed a Telstra-approved Network Termination Device (NTD) with central ADSL filter on the side of the house. This has improved the stability and speed of the internet connection so we get a consistent 19Mbps line speed (it varied between 2Mbps and 5Mbps before). The “saga” part was the fact that it took 18 months to diagnose the problem and required an independent ex-Telstra tech to diagnose and recommend the solution that iinet, Telstra and their sub-contractors then took another 6 months to decide to agree with.

We have installed the iinet supplied BobLite modem in the switching cabinet but it has the wireless feature turned off so all it does is provide the ADSL modem function.

Post-Renovation Experiments

Now we already have 2 TV sets, both HD1080p but neither with a network connection, and the TiVo 3 PVR with 160Gb hard disk that my wife loves. My son has a Sony Playstation PS3 which he primarily uses for games attached to one of the TV sets.

We also have a mix of Windows laptops (my wife and daughter) and Macs (my son and I). A couple of years earlier I had purchased a 1Tb LaCie Networkspace as a primitive NAS drive and I had some moderate success using it as a media server. Now it was time to get serious.

The first thing that needed replacing was the Networkspace. It was almost full, did not work well as a backup drive and was too slow. My first attempt involved using an Apple Time Capsule. The reason I bought this was to provide me a wifi access point in the living room and ethernet switching for the home theatre system. I also doubled the disk capacity of the Networkspace by buying the 2Tb Time Capsule but very soon wished I had gone for 3Tb. I configured both Macs to use it for Time Machine backups and purchased Altaro FS for my wife’s Windows laptop. I installed it in the home theatre cabinet so that it could provide me some spare gigabit ports for the Sony BluRay (BD570 with BD-Live and a network connection), the TiVo and the Samsung Smart TV. The only thing that I did not buy with an Ethernet connection was the Denon AVR891 receiver and I have regretted it ever since.

The Time Capsule also gives me wireless connectivity in the family area and to cover the front of the house I purchased 2 Apple Airport Express devices. I quickly grew to love/hate the Apple Airport Utility. It works well once you know how to get around the idiosyncracities of creating a wireless roaming network around the house. The other thing that the Airport’s do is provide me with AirPlay capabilities.

Up in the front rooms (we have a 2nd living area at the front of the house) I installed the non-connected Sony Bravia HD TV set with the PS3 acting as both Blu-Ray player and connected media player. I had also purchased Sony’s PlayTV product but quickly gave that a miss. It creates a separate area to store TV recordings and they are not accessible in the PS3 interface unless you explicitly copy the files, which is tedious. Also the files cannot be copied over a network unless you jailbreak the PS3. Once you do that the PS3 will not work with Sony’s Playstation Network and I did not want to stuff up my son’s online gaming so I resisted the urge to jailbreak the PS3.

I used the 3rd TV in our bedroom and decided to buy an Apple TV to gain connectivity. After using it for a few months I decided to jailbreak it to see what I could install. It gave me access to various media playing apps, including XBMC and Plex, but I sorely needed a media server now.

Having retired the Networkspace I wanted to mount my next NAS in the central rack. Now the cabinet is quite airless and so a low power, quiet NAS was needed with media streaming capability and Time Machine compatibility. I finally decided on the Synology DS413. It has a low power CPU but still comes with 1Gb RAM and 4 drive bays. I would have preferred a rack mount NAS but when I measured up the cabinet I realised the Synology RS models would be too deep for the cabinet.

Into the Synology DS413 I installed 2 x 3Tb Western Digital Green disks. I chose the DS413 to be low power so I wanted to have low power disks. I have a bunch of Synology DSM packages installed, primarily the iTunes, Media Server, Video, Music and Photo Stations. I am still using the Time Capsule for backups but that is now running out of space.

Achieving Nirvana

Before buying the Synology NAS I experimented with a lot of different media servers, including XBMC, Serviio, PS3 Media Server or PMS, Twonky Media, TVMobili and Elgato’s EyeConect (because I already have an Elgato TV tuner stick) but I now prefer Plex. That’s not to say the Synology Media Server software is no good. I am using it now and it works fine but I discovered a Plex client app for my Samsung Smart TV and I really love the ease of use of Plex client with Plex media server. I believe it is the best multi-platform alternative to the Apple stable of products.

Currently I have the Plex Media Server installed on an old iMac 27″ with the Synology drives mounted via AFP and I have Plex clients on the Samsung Smart TV (UA46C7000), the jailbroken AppleTV 2, my Macbook Air and my iPad. The iMac setup is less than ideal as I need it on 24×7 and it consumes a fair bit of power when running … I can see why someone would get a Mac Mini to act as the home media server, perhaps that will be my next step.

The TiVo provided a roadblock of sorts. The 160Gb disk is quite limited and it is hard to extract the .tivo files and play them on other TV’s around the house unless you hook up a TiVo box to each TV. At one point that was a consideration but I decided instead to purchase the TiVo Home Networking Package and try and transfer the recorded movies and shows to somewhere on my home network. I was able to transfer them to my wife’s Windows laptop quite easily but getting them to play on any other TV appeared impossible. I started to experiment with tivodecode and kmttg, 2 open source packages that allowed me to decode the .tivo files to my iMac and encode them into various formats (like .mkv). At present I am using the iTiVo front end to extract files from the TiVo, decoder them on the iMac and store them in MPEG-4 format on the NAS. The process is manual at the moment but I’d like to automate it in the future.

I have also installed the TiVo plugin for Plex which allows any Plex-connected device in the home to see what shows are on the TiVo and helps me to decide what to download and decode on the iMac. I use the vnc protocol to control the iMac remotely to do this.

My next step will be to upgrade the Denon A/V receiver. It has 2 serious limitations: first it has no network connectivity so I need to use the TV or Blu-Ray player to stream via the Home Theatre setup; and the 2nd zone audio (which is outside in the pool area) will not play digital audio from the TV or Blu-Ray player.

My wife is still addicted to TiVo but she has recently started watching movies that we purchase online using the BigPond app on the Samsung TV and has used Plex to watch TV shows and movies that I have recorded and stored on the NAS. It will take a much simpler and more elegant user interface to get her off TiVo but I remain in hope …

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