Building my home media center

I now have all the pieces in place to build the Home Media Center that I’ve been dreaming of. Sure I’ve got HDTV’s, TiVo, surround sound, Blu-ray, Apple TV’s, and a pretty extensive DVD collection of over 350 movies. However, the one piece of the puzzle that was missing was having those movies that I love, the top 25 to 50 or so movies that I could watch over and over again on a hard drive that could be streamed to any one of my HDTV’s. There is nothing new about ripping DVDs to .MP4/.M4V format and serving them up. As a matter of fact I had already tried it months ago. What stopped me dead in my tracks back then was the fact that I was missing the 5.1 surround sound. The original Apple TV software 1.x did not support 5.1 surround sound playback without some cleaver hacking/encoding. It was just a bit more than I was willing to go through. However, with the latest software update to Apple TV (take 2), Apple has turned on the 5.1 surround sound playback if your movies are encoded properly.

Once Apple updated the Apple TV, I knew it would be just a matter of time before my favorite media conversion apps would be updated to take advantage of this. Sure enough, the first one, "Visual Hub" was updated almost immediately with an Apple TV 5.1 preset. Then the other shoe dropped. The other utility and probably the more important of the two, HandBrake 0.9.2 (a freeware app for both Mac and PC) was just updated a couple of days ago to support 5.1 surround on Apple TV as well. So now with a computer running iTunes and a large hard drive, an Apple TV or two around the house, I can rip my DVD’s to an Apple TV 5.1 surround format and access them at any time using the Apple TV remote.

A true 5.1 Dolby Digital signal coming through to my Bose receiver from The Matrix running on my Apple TV


What’s my setup?

I have an iMac G5 dedicated as an iTunes server. It currently has a 250GB internal hard drive in it and I plan to update it to a terabyte drive now that this is all working. This iMac is on my network via gigabit ethernet. This iMac already has my entire music collection on it. I have some Apple TV’s in various rooms connected to HDTV’s. Using HandBrake (a freeware app for both Mac and PC) with a simple settings change, I can encode my DVDs while preserving the 5.1 surround track.

The main setting change I made in HandBrake was to change the Codec to AAC + AC3 Audio


Once the movies are encoded then what?

Once I rip a DVD to the hard drive using HandBrake, I then import it into iTunes. I have to option of actually syncing the movie(s) to the hard drives of the Apple TV, but this really isn’t necessary with the latest version of Apple TV, nor is it feasible because the Apple TV hard drives just aren’t large enough. With the latest software update of Apple TV the movies and other media in your iTunes library and the movies and media on your Apple TV hard drive show up together in the Apple TV menus. So Apple TV will play the movie you select regardless of which drive it actually resides on. The streaming experience has been flawless so far.

Scene from The Matrix streaming through Apple TV from my iMac G5 to my home theater


What’s next?

Now I have to decide if I really want 350+ movies at my finger tips. If so then I will definitely need to upgrade the iMac to a larger hard drive. A 2 hour movie weighs in at 2.54GB once converted to .M4V (.MP4). So 350 movies could easily take up just under 1 terabyte of drive space. The truth is that I realized some time ago that there aren’t very many movies that I could watch over and over again. So chances are I won’t be converting all of my movies. I will definitely rip my favorites. There’s also the HD issue. The vast majority of my current DVDs are in standard definition DVD. While the Apple TV does support HD content, these standard def DVDs still look pretty good or at least as good as the original DVDs did (to my eyes) using this setup. If I do buy any new movies, I will likely buy them in Blu-ray format. Hopefully iTunes will start to offer HD movies for sale. I don’t plan to buy many new flicks, but given the choice of buying a digital download vs. a disc, I may lean towards a digital download now.


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