Movies, and cameras, and DVRs… oh my!

Some of you might remember my first serious foray into the world of hardware from my ‘How cheap can you build a decent PC?’ article. Well, as it turns out, I’ve come to consider it something of an ongoing project. It started out as a place to store my movies and music for home and on-the-go streaming… I’ve since added a few features.

For one, I’ve added more storage. A lot more. I started with a 320GB HDD for the OS, and later added a 1TB HDD for file storage. Fast forward about 6 months, and it now has 4TB worth of hard drives. Why so much?

Well, first, my second-hand 320GB drive died on me… So I replaced it with a 1TB drive (which I partitioned into a OS section and a partition for files). I then added an additional 2TB of storage. One drive for backups (I also have a 1TB external drive for file backups, but this one takes care of the OS, as well), and one so I would have room to continue to expand my media collection.

I also added some fun stuff.

rackFirst was a 3.5″ HDD Sata Rack, kind of a nifty little thing that lets me hot-swap Sata hard drives. It’s much easier that opening up the case or swapping out the drive from my USB enclosure when I need a new backup drive. It also let me turn my external HDD into more of a portable media library than a backup drive.

The second thing I added was a Blu-ray optical drive. I’d already ripped all of my DVD collection, but my Blu-rays were still sitting on the shelf, waiting. I initially thought about getting an internal one, but as it turns out an external USB drive was cheaper. And as a bonus, I can use it on my laptop, too.

It was around this time, I decided to expand my machine’s capabilities a little. I’ve always wanted security cameras, but the pre-built systems are pricey, and the good pre-built systems are extremely pricey. Since I wasn’t sure how well this was actually going to work, I skipped out on an IP network camera, and just bought a plain old USB webcam to play with.

cam Specifically, I bought a Sabret USB Night Vision Webcam… which much to my shock really DOES do legit night vision. It’s actually a very nice cam for its $10 price tag. I was pleasantly surprised.

Of course a camera isn’t much use if there’s nothing monitoring it, so after a lot of research, and some trial and error, the best low-cost option I found was the open source software iSpy. It ended up doing everything I wanted it to do. It can monitor multiple camera sources, it can record on a schedule or when it detects motion, and if you’re willing to pay for the service (about $7 a month), you can monitor your cameras remotely from a computer or a mobile device.

I’m very pleased with it. Once I have some extra cash lying around, I’m finally going to invest in a wireless IP network camera or two (I’d really love one outside to keep watch on my Halloween display this year).

My most recent aquisition came about because I missed the season 2 premiere of Under the Dome. I cut the cord on cable television over two years ago. I really can’t say I miss it, most days… but I will admit that sometimes I miss being able to record shows.

So I decided to upgrade my computer in a media server + security system + DVR.

The first thing I had to do was find myself a tuner card. I naturally started with eBay, but got a little suspicious when I saw some of them priced under $5 and others in excess of $100. That big of a difference can’t just be related to quality, so I had to back up a step, and learn a little more about them.

As it turns out, the cheapies were largely NTSC cards for receiving analog signals… the ones that had been phased out a few years back. They were still usefull, for example, if you were capturing from an old VCR, but forget live TV over the air. What I needed was a tuner for ATSC/QAM. Specifically ATSC, since I wanted to capture over the air signals, rather than cable signals.

tunerWhat I ultimately decided on was an Asus My Cinema tuner. Not super high-end, but it had good reviews and was from a reliable brand. I opted to buy it used to save some money, but that meant that I didn’t get the software that came with new cards. But I hadn’t planned on using that software anyway.

Initially, I had planned to use MediaPortal, due in large part to it having a interface with Plex via the Unsupported Apps channel. That meant I could stream it to my Roku. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get the software to work right.

Having failed with MediaPortal, I turned to Google for advice, and came up with Next PVR. The interface is decidedly less pretty than MediaPortal… but nPVR actually worked for me, and by having it save files to a directory monitored by Plex, I could still stream the recorded videos to my TV.

Now that’s not to say I’m not still having some issues. For one, nPVR encodes the recordings as .ts (transport stream) files, which Plex doesn’t seem to like too well. If the signal goes wonky during recording, a lot of times Plex’s transcoder freaks out and crashes. So long as I have a clear signal throughout the broadcast, it’s not an issue, but if, for instance, the weather’s lousy and the signal gets a little jumpy at some point, Plex has a meltdown when trying to play back the video.

I could get around this be re-encoding the videos as .mp4 with Handbrake, but I don’t really want to have to do that every time I record something because it’s kind of time-consuming. I’m currently looking into automating that process with DropFolders.

My other issue with nPVR is that the channel guide never updates on its own. I have to do it manually, and I can’t figure out why… because that’s not supposed to be the case.

But other than than, the software seems to be working well with my tuner card, and my project continues to grow.

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Nikki Blight – Web/PHP Developer