The Compleat Home Entertainment Network

Fifteen years ago I had a good home entertainment system. I was pretty cool with my biggish-screen TV, four-head hifi stereo video recorder, five disc CD player and Dolby Prologic Surround amplifier and speakers. Sure, you could get bigger TVs and louder stereos but this was as good as it got (ignoring such fringe technologies like laser disc).

But the world has moved on – DVDs replaced VHS tapes, MP3s are replacing audio CDs, TV’s have got wider and shallower, we’re downloading TV programmes from the internet, and the analogue Dolby Prologic audio has been replaced by digital five channel plus a subwoofer systems. Then there’s the really big change – the integration of our computers into everything else to give us new ways to create, store and enjoy media of all forms.

I’ve been through a few system generations over the last 15 years but I got rid of it all when I went overseas last year, so now is a great chance to set up a new system from scratch. This article describes what I’m doing and why I’m doing it that way. It’s aimed at a general audience but you’ll need at least some IT skills or the help of a geeky friend for a few bits.

This is the second article in my “How I’m Doing It” series. The first one was Geek Backpacking in Central America.

What I Want

These are the things that I want to be able to do:

  • Watch movies (both DVDs and downloaded)
  • Listen to music (CDs and MP3s)
  • Storing my personal files (documents, photos, etc)
  • Protecting my data from accidental loss
  • Print documents and photos
  • Internet access
  • Integrate with my phone, digital camera and portable digital music player

One major omission is that I have no interest in watching and recording broadcast TV. I don’t really watch TV and tend to download any shows I do wish to watch.

Finally it’s all got to be relatively simple to setup and easy to use. If I’m settling down to drink some beer and watch a movie on a Friday night, the last thing I want to be doing is mucking around playing with configurations and cables.

How I’ve Done It

What I started with:

  • A couple of laptop computers (one for me, one for Kim).
  • An old Hewlett Packard OfficeJet 6110 multi-function device (printer, scanner, copier, fax).
  • An external hard drive with all my data on it connected to my laptop by a USB cable.

Internet and Network

Having good internet access is vital! If I didn’t have the internet I’d have to spend more time with Kim and my friends, read more books, write more articles and generally use my time productively.

We signed up for ADSL and bought a 3com OfficeConnect all-in-one ADSL modem/router/firewall/network switch/wireless access point. This connects to the internet and then shares out the connection over the wireless network to the laptops.

We can then plug the printer and laptop into one of the laptops and share them across the network to the other one. The only bad thing about this is that it means that laptop with the devices attached was ‘rooted’ in one spot and I like using my laptop on the couch or in bed or on the beanbag.

So far we have the following:

Home Network Stage 1


The next step was to work out a better way to store our data. We’ve got a large amount (350GB) of personal documents, music, photos, websites and other data that we both want access to. Currently it’s all sitting on the external hard drive and this has a number of problems:

  • If the drive fails all the data will be lost.
  • There’s no way to make backups in case of drive failure or theft.
  • It means that the laptop connected to the hard drive has to stay where it is.

I’m very keen on protecting my data – after working in IT I’ve experienced too many horror stories where people have suddenly realised that making backups properly is more important than they thought. I didn’t like telling a woman that the photos from the first year of her baby’s life were gone forever.

My approach is to buy a NAS (network attached storage) box. This is a specialised form of server that you connect to your network and copy all of your data to. Anyone connected to the network can then access the files on it as if it’s another drive in their own computer.

I chose a Dlink DNS-323 with 500GB of storage as my NAS box for the following reasons:

  • It has two disk drives that you can set up to mirror each other. This means that every file is stored on both drives so if one of them fails you won’t lose anything. Of course, the downside is that you have to buy twice as much disk – I used two 500GB drives to get 500GB of usable storage.
  • Fast gigabit connection to the network.
  • Support of security controls that allow you to define who gets to see what. (Amongst other things I have some photos that I might not want to share with the internet. Ahem.)
  • You can plug in a printer and use it as a print server.
  • It’s small and quiet – a little black box humming in the corner.

Using two drives in the NAS box protects you from drive failure but you still need a separate backup system to protect you from fire/theft and, the number one cause of data loss, deleting something by accident.

Of course, now I have the NAS box I can use the old external disk drive as a separate backup. I plug it into the laptop and then use a tool called Robocopy to synchronise the contents of the NAS drive and the external disk drive (Robocopy is a bit geeky to set up but there are many other tools you could use to do this). I do this monthly and then store the external hard drive at another location (with a friend or in my desk drawer at work).

Our network now looks like this:

Home Network Stage 2

Playing Media

But this isn’t just an article about home networking, this is an article about the home entertainment network, and now we need something to play all the electronic media we’re storing on the NAS box. Of course, you can watch/listen to anything you like on the laptops but that doesn’t mean I don’t want a proper stereo and TV for watching things large and loud.

The most important component is what we’re going to play them from. My preferred option is a first generation Xbox game console modified to act as a media player. They’re cheap, have a remote control, and have high quality video and audio output.

Getting one of these and setting it up is not entirely trivial. The best source of Xboxes is from EB Games who were recently selling refurbished models with a 12 month warranty for $120, or you can buy them online from auction sites. X-Mods will install the modification chip and a larger hard drive for another $195. You’ll also want an Xbox remote control for another $70 or so.

Once you’ve got the modified Xbox home again, the next stage is to plug it into the TV and stereo and test it with a few games of Burnout. You’ll want an AV cable with both component video and digital audio output to go from the Xbox to the stereo and television. The Xbox only puts out an optical digital audio signal and to connect it to my stereo with its coaxial digital connector I’m either going to have to make another hardware modification (I’m told it’s not that hard) or get a converter.

Finally we need to connect it up to the network so it can play the stored media from the NAS box. While we could use wireless, I find that this isn’t reliable enough for movie watching and therefore I’ll be using a network cable plugged into the router/switch. You might need a bit of geek help to get the networking going properly

We can now use the Xbox to play DVDs and audio CDs, as well as any music, films or TV stored on the NAS box. The user interface for XBMC is quite nice and it’s totally controllable from your couch using the remote control. Even better, a modified Xbox can still play games so I can get my fix of Forza and Grand Theft Auto.

Here’s the final network:

Home Network Stage 3

Notes and Stuff

And Another in the Bedroom

If we wanted to have a second setup (e.g. for the master bedroom) we’d just need to add another Xbox, TV and stereo.

Personal Devices

In case you’re worried, none of this network gets in the way of using personal devices such as cellphones, portable music players (e.g. iPods), and digital cameras. These will all connect straight to the laptop of whoever uses them as if the network wasn’t even there.

Planned Upgrades

At some point we’ll be upgrading the speed of the network as 802.11g wireless networking is just too slow for modern media systems with their huge files. While the faster 802.11n standard isn’t quite finished a number of manufacturers have already released equipment based on the draft version. I’m planning to get something like the D-Link DIR-655 as it will also upgrade the connection to the NAS box from 100Mbit to 1Gbit.

Another nice addition would be one of the Logitech super remote controls. Once set up correctly you can use the one remote to control all of your devices.

Some Alternatives

As an alternative for the Xbox you might wish to consider:

And if you’re not comfortable doing this yourself there are a number of professional firms that will happily charge you lots of money to do it all for you.