Before the advent of services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, I remember when you used to buy DVDs and sit through 5 minutes of warnings about severe fines for playing back on oil rigs and such like. But then you did have all the extras like deleted scenes (that were usually deleted for a reason), and interviews (for the real devotees).
Joking aside, I still buy DVDs – it’s often the best value way of getting a box set for instance. And I also have a collection of films, many of which aren’t available, even if you do subscribe to a streaming service.
In this article I’ll describe how you can build your own streaming service, so you can play back your entire DVD collection, from a user interface that will rival the best streaming service. And you can ditch your DVD player at last.
What you need
In this article I’m using free software called Plex to organise and stream media files to my TV. To store your DVD backups you need a computer that is always on, or a NAS (basically an external storage drive that plugs into your router). I’m using my desktop computer that I discussed in my article on the “the gaming console you may already own“.
Lastly you need either a smart TV that supports Plex (some LG, Sony, Toshiba TVs), or a streaming player that you simply plug into your TV via HDMI. There used to only be a few options, namely from WD TV and Roku, but now nearly every content provider also has an offering, from Apple to Amazon to Google to name a few. For the best experience you’ll want one that supports the Plex app, but you can also access content from the media server using the ubiquitous DNLA, which nearly all streaming players support – including my WD TV.
One of the cheapest options to try this out, and that supports the Plex app, is the Amazon Fire TV stick. Amazon have more expensive versions, but unless you have a 4K TV or have a very large media library that may require more processing power, the basic one should be fine.
Getting your content ready
You’ll need to get your DVD collection into digital files that can be streamed. This is fairly straight forward, if a little time consuming. But it’s complicated by the fact that depending on where you live in the world, there are various copyright concerns (that change frequently) that you need to familiarise yourself with.
The easiest method for converting DVDs into a streaming format is using software called MakeMKV. This is free for DVDs and takes about 20 minutes for a typical film. After an initial scan of the DVD, you get to choose what parts of the DVD you want. For a film, this is just the largest file. For TV shows, you’d usually select the individual episodes, which are normally the same size (see the screenshot below).
You need to organise your files for Plex to index you media correctly. So create a folder called say Plex, and within that create at least two folders for Movies and TV Shows. Just give the movies their name, ideally with their release year if there’s any ambiguity. For TV shows, create subfolders for the Show Name and Season, and name the files ShowName – sXXeYY.
Note that you will need a lot of storage space when using MakeMKV, since it’s really just copying the large files from the DVD and not re-encoding (or transcoding) them into smaller files (modern encoding methods are far more efficient). You can always use the free Handbrake to do this – look out for a future article. But this is very time consuming, and there will be a small loss in quality too.
Setting up Plex
Now you have all your media organised into folders on your hard drive, you can set up Plex. Download and install the software and run through the straightforward setup process. Firstly you’ll need to login or more likely create a new free account. Then you just need to provide a name for the server (I call mine Media Server), and add libraries. You can create a library for whatever you want, but initially just create one for Movies and TV Shows, pointing to the directories you’ve already setup.
Plex will go away and match all your media with various Internet databases, and come back with a very nice presentation of all your media, with poster images and complete details on everything it’s able to identify.
Streaming to your TV
If you have a streaming player that supports the Plex app, all you need to do is install the app, log in with the account you created above, and you’ll be able to browse through your complete library and instantly stream whatever you want. Plex will remember where you left off, just like the streaming services do. I remember proudly mentioning this to my wife, who replied “what – like you could do with VHS cassettes?” So maybe things haven’t moved on as much as we think!
What’s more, Plex supports all your other devices too. You just need to download the app which you can try for free, but costs £3.99 on iOS. So you can start watching something on your iPad, and then finish off watching on your TV – Plex will remember where you got to. Plex also offers a subscription service which enables you to create offline content on your mobile devices, to view when you have no Internet connection. This could be useful, but is fairly pricy.
You can even watch content over the Internet (Settings | Server | Remote Access), which works remarkably well. I did need to configure port forwarding on my Sky router to get this to work, which I can cover in another tutorial if there’s interest.
If your device only supports DNLA, you don’t get all the features of Plex, but you can still browse and play your media very easily. On the WD TV, go to Videos | Select Content Source | Media Server:
Once you have all this set up, you can use your media server for many other things. For instance, it’s a great way of playing all your high definition camcorder content, or your music and photos.
The only real downside is it can take a long time to get all your media converted. I started with the stuff we watch most, and films the children like. TV box sets are the most time consuming, but also probably the most satisfying once done, since constantly changing discs and remembering what disc you were on becomes tiresome.
You can give this a go without spending a penny, since you don’t need to buy a streaming player, until you’ve created some content.
Please use the comments below for any questions and do let me know how you get on.
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