My (Former) Hobby: Home Media Streaming

For someone who is, now, only marginally interested in television and movies, I have spent a lot of time and money over the years to make my television watching experience awesome. I used to be really into it, and—unless you had a lot of money to burn—it used to be hard to get it working correctly, which fed into my engineering mindset and led me to tinker with hardware and software frequently, for almost a decade.

I started in 2008 by connecting my 13” white MacBook to my (non-HD) TV via a $30 video adapter. Even though my TV was primitive, picture quality was way better when playing video this way, and I could watch streaming videos directly from the networks’ web sites, like “Lost”, on my real TV for the first time. I loved it. After about a year of this, I got a mini-PC as a Christmas gift, which I started using, with an external hard drive, as a home media server.

For the front end, I bought a set-top box that Western Digital used to sell. The system worked…mostly. Streaming over WiFi was reliable for non-HD (480p) and 720p HD encoded TV shows, but anything with higher resolutions, higher bit rates, or DTS audio would usually be impossible to play.

I was never serious enough to buy an expensive computer to connect to my TV, because I figured, correctly it turns out, that video streaming devices would become cheaper and more capable over time. Of course, during that time, I cycled through a ton of set-top boxes (most of which I got for free as review units): Roku boxes, a couple Roku knock-offs, the Boxee Box, the first Amazon Fire TV, an Amazon Fire TV Stick (which was quickly returned), a couple Raspberry Pis running XMBC (which worked great for TV but stumbled on DTS audio), and eventually a number of Apple TVs (fourth generation).

The reason I went through so many front-ends is that they all had two limitations. First, each one left out at least one of the top video sources: either iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, or Plex. (Nothing left out Netflix.) Second, all of them choked on certain sorts of videos, depending on their audio or video encodings.

Eventually, I began to watch video on my iPad while I work. This led me to discover Plex in the App Store. Plex is a server that you can install on a computer, coupled with client apps that run on many different devices. Plex looks great, has server side transcoding to make video formats less of an issue, and allows you to manage a centralized library of TV, movies, music, and more. I used Plex on an Amazon Fire TV for a year or two. I started out very happy with it, but the software stability of the Amazon Fire TV decreased over time, and Plex and Amazon did not release software updates timely enough to fix it. Eventually, I was very unhappy with the Fire TV + Plex combo, but still pretty happy running Plex on my iPad.

When the Apple TV, 4th generation, was released, with support for iTunes, Apple Music, Netflix, YouTube, and Plex, I bought one right away. I figured, at the time, that Apple was so big that only it had any chance to get all the major video providers on a single box, and get them to stay long term. (Amazon, of course, was conspicuously absent for several years, but that was not as important to me back then as it is now.) I didn’t expect to love it for to watch baseball on MLB At Bat, but it plays games at 1080p/60fps, which looks amazing, so I do.

Over time, home media streaming went from being a niche hobby, in which nerds like me tried to hook up computers to their TVs, to a very mainstream way to consume video and audio. Thanks to cheap and nearly ubiquitous modern hardware, my home media streaming “hobby”, has basically come to an end. I still maintain a Plex library, but I no longer have to upgrade or to fiddle with hardware connected to my TV, or worry about audio and video encodings and bit rates before I watch a movie with my wife. I also stream a lot more video from outside the home (not via Plex) than I ever did before—just like everybody else these days. It’s not special any more; it’s just another entertainment product, and it deserves very little thought, because it just works. Things are much better now, but sometimes I do miss tinkering with hardware.