My Home Network and Media Setup.

Back in 2010 I altered my home media setup to revolve primarily around the then just released iOS-based Apple TV. At the time, AirPlay was a shiny new feature being rolled out initially in iOS but also Mac OS X. It made a fairly clunky and awkward setup based on streaming to a PC with iTunes into an exceptionally easy affair that anyone with an iOS or OS X device connected to my network could contribute to. CDs and the like have become a thing of the past. This setup has further changed over the last couple of years, and the Apple TV has some competition now in some circumstances. it's also a setup that is still evolving, the end goal is to have seamless and effortless network and media access throughout our home. Backup is something I haven't really talked about, but it also features in the network setup and is something that I'm going to discuss. Over the last couple of years this is a function that is not only built into the local network, but now also relies in part on 'the cloud'; specifically dropbox and iCloud - two services with quite similar features but different approaches.

What has also come about in those couple of years since my last post on the subject is the proliferation of subscription based media streaming services. We've had a couple in the UK for a while that were tacked on to existent subscription DVD rental services. The competition has heated up a little though. It would be fair to say, that in the last couple of years, the way that we consume almost all entertainment media has radically shifted in favour of internet based broadcast, distribution and retail. Even the way we host our own music libraries is a nuanced choice now. There is no longer the need for a centralised media hub, and we can access our files from anywhere with an internet connection.

Network Setup

This hasn't changed much in a couple of years. Shortly after purchasing my MacBook Air in 2008 I also purchased a Time Capsule to make the most of OS X's then new Time Machine backup system. Since then my Mac's backup hourly, automatically, silently and keep a versioned history of changes that consolidates as it gets older. Frankly, everyone needs to have a system comparable to this. Recent SSD-equiped macs can even engage Time Machine while they sleep. Backup is something I want to discuss a little later however.

There has always been a problem with the wireless network. Prior to the Time Capsule we had an expensive Netgear router and the TV room was always a bit of a dead-spot. In particular the slimline shuttle PC we used to serve media to the big screen had a rough time maintaining a connection. Sometimes this would lead to copying files laboriously to it's local hard drive ahead of watching them. Less than ideal. The Time Capsule alleviated this somewhat, as it has a stronger dual band signal. It was further improved when the PC was replaced with a Mac Mini, but even then streaming media would on occasion be flakey. The issue is that there is a very heavy-duty masonry wall dividing that room from the rest of the house. The solution has been to add an Airport Extreme to the network as a relay, situated in the bedroom - which has an added benefit. It's currently not possible to find a weak signal anywhere in our home. Excellent.

I can't praise Apple's network hardware enough. It has simply out-performed everything else we have used including highly recommended and costly routers.

Currently the network supports two wired connections: a PC and a terrabyte NAS. It also supports eight consistent wireless connections: two iPads, two iPhones, an iPod Touch, a Mac Mini a Macbook Pro and an Apple TV. Additionally as many as five or six additional iOS devices every Wednesday when we host a group of friends. It all performs flawlessly (bar the broadband modem which is due to be replaced in an internet package upgrade - poor thing's a bit worse for wear these days).

Media Setup

In part this update was spurred by a post by Patrick Rhone on Minimal Mac:

For the past several years, our “TV” at home has not been a television at all. Instead, we watched video on demand...

Patrick's opening statement's kind of hit the nail on the head (though he quickly moves on to the specifics of his home setup). I couldn't say that this has been true for the 'past several years' but it's a trend that began some time ago, probably since we moved into this place between four and five years ago. We have a satellite TV service that we brought with us from our old place and have simply kept ever since, but it was becoming quite apparent that we haven't been making use of it. In fact, it may have been in the region of four to six months since the box was fired up.

I also have a Netflix subscription. It's inexpensive (especially in comparison to the satellite subscription fee) and easily justified so long as it is used for a few hours a month. It gives us the option of viewing content that we don't otherwise own, and aside from some initial streaming issues around the UK launch of the service has been consistently good. The slightly flimsy wireless connection in the TV room being the only notable cause of disruption.

What has also occurred recently in our area is the roll out of high speed broadband connections. As our existing broadband contract was with our satellite provider, switching services for our internet connection has also been a nail in the coffin for our TV service. In the next month or so, as dictated by the schedule of the internet service switchover, all of our media content provision will be moving to net-based services. I couldn't have envisioned that when we moved in to our home here.

While it will still be possible for us to watch the 'freely' broadcast, add-supported channels, I am fairly sure that we won't and the satellite box sat under the TV is wholly irrelevant. Actually removing it is a household debate for another time.

There are several essential components to the media setup in the home currently. Two iTunes libraries: one hosted on a Mac Mini and one hosted on a Windows PC. Both utilise the same home share, and therefore while the libraries are personal each can be accessed from any machine. The Apple TV and Internet accessible services (currently only Netflix).

I added the Mac Mini to serve as a permanent host for my iTunes library, but also as browser access for the TV. There are occasions when the Mini is more suitable than the Apple TV unit itself, and as a static machine on the network it ensures that my media is always available. My MacBook simply isn't as suitable. It also ensures that anything I purchase from iTunes on my iPhone or iPad is downloaded automatically and backed up on the Time Capsule within the hour. Even when I'm away from home, my partner therefore has access to all my music, TV shows and movies. It's the basic no-frills model and aside from having to correct a slight overscan issue with the TV itself has been perfect. It also allows for the playback of media content that is incompatible with iOS and does have flash installed for those rare occasions that a site doesn't have HTML 5 support.

The Apple TV serves the same purpose it always has, and gets a little additional use now that I can mirror my MacBook. It's incredibly useful when friends are over and can play music directly from their iPhones or iPads, and occasionally the sharing of silly YouTube videos. The newer model supports 1080p where as mine is the 720p generation. This has not been an issue for us yet.

The Airport Express is the little additional win in this setup as it is capable of hosting AirPlay audio via any speakers that you can connect to it's audio jack. Situated in the bedroom, it will likely only see extensive use when there are chores to be done (for which there has previously be an ageing radio). As AirPlay speakers are finally hitting the £150 mark, I expect that I'll be able to extend AirPlay capabilities to each room over the next year or so. Allowing anyone on the network to listen to their stuff in any room at any time.

Backup and File Storage

Stephen Hackett has a pretty good rundown of a solid backup strategy on 512 pixels:

There’s no reason not to have your data backed up. While things like iCloud, Dropbox and even RAIDs are great tools, nothing is as good as solid, tiered backup plan. Sure, it takes a little time and might cost a little money, but in an increasingly digital world, there’s no reason not to have your stuff safe and sound on multiple drives in multiple locations.

Backup is something that we, on the whole, probably don't pay enough attention to. It's pretty easy for most of us to have a two-tier backup solution for essential files at this point in time. The first tier should always be regular local backup. Time Machine is mine, and operates automatically (almost entirely so in Mountain Lion) to backup my MacBook Pro and my Mac Mini. Window's has a comparable backup utility that will regularly back up specified files and directories to an external or network-accessible drive.

I used to backup the iPad and iPhone locally also, but as these now sync with the Mini wirelessly every time they are placed in their docks I have moved to full iCloud backups instead. What isn't synced with iTunes is stored in iCloud - either as a document or in Photo Stream. Photo Stream syncs with iPhoto on the Mini too and If it's on the Mini, it's on Time Machine; otherwise it's in the iCloud backup. The weakest link in this chain is photo storage, but Photo Stream also syncs with my MacBook Pro - so there's an extra level of duplication. The long term library on the MacBook will be less comprehensive however.

Both the OS X and iOS devices use iCloud's document storage and I use Dropbox for nearly everything else. Both of these are relatively secure and both are included in Time Machine by way of their local mirrors on my MacBook Pro. So everything exists 'in the cloud' and my local physical backup with about an hour's margin for error (except when the MacBook is out of the house.

This is actually fairly robust. It is still vulnerable to permanent damage through malicious attack or through an actual disaster (house fire, or similar unpleasant occurrence - or even just a comprehensive burglary). The third tier of the ideal backup solution then is an off-site physical backup. I don't have this down yet and am still investigating my options. it's something that I do intend to add soon.

Evolution

We've all seen the concept houses that are controlled and automated by computer. I think, as with many predictions of the future, that those ideas are probably a little off base. It is however readily apparent that for some of us, computers are integrating themselves pretty broadly into our homes. The people that are going to enjoy this most aren't the people that just embrace the new technologies, but the people that put some thought into how to put their home media systems together - so that their use is as simple as possible.

Evidently, I'm pretty comfortable with a high level of buy-in to the Apple paradigm. Apple aren't unique in offering this kind of possibility. If you want to have seamless distribution of media content throughout your home you can do it. Your XBox 360 or your Android phone is just one piece of the puzzle. Poke around on the internet a little - you'll love it if you put a bit of time and thought into it.