More home setup tinkering: out with the HTPC, in with the NAS and the media streamer

Vincent Danen's recent post on hacking the D-Link DNS-323 prompted me to finally go out and make a change to my home setup that I've had planned for a while.

For a long time I've used an HTPC system connected to my TV; it plays music and downloaded videos, which it stores on a RAID-5 array (of three 500GB disks) that it also shares with the rest of the network, thus also acting as a NAS. It runs Mandriva with Freevo.

It's always worked pretty well, but it's a bit of a maintenance burden since it's a full-fat PC running a full-fat distro, it looks kind of ugly the way we have the TV bench set up, and it uses a lot of power. So for a while I've been planning to separate out the NAS and media playing functions, and use different hardware to achieve them.

Today I went out and bought one of the aforementioned D-Link DNS-323s, a couple of 2TB hard disks (for the ridiculous price of $75 each - 4TB of disk for $150? The future is nuts!), and a Patriot Box Office media streamer. (I'd have gotten a WD TV Live, if only because the user community seems more active, but the store was out of stock). A media streamer is a little (seriously, it's tiny) box which connects to your TV and just plays media (audio and video); you can get them with various levels of features, and with or without built-in storage. The Patriot is cheap but does what I need: you can put a 2.5" hard disk into it (but I didn't want to - I wanted to have the NAS separate, and RAIDed) but it doesn't come with any storage, and it also doesn't have wireless networking, which I don't need. All I need it to do is connect via ethernet to a CIFS share (or UPnP, really, either works) and play any video I throw at it, and it has the necessary features for that and is nice and cheap.

To replace the last remaining feature of the HTPC - I have it hooked up to one of my HD cable boxes via Firewire and use it as a PVR with MythTV, which is actually pretty neat but again a bit of a pain to set up - I grabbed an eSATA hard disk enclosure. My other HD cable box works as a PVR if you attach an external hard disk to it; they'll sell you a rebadged WD disk for an inflated price but people have confirmed you can use most eSATA disks and enclosures and it'll work with them just fine. So once I have everything transferred from the HTPC to the new NAS, I'll put one of those 500GB disks in the eSATA enclosure and attach it to the HD box to get PVR functionality. This loses some flexibility compared to the MythTV / firewire setup - I can't transfer the files out or watch them anywhere else, and I can't set up recordings remotely (via MythWeb) any more. It's also far less cool. But it is a lot simpler, and good enough (we don't really use the PVR function that much anyway, mostly just for live sports when I'm away from home).

Unusually, and frankly alarmingly and unnervingly, everything so far has gone perfectly to plan. Nothing is the wrong shape or size or format or missing any cables. The Box Office plugged straight into the TV and receiver, powered on, was pretty easy to set up (once I figured out how to set it to HD output), and was able to browse the UPnP servers on my network right away, and play all the files I tried. Logitech has a remote control definition for the Box Office for my Harmony remote - I haven't checked yet, but Google results indicate it should work fine. The 2TB disks slid straight into the 323 - you don't even need a screwdriver. It powered right up, got happily onto the network and presented a very nice admin interface, offered to set up the two disks as a RAID-1 array and actually did so with no trouble, and immediately started sharing them via CIFS. My desktop, the HTPC and the Box Office immediately saw the share and happily accessed it, and the streamer happily plays a file from it. The NFS server add-on provided on the D-Link website (!!) for the 323 installed fine and works fine, and gives somewhat better performance than CIFS, so I'm now busy copying everything from the HTPC over to the 323 via an NFS mount. It'll take a while as there's nearly 1TB of stuff, but once it's finished, I'm basically done. The biggest problem I have is that I can't find a way to set the streamer to default to always showing subtitles, but that's just pathetically small beans. I've come to expect three days of frustration every time I change my home setup - this kind of seamless just-workiness isn't acceptable, damnit.

Seriously, though, I'm very impressed with the 323 in particular: its web interface is very nice, and D-Link seem to support it really actively, and they even have a whole little GPL sub-section on the product page for it on their website. Well played them. The Patriot is a bit more yum-cha but it certainly works, also seems to be pretty actively updated, and the price is definitely right. I'm feeling good about the change, so far, and it should save quite a lot of power and space and look much neater. Also I now have 2TB of space, not a measly single terabyte any more!


[...] I said back last April that I’d found an ideal solution to media streaming, replacing my big heavy complex HTPC [...]