Some people put their year-end bonuses into a high-yield savings account. Some use it as a down payment on a better car, some are lucky enough to get into a jelly of the month club.
I, on the other hand, built a media server. Flash forward a couple months, a storm swept through my city and left Spectrum, an ISP that can’t deliver under even the sligthest of inconveniences, out for two days.
The ordeal sucked, but it sure did vindicate my sudden new hobby and provide a thrilling conclusion to a small series of blog posts about my hyperfixation.
Given it’s a hyperfixation, dumping everything I have to say and the story of the past couple months all at once would be a burden on both of our spare time. Mine as the author, yours as the reader. Instead, I’m going to divide the story into a few posts that follow a grand timeline. A timeline that conveniently gives some break time between posts so I can address questions in future updates. First:
In simple terms: what did you do?
While I don’t think a lot of the technical terms I’ll be using in this series are too off the wall, I find the narrative device of someone throwing a sentence of jargon at you and then meticulously deconstructing that sentence to teach the different parts…. tiring at times.
So, to get this whole thing started: I purchased a special small computer – about the size of a couple of thick hardcover books side by side – that’s designed to do one thing: store files. I then installed an app on it that allows me to easily access all of the media stored on it through a local streaming service hosted on my WiFi network. If the power is on, I can watch my stuff, regardless of internet speed or connection. And I never have to risk scratching a blu-ray or old DVD ever again.
Just one question:
- I like naming files and sorting things for archival purposes. Had I been exposed to Library Sciences as a degree option early enough, I genuinely might have done that.
- The process of setting up a media server requires solving lots of little problems and learning lots of niche information. Which is fun and fruitful as hell.
- Streaming services – pardon my French – fucking suck now.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. A couple of streaming services are killing it. But the ones I would heartily recommend are all relatively small and/or are larger companies that have a good track record of getting indie media produced and widely distributed (e.g. Dropout, Shudder).
I bet you’ve been through some version of this: You get the impulse to watch a movie released sometime between 1990 and 2015 that was kind of popular, but not enough to blow the doors off the industry. You open up Google (which, itself, pales in comparison to how good it used to be) and search “[name of movie] streaming.”
Being an adult in 2023, you’re savvy enough to have been around this block before. Google says Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu all have listings for it. You, remembering the last time this happened, know there is a high chance any (or all three) of those are fake listings from when the service used to have the movie and now they’re left up for SEO purposes, hoping you’ll have the thought “oh well, I’m already here on Hulu. Might as well watch something here.”
You then click into one of a dozen seedy-looking websites designed to tell you which platforms the movie is actually streaming on. Your journey should stop there, except for the fact even these sites regularly lie.
It is now five to ten minutes since you had the impulse to watch that movie and the spark of curiosity has been snuffed once more by a mechanic that was supposed to make enjoying media easier. God forbid you want to sit down and relive a lesser-known piece of media from the past. Take, for instance, my occasional mood to partake of a Michael Palin travelogue. For a privileged white celebrity globe-trotting from the late 80s through the 00s, he’s far more empathetic and considerate of the places he visits than even modern conservation-conscious TV travelers today.
But what’s this? Such classics as Pole to Pole with Michael Palin (1991) and Full Circle with Michael Palin (1997) were never put on modern streaming platforms by the BBC, so they only exist as janky pirated copies on YouTube? Never fear: cheap DVDs on eBay are here.
Now I both own the physical media and have several Michal Palins at my disposal whenever the desire arises. If I feel the itch to watch one of the few unproblematic Pythons graciously smile his way through interactions where he doesn’t speak a lick of the local language, all I have to do is press a button.
And the best part? You see all that fancy image work, layout, and preview text? Didn’t touch a damn thing. All of that is auto-filled using open source movie and television databases. Some Michael Palin supernerd bothered to make a PNG transparency of the Full Circle logo.
Shoutout to you, supernerd. Your efforts are appreciated.
What did you use?
In the next installment I’ll go into the hardware and specific tools used to build my server (I hope you like crunchy little hyper-specific software made by one dude!) but the most important thing to broach is the actual streaming service framework: Jellyfin.
You know Plex, that thing every nerd has harped up as “make your own Netflix” for the past few years? Well, it fell prey to being the ubiquitous solution everyone recommended when the concept of making your own Netflix was brought up online: they smelled money. In recent years the service has slowly paywalled a series of features to make it annoying to use as a free product, but also something in dire need of updates to make the paid solution worth sticking with.
Put it like this: Linus Tech Tips, one of the biggest content creators sponsored by Plex, made a video explaining how Plex kinda sucks now.
There are several options on the block for “make your own Netflix” style apps. Jellyfin is free, open source, and has a passionate fanbase. Also the file-naming system is logical to me and makes organizing things a breeze for me, a person who likes setting up repetitive tasks like naming and sorting files.
The best part about Jellyfin, for me at least, was the fact it just works. Before committing to buying a physical server to hold all of my many many Michael Palins, I was able to install Jellyfin on my PC and point it towards a folder, rip a couple of DVDs to that folder, and turn it on. Within minutes I could watch something on my phone or any TV in the house that was streaming directly off my computer.
What do we talk about next time?
Tools! So many tools! If I’m going to have a media server, I have to have my tools.