Setting up the ultimate automated home media center

Having a home media center is really handy. It can do a ton of things besides just storing and playing your movies and TV series. You can also use them as network-accessible storage or an automated backup system or can even set them up as emulators to play vintage arcade games. The really amazing thing is that you can automate some tasks that you didn’t even know wanted to be automated. In this article, we will explore one such automated workflow.

The use case



Imagine that you meet a friend for coffee. During the conversation, he recommends a movie that you quickly look up on your phone and click a button to download. When you get home, you just turn on the TV and start the movie.

Of course, this is not some science-fiction story as Netflix exists. Yeah, Netflix exists just like a dozen other streaming platforms, so if you really want access to all and any movies and TV series, you have to pay a lot of money for the convenience, not to mention that a new extra step is to identify on which service the movie is available on.

So what do you do when you are still a pirate, what is your workflow to watch a movie on your TV?

  1. Search for the movie title on torrent sites
  2. Find the right torrent
  3. Download movie with torrent client
  4. Verify that it is in fact the
    1. right movie
    2. with the right audio track
    3. in enjoyable quality
    4. in a format that your TV can play
  5. Copy to a Pendrive
  6. Plug the Pendrive into the TV
  7. Watch the movie

Well, if you have an unused laptop or desktop computer laying around, you could just set it up as a media center to decrease the number of steps to:

  1. Add movie
  2. Watch movie

How does it work?

There are some really amazing people who made absolutely amazing tools that are available online for free. Combining them allows you to add the movie you want to download on a pretty graphical user interface and manages the process of searching, downloading, seeding, renaming, and copying to your movie vault automatically.

Of course, you can use your personal desktop computer or laptop for this, but nowadays there is a lot of older hardware about unused but still very much usable. Why don’t you adopt one and connect it to your big-screen TV?

The hardware

For the hardware, you don’t need much. Currently, I’m using a 4th gen i5 CPU with 4GB RAM and the playback of 4K videos is not an issue. Just recently I used a way weaker machine with a motherboard that had an integrated CPU with passive cooling (ASROCK INTCPU QC5000M-ITX/PH) and it served well for 6+ years playing 1080p video. Just get something usable for cheap or free and connect it with a HDMI cable to your TV.

The only thing you really have to consider is storage. Video takes up a lot of space, especially if you want to watch in 4K. I would advise buying traditional HDDs as their capacity is much higher than that of SSDs and for a way lower price. On the other hand, HDDs are noisy and you might not want to hear that noise in the living room.

This decision is up to you, but I went with HDDs. Three of them if I want to be precise as I got a great deal on two 3TB models and had a 2TB model in my old desktop computer that I just retired and repurposed into the actual new media center. Now I have 8TB of total space which is literally enough for hundreds of movies.

As the media center is intended to be always running, you don’t even need an SSD for the operating system as boot time is not an issue with this use case.

One more thing: Many people use Raspberry Pi microcomputers to run Kodi on. I’m not sure if that device is powerful enough to run all the programs below or if connecting the storage through USB is the best option. If you succeed with it, please let me know of your success in the comments. I would still rather reuse an older computer instead of buying a new Raspberry Pi to reduce electronic waste.

The OS

If your hardware is decent, you can use whatever operating system you are most comfortable with as the necessary software is available for Windows, Linux, and even macOS. However, if you are using weaker hardware, Linux is the most logical choice as it uses fewer system resources.

If you never used Linux before, this might be the perfect excuse to experiment a little with it. Setting up the media center might sound complicated, but there are really good instructions that you can follow.

I would advise using the LTS (Long Time Support) version of Ubuntu as the base of your installation, even if it is not as trendy as it was a few years ago. Why? Because there is guaranteed to be a guide for setting up all the necessary software on Ubuntu 🙂

The software

I will not list the exact procedure of how to install and set up these programs as the process is dependent on the OS of your choice. My other reason is that the instructions here would become quickly outdated. It is better to follow the links and check the installation instructions and setup guides there.

Jackett

Jackett is an indexer for torrent sites that you control in your browser. During setup, you add your favorite public and private sites or choose from a list provided by Jackett itself. After verifying the connections, other software on the media center can use Jackett to search for the media you need.

Radarr

Radarr is a movie collection manager software that you can set up to work with Jackett to look for the movies you need, with Transmission to download said movies, and with Kodi to play the movies on your TV. If you set it up right, you use it to add the movie, which will automagically be available for playback on your TV.

Sonarr

Sonarr is the same as Radarr, but with TV series. In fact, Radarr is a fork of Sonarr.

Bazarr

Wait, there is more! Bazarr can be used to automatically download subtitles.

Lidarr

Yes, of course there is software to download music…

Readarr

… and even books!

Transmission

You can use other clients too (check Radarr and the other collection managers what they support), but Transmission is a great simple option. Setting up on Ubuntu can be a bit tricky, so be sure to check out this guide.

Kodi

Kodi is my choice for media playback software. It looks nice and can be extended with a ton of plugins. I have it set up to download subtitles and to delete watched movies and episodes after 3 days to free up disk space. I also bought an AppleTV-like remote from AliExpress which is the absolute best way to control Kodi.

Kodi is set to auto-start, so when I turn on or restart the media center, I don’t need to waste time on the OS’a desktop.

Plex

Plex is also a good choice for media playback and I also have it installed even if I primarily use Kodi. The reason is that Plex can also stream and I can watch my media on a phone, tablet or browser window even if I’m not at home.

VPN

It is a good idea to protect yourself and also your media center with a VPN. Of course, I’m assuming that you are using 100% legal torrent sites, but a VPN can also protect you from other dangers, especially if you are living in certain countries in the world. Before choosing one, be sure to read multiple independent reviews and also check the news periodically as “good” VPNs turned out to be “bad” before.

In closing

Setting up your very own automated home media center is a really rewarding project. If you love to tinker, you might just love it for the tinkering part, but the end result can also seriously up your media consumption game.

Don’t give up and don’t think that it will be either trivial or fast to complete. Even for me, it takes half a day and I did this 4 times before, but the respect and gratitude I get from my wife makes it worth it 🙂


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