Plex, Twonky, XBMC & NUC

DLNA was out there for quite a while now, call me a slowpoke but I finally decided to give it a try!

First question that needs to be answered is WHY? Well, if you have a bunch of stuff like music, movies and photos on your home file server (NAS) it is likely you want to have some convenient way of accessing all those riches preferably from all your devices and in a more or less the same way – this is exactly what DLNA server on your NAS does for you. If you have one that is – some NAS devices come equipped with DLNA server right out of the box but if your file server is not a commercially available NAS but some custom solution, like maybe ageing PC turned into a file server then you have to add DLNA capabilities yourself.

Second question is WHAT? And here is what you need to get going:

XBMC/KODI

Media centre that is able to find available UPnP devices on local network and play the content. Versions of this media centre is available for Linux, Android, Windows and OSX at least. I should note that for OSX I have also tried the alternative - PlugPlayer. Cannot say I was too impressed with it though because mostly I was seeing this screen below while trying to use PlugPlayer:
PlugPlayer dies again

My advise is to stick to XBMC/KODI.

Another very nice thing about XBMC/KODI is the remote control capabilities – you have to enable control over HTTP in the settings menu and after that you will be able to control the playback with Android app for example.

Plex or Twonky

Both of them are quite popular server side solutions that have Linux versions (my file server is running Linux) so I decided to try one of these first and see if I am good or should explore the alternatives.

I have started with Twonky and got a show-stopper issue right out of the box: scaling of the photos did something very ugly to the pictures – everything became very low resolution and blocky, pixelated. There are some solutions to try like this one for example but it did not work for me, after couple of hours of fruitless tinkering I decided to say goodbye to Twonky and move on to the alternatives.

Enter Plex – media server with a very good Web frontend that could do anything really be it playing video, music, browsing photos or configuring the server itself. It worked as expected immediately and you do not really have to create Plex account to use it, so I opted out and still got what I needed.
There was no issues and especially that nasty rescaling of photos was gone, picture quality was great.

Of course other solutions are out there like minidlna, for instance but Plex worked well for me and I decided to not fix what is not broken. There is one feature though that is heavily discussed online – accessing your content outside of your LAN. This is possible via Plex account and paid membership (I think so but did not actually try, so may be wrong). However people also write that you could have something like this done with SSH port forwarding feature just forwarding correct ports from the PC running Plex to your router with external static IP.

XBMC/Plex integration

To get all the content from your server shown on your XBMC/KODI media centre you have to add UPnP source for each of the sections – Music, Video, Pictures. However there is a different way of getting much more significant integration with proper search capabilities like that of a native Plex client. This could ‘theoretically’ be achieved by using PleXBMC addon (installed beta4 version because others gave me errors) I just did not try it yet so probably update the post once I have some positive experience with this addon.

One very annoying thing to keep in mind without the addon – search in XBMC/KODI will not work with your remote server, meaning that searching for anything will give you 0 results whatever you do. What you have to do is use ‘filtering’ instead of searching, meaning you have to get inside the directory on your remote server and once there, use the sliding menu on the left screen border to enter filter, so you get only entries that pass your filter. Not sure why XBMC is not recreating some local version of remote media database for search to work but this is how it is. Maybe I am doing something wrong but I was not able to figure out how to make search work.

NUC

The last part of the equation, not required by the way – a dedicated device that is always on, connected to LAN and a TV, hardware media player. There is nothing stopping you from running XBMC/KODI on whatever platform and device like your laptop for example. I just wanted a new toy so decided to try and turn some micro PC into a media player running Linux + XBMC/KODI hooked to my TV.

There definitely are many alternatives to NUC and cheaper ones however NUC is quite powerful, having i5 CPU, supporting 16 gigs of RAM and SSD HDDs. Basically a real PC but very small-sized. Opting for NUC gave me more flexibility to do something more with this little thing later – not just media player. Talking strictly about media player functionality Raspberry Pi would have been a way cheeper choice though very limiting in terms of hardware power and compatibility (it’s ARM, not x86/64 architecture, no normal version of Windows for instance).

I have decided to install Linux Mint 17.2 on my NUC, it is Long Time Support release so I’m all set until 2019! Windows would also work perfectly fine but where’s fun in that? As much as I would enjoy all these new spyware features in Windows 10 I would still prefer gewd ol’ reliable Linux which is also happens to be free as in free beer sense :) By the way even Intel published a guide on making media centre box out of NUC using Linux Mint & XBMC. Didn’t use the guide though but maybe this one will be useful for somebody out there.

The best advice I got about NUC was from some blog post (unfortunately do not remember which post exactly) recommending UEFI boot – that really got NUC booting up instantaneously. Setting up Linux on NUC definitely use UEFI boot partition, search the web for guide on that if you need.

Overall my experience with the whole setup was quite positive but yeah, there are several annoyances, see below.

Annoyance #1: sporadic wake-ups from suspended state, fixed by turning off wake on LAN feature in BIOS.
Annoyance #2
: XBMC simply hangs after running for many hours straight in idle mode (i.e. not being used actively). No real fix for this one for now, seems I am using the latest version of KODI already, so I have just set up a cron job that restarts KODI during the night time.
Annoyance #3
: do not expect NUC to be completely silent during heavy load (using all CPU cores close to 100% utilisation) it has a very little fan and noise level is that of a small laptop. This does not happen during playback though but will happen during some CPU-intensive operations like creating large archives for example.

I would like to end this post with a little photo-session, so please welcome, NUC!

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