DIY Home Media Server for your Apple TV
One product that Apple is sorely missing from it's iTunes universe is a Home Media Server. There are some products out there that claim to "support" iTunes, however they only really stream music to other libraries. What most of us really want is a centralized repository that we can use to sync content to various devices. You might have an Apple TV, many iPods and multiple computers all with different libraries.
I was naively optimistic when I heard rumors that something like this would be announced at Macworld this year. In the absence of that announcement, or any suitable commercial substitute I setup my own solution.
Setting up the Server
I only recommend a PC cause you'll certainly be able to find one cheaper. Get a clean install of XP if you can. Make sure you have some kind of remoting software like Remote Desktop or VNC. The PC just needs to be powerful enough to run iTunes.
I used a Compaq laptop, mainly because it's what I had lying around, but there are added benefits to using a laptop. Other than the small size, it's nice to use a laptop as a server since it comes with it's own monitor, keyboard and mouse. It also has battery backup built in, so you wont have to worry about starting it back up after a brown out.
You'll also need something for storage, unless your server already has enough. I got a 1TB Western Digital MyBook so I don't have to worry about space for awhile. Remember, you can't span a single library across multple disks, so choose wisely.
Step 1 - Setup the Network
Ethernet is preferrable to Wireless for speed's sake. The server can go anywhere, so you might as well put it next to your router.
Make sure the right ports are open, or disable the Firewall if your router has one. Add these port numbers as exceptions under the Windows Firewall settings in the Control Panel.
Ports: VNC=5900, RDP=3389, SuperSync=5360
Make sure you setup the remoting software. For RDP look under Control Panel > System > Remote. For VNC use a server like TightVNC.
Step 2 - Copy your Content
Connect your external drive to your computer with your existing iTunes Library. Copy the iTunes Music folder to the external drive. You don't need any of the library Metadata.
Connect your external drive to the server. In iTunes change your iTunes Music folder location to the iTunes Music directory on the external HDD. (Preferences > Advanced)
In iTunes click File > Add Folder to Library. Then find the iTunes Music folder.
Step 3 - Connect the Apple TV
On your Apple TV go to Settings > Computers. Go back to iTunes and enter the passcode from the Apple TV. Start Syncing and Enjoy!
One of the lesser advertised features of the Apple TV is that if your iTunes library is larger than your ATV drive, it will still display all the content on the ATV, but it will stream it as necessary. I didn't want my ATV drive to be completely full at all times, so I set the syncing preferences to only sync the 10 most recent Movies and TV Shows. As long as your on a fast network it should stream fine. I'm using Wireless N, I'm not sure about G.
At this point your server is ready to go and you can continue to archive all your content to the server without having to clutter up your primary computer. I ripped my entire DVD collection using Handbrake and now I have everything at my fingertips.
I could actually live without an Apple Media Server if they could solve this problem in iTunes. There should be a good way to not just stream, but copy and sync media between libraries that are authorized. Thankfully the third-party software SuperSync does just that.
SuperSync gives you a graphical delta of two remote iTunes libraries and allows you to push and pull between them. The software is a little complicated at first, but once you get used to it, it's pretty nice. They have a demo movie that explains most of it.
Just setup SuperSync on your server and primary computer, and you can easily copy content back and forth.
One of the benefits to having a server like this is that it's very convenient for streaming music throughout the house. All you need is a Airport Express and an iPhone/iPod Touch. Download the Apple Remote software for your iPhone and set it up to control your server library. Hookup the Airport Express to your stereo, and select it as the output speakers for your server. The Apple Remote software will let you do this from the Settings, or on the screen while a track is playing.
The iPhone can be a handy tool for managing your server and controlling your Apple TV. For example, there are many remoting clients for VNC and RDP. I use Jaadu RDP and it works great. I can be on my couch and connect to the server if I have any simple issues with it.
And of course the Apple Remote iPhone Application is an awesome tool for the Apple TV. Other than being able to browse your library, there's a really cool feature that I didn't know was there till I stumbled upon it. If you go to a text input screen on the Apple TV, a keyboard pops up on the iPhone. Pure genius.