The Ultimate Multimedia Distribution System

In this post, I'm going to walk you through my home multimedia distribution system (a.k.a.: home entertainment system). Before I begin, let's make two things clear:

  1. This system is not complicated. It's actually very simple. This is by design. I'm a firm believer that the simpler the system, the more you will enjoy using it.
  2. Because of this system, I am a "cord-cutter" (i.e.: someone who no longer relies on "normal" video content distribution models like satellite TV or cable). I've been a cord-cutter for about 10 years now. Was it perfect 10 years ago? Not even close, but I knew that it was the direction that we would all go eventually. It's taken longer than I expected, but here we are. I have people ask me on a near-daily basis how to set up the perfect system.

Below is a diagram showing my setup. Below, I go into more detail. 

What will I need? 

The list of items that you will need is short: 

  • A computer (Mac or PC) with a current version of iTunes installed
  • An Apple TV for each of your TVs

See? I told you the list was short. This, of course, is assuming that you already have a functioning network (wireless or wired) in your home.  If not, we need to talk. Why did I emphasize "current" above? Because I'm a huge advocate of being current on software. It's not required, but highly recommended.

How do I get started? 

First, you will need to import whatever video and audio files you have into iTunes on a computer that you can leave turned on all the time (this computer will be referred to as your "iTunes server"). iTunes will act as your multimedia server. The computer that I happen to use for my iTunes server is a Mac mini. If you want something that will work really well and take up very little space, I strongly recommend a Mac mini. You can, of course, use a PC as well, if that's what you already have. Either way, make sure you have a hard drive with plenty of room on it to store your movies, TV shows and music.

Note: Not sure how to convert your existing DVD library to electronic files that you can store on your new iTunes server? This post will walk you through every step of the process. You can also convert videos that you've already downloaded from iTunes. This post will walk you through how to do that.

Now that you have content on your iTunes server, you need to activate Home Sharing (in iTunes, go to File > Home Sharing). Once you've done that, you're ready to set up your Apple TVs. Connect an Apple TV to each of the TVs in your home (one at a time) and proceed through the setup wizard (this process is quick and painless) for each of them. Once the Apple TVs are set up, you will also want to activate Home Sharing on each of them, using the same account you used in iTunes. This is what will tie it all together.

Congratulations... your new multimedia distribution system is now up and running!

How do I get more video content than what I already have? 

In addition to downloading movies from the iTunes store, I also subscribe to Netflix. It's not the best for current titles (that's what I use iTunes for), but it has a massive library of documentaries, older films and kid-friendly TV shows. Netflix also has an Apple TV channel, which makes it a perfect companion service. 

What, if anything, will I miss when I cancel my cable subscription now? 

There are still a few things missing from my scenario. Currently, live network news is limited (at the time of this post, only Sky News and The Wall Street Journal are available on the Apple TV) as is live sporting events (ESPN and MLB both have an Apple TV channel). Two days ago, Apple released new channels for Disney, the Weather Channel, Vevo, Smithsonian and others. It's only a matter of time before other channels are added (rumor has it, some major network channels are in the works).

How much will all this cost me? 

When people see my video distribution system in action, they are amazed at how simple and effective it is. Because it's Apple-heavy (hardware and software), they expect the price tag to be steep. Here's a little secret... it's not. Not at all, in fact. Each Apple TV costs $99, and iTunes is free (download it here if you don't have it already). If you're disappointed with the low cost and really do want to spend more on your system, then feel free to click on the "Donate" button in the top right corner of this page. I can help you out. :-)

What other tips and tricks are available with this setup? 

To this point, I've discussed viewing content on your TVs (using the Apple TV). In addition to that, you can also stream any content hosted on your iTunes server on your iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch). As with the Apple TVs, you will need to enable Home Sharing using the same Apple ID you used before (Settings > Videos > Home Sharing). You will also need to make sure that your devices are on the same network as your iTunes server (in other words, you can't stream content from your iTunes server at home while you are traveling).

Also, this post focuses heavily on implementation in a home. This sort of setup is also applicable in an office setting. Rather than serving up "Star Trek" or "The Little Mermaid", imagine serving up training or marketing videos, available on any device at any time. The possibilities are limited only by imagination. 

If you're still a little confused or unsure of something I mentioned here, please contact me

Posted on August 29, 2013 and filed under Apple TV, Design, How To, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mac.