Nik's Technology Blog

Travels through programming, networks, and computers

Plex Media Server Hardware - A NAS, Old PC or Custom PC?

Even though some NAS providers advertise their products as "having" Plex Media Server apps, all but the most expensive and powerful cannot actually perform video transcoding, all they can do is direct play and direct stream content. This is fine if all your devices support the media you have, but it is very restrictive and misleading.

Video transcoding is very CPU intensive task and consumer NAS boxes have low powered CPUs, they aren't designed for CPU intensive tasks.

You can store your media on a NAS and use a PC to run Plex Media Server to do all the heavy lifting, however when you factor in the cost of a NAS and the hard disks, to me it made more sense to either use an existing PC or a new custom built PC and add the hard disks directly to the PC. This also reduces the latency of accessing the content from the NAS over the network.

After deciding against using a NAS for Plex, I went about checking what the requirements are to run Plex Media Server on a PC.

My current PC is old and in need of replacement, but perhaps I could upgrade the storage and when I buy a new PC at a later date, the old one can become a dedicated media streaming box?

The Plex website has some guidance on how much CPU power you need for running Plex Server. Based on the benchmark score of 3057 PassMark for my old CPU I was able to confirm it is capable of streaming at least one 1080p stream.

The alternative would have been to build a new custom PC especially for Plex, but I don't have that sort of spare cash at the moment.

Storage for Plex Movies

I had already installed Plex Media Server on my PC and had been pleasantly surprised by how good the software was, so much so that I now wanted to rip all my DVDs to hard disk. After a few calculations I figured out I would need quite a bit more storage to hold all my ripped DVDs for use with Plex Media Server.

Originally I thought that a NAS device might be the way forward. I could get a four bay device for future expandability, and upon first glance it appeared that PMS would run on selected NAS boxes too. I almost bought a four bay Netgear ReadyNAS, until I read that the CPU in most NAS boxes just isn't up to the task of transcoding video.

That would mean the NAS would just store the content and the PC would need to be switched on to act as the Plex Server. This to me, just didn't seem worth it.

Why not just add some extra hard disks to my PC I thought? But what about the added benefit of RAID you get from a NAS?...

I ended up buying some 4TB WD Red NAS hard disk drives and using Storage Spaces in Windows 10 to set up resiliency, mimicking the RAID you get from a NAS box.

Plex via a NOW TV box

After reading how to sideload a Plex client on a NOW TV box I decided to pick one up during the Black Friday sale for £14.99. 

They are basically Roku 3 boxes rebranded as NOW TV (Owned by Sky TV) and feature a limited app store with competing apps such as NetFlix and LoveFilm removed.

I am thinking of using Plex Media Server as a way of ditching my Blu Ray player and ripping all my DVDs to stop my kids scratching them to pieces. Plex indexes the movies and downloads the covers and descriptions from internet movie databases.

Because the NOW TV box has a limited app store, Plex is not available to download directly, so it needs to be sideloaded onto the box.

Sideloading the Roku Plex client onto the NOW TV box basically involves accessing the developer part of the box and installing a package file, which takes 5 minutes.

The box is very stable via WiFi and wired Ethernet and is a very good Plex client especially considering the price.

I'll write another post when I get around to ripping my DVD collection to hard disk.

Installing Hardware RAID on Windows 7

Like a lot of Windows fans I pre-ordered Windows 7 and built a new PC ready to install it on; I chose a motherboard (MSI DKA790GX) that, like many on the market, has a hardware RAID controller on-board allowing you to take advantage of redundancy with RAID 1 and/or benefit from faster disk access with RAID 0.  Read more about RAID.

I had already installed Windows 7 before I remembered I wanted to set-up a RAID 1 array.  I tried to get the RAID array working with Windows already installed but soon realised I would have to set it up prior to installing Windows 7 because Windows kept hanging on boot-up because it was lacking the RAID controller drivers.

The supplied manual doesn’t explain how to get RAID up and running unfortunately.

RAID Controller Set-up

So here’s a quick guide to installing hardware RAID on a motherboard that features a RAID controller.  These steps assume you are performing a clean Windows 7 install rather than an upgrade, and they might differ depending on your system set-up, but the general principles should be the same.

  1. Download the RAID drivers for your motherboard from the manufacturer’s website and save them to a memory stick.
  2. Back up all your important data!
  3. Turn your PC off and unplug it.
  4. Install 2 hard disks preferably with identically capacity into your PC.
  5. Turn on your PC, press the delete key or F2 key when prompted to get to the BIOS menu.
  6. Find the option to select the RAID mode, save your settings and exit BIOS.BIOS RAID options
  7. On reboot you should see a new menu option to enter the RAID controller settings.  Enter the key combination when prompted to get to the RAID controller menu. AMD RAID controller menu
  8. Create a new RAID array selecting either RAID 0, or RAID 1.
  9. Select the disks that will form the array, save the settings and exit.
  10. On reboot press the delete key or F2 key when prompted to get to the BIOS menu.
  11. Check the boot sequence of your PC and ensure your optical drive is top of the list.BIOS boot sequence options
  12. Insert your Windows 7 disk into the optical drive and exit the BIOS.
  13. On reboot press any key when prompted to boot from the optical drive.
  14. Windows 7 should start installing.
  15. Select your localisation settings and click next.Windows 7 localization menu
  16. Click “repair your computer” and click the ”load drivers” button.Windows 7 install menu Windows 7 load drivers menu
  17. Insert your memory stick and browse to the correct driver and install.
  18. Exit back to the Windows 7 install menu click “Install now” and on the next screen click “Custom (advanced)” to perform a clean install.install-windows-custom
  19. When you are asked where you want to install Windows 7 you should see that the 2 RAID hard disks are now visible as just 1 drive.
  20. Add a partition to the new drive so Windows with be able to recognise it.
  21. Continue installing Windows as normal.

Does your PC Keeping Forgetting the Date & Time?

Yesterday my aging desktop PC decided not to boot, and instead displayed this helpful error "CMOS Checksum Error".
In order to get it to boot into Windows I had to press Delete to go into the BIOS settings and change the configuration from "Halt on all errors" to "halt on no errors".  Upon saving the BIOS settings and restarting the error disappeared.

Sometimes though a PC with a dead CMOS battery will boot as normal but forget the date and time on each reboot.  This can lead to odd effects.  For instance I tried to logging into my webmail only to be told the SSL licence wasn't valid, not because it had expired but because my computer thought it was 2001!

CMOS Battery at Fault

Once I got into Windows I got a few "Windows has found new hardware" messages and my system clock had reverted to a day in 2001.
As soon as I saw my clock had forgotten the time and the date, all evidence pointed towards the CMOS battery being at fault.  Its funny how a simple little battery that most people don't even realise existed inside their PC can bring a computer to its knees.

Locating & Changing the CMOS Battery

In a desktop PC the CMOS battery is fairly straight forward to find.  They normally look like a large wrist watch battery, with CR2032 lithium batteries being the most common.  A simple search on eBay will find you a cheap replacement.  Just be careful removing and fitting anything on a motherboard, because any static electricity on your body could fry delicate computer chips.

CMOS battery on a desktop PC motherboard

On a laptop or notebook they are more difficult to find and generally more expensive.  On my Dell Inspiron you need to lift out the main battery and pull out a small flap to locate the CMOS battery.

Dell laptop battery housing

Location of CMOS battery in Dell Inspiron laptop

Dell Inspiron CMOS battery location

My Dell just so happens to take a 7.2V 15mAh Ni-MH CMOS battery, which again, performing a quick search on eBay will find you a replacement.

Fitting the new battery in either case is very straight forward.

Read more about Installing a CMOS Battery here.

USB U3 Smart Drives: Drives That Make Your Applications & Data Portable

USB flash drives have increased in capacity in leaps and bounds since I last purchased one. In the few years since I bought a Crucial 128MB Gizmo!, the price of flash memory has been literally free-falling, due partly to economies of scale and the mass adoption of flash-based mp3 players.
The size and sheer variety of these devices is astounding, but what I wasn't expecting when I inserted the drive was for a Launchpad application to start running, pre-loaded with special software!

SanDisk u3 Smart Drive - Cruzer Micro 4GB

I had in fact purchased a 4GB SanDisk U3 Smart Drive. U3 is a technology developed by SanDisk which effectively creates a platform for developers to build applications that install directly onto the flash drive rather than the host computer. This means that not only can you take your data with you, but you can take your applications too!

U3 Smart Drive Launchpad

When you insert your U3 Smart Drive into a USB slot on any computer, the U3 Launchpad is loaded, which is effectively like the Window's start menu, but instead contains menus to configure the drive, run installed applications and access your data. Nothing is installed on the host PC, so you can take your applications and data with you and its all secure and synced with your data on your PC back home.

The software that's available includes Skype, Firefox, Opera, various password safes, Thunderbird, OpenOffice... The list goes on. Some applications are free, while others cost a small amount of money, but most have downloadable trials. Here's a full list of U3 software.

Watch the video below for a quick guide to the U3 Smart Drive technology.

Buying New PC Hardware? - Make Sure It Supports Vista!

It's fast approaching the anniversary of the release of Windows Vista to business users, home users have been buying new PCs with Vista pre-loaded since the end of January 2007.
I haven't upgraded to Vista yet; my DVD upgrade is still in its box. I've installed it a couple of times to have a play around with it, to see which pieces of hardware and software are compatible, but that's it.
There are a couple of reasons why I haven't taken the plunge. Firstly, my PC can run the new Aero UI on Home Premium, but when I add the CPU monitor widget to the desktop to see how well it copes, it tends to max my processor out just opening windows etc. This is probably to be expected with a 4 year old computer. The second reason is the hardware and software support for Vista. You would have thought that manufacturers would have started to factor in support for a new Microsoft operating system, wouldn't you?
The word that springs to mind when talking about Vista compatibility today is "patchy", and today is almost 12 months after the official launch!

Future Proof Your Hardware Purchases

Most people who buy hardware or software for their PC will be expecting it to work with Vista out-of-the-box. They don't want to be updating firmware, or worse still finding out that their new device only supports XP! Why does Microsoft bother having alpha and beta testing periods when the likes of Apple can't even make their flagship iTunes work?

My advise to anyone thinking of buying a new piece of hardware or software is to make sure it supports Vista, even if you're sticking to Windows XP for the foreseeable future. You never know when you might buy a new PC, and do you really want to have to replace your hardware once you've upgraded to Vista?

Worried about potential health effects of wireless networks? Six easy steps to setting up an alternative

You may have read the scare stories about wireless networks in the press recently, and you may be wondering what you can do to avoid the potential health effects and still have a home which is fairly wire-free.
You may also have recently been given a free wireless router from your ISP.
Sky broadband, AOL broadband, BT broadband, Pipex, they nearly all bundle a wireless router in with your broadband contract these days, so what do you do?

Upgrade to a Powerline Network

Whether you believe the scare stories or not. I'll show you how you can still keep your wireless router but without the potential side-effects.

The answer? Upgrade to a Powerline network. A lesser known technology that uses your mains electrical wiring to distribute your broadband connection, which will allow you to connect a computer anywhere you have a power socket, and turn off the wireless signals so you don't have to worry about "WiFi smog".

Six Steps to Avoid Using WiFi

  1. Purchase at least 2 Powerline wall-plugged adapters (Netgear, Devolo and Dlink all have Powerline products). This is enough to connect one computer to the Internet.
  2. Plug 1 adapter into a wall socket near the wireless router, and connect your existing router to the Powerline adapter using an Ethernet patch cable.
  3. Plug the other Powerline adapter into a wall socket near the computer you want to connect to the Internet and connect your computer to the second Powerline adapter using an Ethernet patch cable.
  4. You should now be online!
  5. Now you'll need to log-in to your wireless router console, usually via a web browser (see your router manual for details) and disable the wireless access point on the router. See the screen-shot below for a visual, obviously your router console may look completely different, but usually the instruction manuals are fairly good.
  6. You can now surf the web anywhere in your home wire-free and without using WiFi!

Still confused? Check out Devolo's Powerline flash presentation, which explains all about Powerline networking simply and with animation.

Powerline Networking Now Fast Enough For Streaming HD Content

I've decided to give up waiting for the 802.11n standard to be ratified. When you spend hard earned cash on a piece of kit, you want to have some confidence that it will work in a year or so. Most of the high-end routers on sale today use a proprietary pre-802.11n or draft 802.11n, which may or may not be compatible with devices that meet the standard, when the IEEE pull their finger out.

What is Powerline networking?

Powerline networking has been around for sometime. Essentially it uses your electrical mains wiring as the media to send data over as if it were category 5 cable. You simply plug a box into the wall socket, which converts these signals that multiplex over the mains wiring to Ethernet. Typically you'd have one next to your router, which connects to your routers Ethernet socket, and the other in the room where your computer is located.

Advantages of Powerline over Wireless networking?

One of the main advantages of Powerline networking over Wi-Fi is that there are no dead spots where you can't get a good connection. As long as you are near a mains outlet, you can have a connection; Albeit with an Ethernet cable connected to the wall.

The latest batch of Powerline networking kits are sporting theoretical speeds of up to 200Mbps! Although in practice, overhead in the system, mains wiring and the 100Base-T outputs limit this maximum throughput; However, I have been getting speeds of over 100Mbps along my mains wiring, easily more than 802.11g, and more reliable too.

Installation does not require software drivers, it literally is a case of plugging them into the wall sockets, and connecting up the Ethernet cables and turning them on. This also means out-of-the-box Linux, Vista and OSX support! They'll also work with games machines and media extenders, or any other piece of kit that has an Ethernet port.

I purchased the Devolo HomePlug dLAN 200 AVDesk Starter Kit, which comes with two HomePlug adapters. They include Quality of Service for uninterrupted Internet TV and IP telephony circuitry, and they were given a "best buy" from PC Pro magazine.

There are other manufacturers who produce Powerline networking equipment, like Netgear's HD Powerline adapters, but after reading this review in PC Pro I decided to opt for the devices that conform to the Powerline AV standard.

Live Earth: How can we help reduce our carbon footprint?

After watching a few acts on Live Earth at the weekend I wondered how I could use this little space on the web to make a difference, and help reduce CO2 emissions. Then I remembered a PC Pro campaign launched in 2005 called "Switch IT off". Since then there have been lots of switch it off days to try and raise awareness.
Essentially these campaigns are set-up to encourage businesses and home users to switch-off their appliances instead of keeping them in standby when not in use.

PC Pro did a lot of research into office and home electronics. One particular phenomenon to which most non-IT people are unaware of is the fact that when you shut your PC down, it still carries on consuming electricity.
The ATX power supplies used in all modern desktop computers continue to supply the motherboard with a small amount of electricity to enable it to wake-on-LAN. Now the energy PCs use in this state is minimal, but it is still wasted energy nevertheless. The only way to completely shut a computer down is to turn it off at the mains, or flick the switch on the ATX power supply located at the back of the PC.

The general message of the Switch IT Off campaign is to get people into the habit of turning appliances off rather than using the standby option. Offices that get their staff to turn their PCs and monitors off every evening could save thousands of pounds a year in electricity bills and help reduce our CO2 emissions.

For more information read the full PC Pro Switch IT Off article...