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How to Build a Media Server for Home Entertainment

Home media servers are nothing new, but they’re all the rage today. Thanks to popular streaming software like Plex, you can run your private streaming service in your home. But to do that, you’ll want to set up a media server.

Technically, you can use just about any computer as a media server, from your daily driver PC to an old office computer to a Raspberry Pi. But if you want to build a new machine to take advantage of the power and efficiency of modern hardware, then making a new machine for the job is an excellent way to go.

Media Server Hardware Considerations


CPU

When choosing a CPU for media server usage, you typically won’t need anything too powerful. For software transcoding, Plex recommends a CPU with a PassMark score of 2000 for transcoding a 1080p stream. And to put that into perspective, an Intel Core i5-3770 released in 2012 has a PassMark score of 4664.

For building a media server, you want an Intel processor with Quick Sync technology. This allows you your computer to do hardware transcoding without needing a discrete GPU. Generally, any Intel Core i3, i5, i7 or i9 CPU from the Haswell generation forward (3000 series processors) with be Quick Sync compatible and can act as your iGPU for video streaming functionality.

As for AMD CPUs, they’re not usually a good choice for media server builds. Primarily, they still lag considerably when it comes to video transcoding, meaning if you use an AMD CPU, you’ll probably need a graphics card.

GPU

When it comes to a media server, a GPU isn’t typically necessary. Yes, a GPU can offer hardware transcoding and could be a viable option if you’re looking to repurpose an older build or want to transcode many high-resolution streams simultaneously. But for most people, a GPU is overkill and adds to the final cost of building and maintaining a media server.

RAM

RAM doesn’t make a substantial difference in performance for a media server. Faster RAM can help speed things up a bit. But overall, you won’t need a lot of RAM since most streaming platforms don’t use much. A cheap 8gb kit should be sufficient and allow you to use the money you save on RAM towards a better processor or storage.

Storage

Storage is one of the most important aspects of a media server. You’ll need to have enough storage to house your media library and extra space in case your library grows. You’ll also want a separate drive to house your streaming software and media metadata since you can quickly end up with hundreds of gigabytes of media metadata with an extensive media library.

When choosing a drive for your streaming software and metadata, you’ll want to select a fast drive. A fast drive will help make for a smoother experience accessing the server and metadata. For the software and metadata, an NVMe drive is optimal, though a SATA SSD is an excellent second choice.

For the media, speed isn’t as much of an issue as redundancy for most users. But that doesn’t mean you should completely disregard speed. For example, if you plan to put your drives in a RAID array to protect yourself against data loss, you’ll want to consider a RAID 5 array for security and performance, requiring at least three drives.

Network

Last but certainly not least is your network. Since you’ll be streaming media across your network, you will want a hard-wired connection to your media server. For most people, a standard 1Gbps connection should work just fine.

Some motherboards may come with a 2.5Gbps connection, giving you more room to expand. However, remember that to take advantage of the increased bandwidth capabilities, you’ll need a 2.5Gbps-capable switch or router at the other end of the Ethernet cord.

Now that we’ve gone over media server hardware let’s look at a couple of example builds to give you an idea of what you might want for a home media server.


Small Home Starter Server

Storage: Team Group MP33 PRO (512GB) for apps; WD Red Plus 4TB (or larger) for files

Power Supply: EVGA 400 N1 400W

If you're building a new streaming rig, an Intel Core i3-12100F is an excellent way to get started if you’re looking to dabble in the home media server space with a small yet capable build.

The Intel Core i3-12100F is more than powerful enough for transcoding without consuming a ton of power, thanks to its use of Quick Sync. And the Thermaltake Gravity i2 pairs well, being a good budget-oriented cooler that offers excellent cooling performance at its size and price.

The ASRock B660M PRO RS Micro ATX offers Gigabit LAN connectivity for fast network throughput and an M.2 drive slot for fast SSD storage. Install a Team Group MP33 Pro SSD in the M.2, and you’ll have plenty of performance for your operating system and media streaming applications. You have up to 3.5-inch drive bays, so you’ve got room hold a lot of media and run your drives in a RAID 5 array.

At around $500 for the build, excluding your media storage drives, it’s small, fast, and powerful enough to serve a small home, blending performance and price with few compromises.

Large Family Media Server

Storage: Team Group MP33 PRO (512GB) for apps; WD Red Plus 4TB (or larger) for files

If you’re in a larger home and want something beefier than the starter server above, then this is another good option. At a little over $600, this Core i5-12600K PC packs a wallop, making it more suitable for large homes with lots of concurrent transcoding streams.

And it isn’t just beefier in terms of power. The Cooler Master N400 is a mid-tower case, offering a whopping seven 3.5-inch drive bays and two additional 5.25-inch bays if you want to install optical media readers like DVD or Blu-ray.

Complementing the case is the ASRock Z690 Pro RS LGA 1700 with 8 SATA ports, three M.2 drive slots, which gives you many options for SSD and HDD data storage in a number of different RAID configurations.

All of this is powered by a 550-watt EVGA SuperNOVA PSU, leaving plenty of additional power for a graphics card later down the road, should you ever want to take your transcoding power to the next level.

Operating Systems

There are endless options when picking an operating system for a media server. However, we’ll focus on a few standard options, with a brief overview of each one to get you started.

Windows

Windows is a decent choice if you value running your server in a familiar environment. However, it certainly isn’t the best choice. It has more overhead than the other operating systems we mention, and it can’t do HDR tone mapping in Plex, meaning you’ll want something else if you’re looking to stream 4K content.

UnRAID

UnRAID is a popular NAS OS that allows you to run other software, including Plex and other streaming platforms. This functionality means it works great for media streaming NAS builds. However, it is a paid operating system with limitations, meaning it isn’t suitable for everyone.

FreeNAS/TrueNAS

FreeNAS and TrueNAS are other possibly good options, especially if you don’t mind getting deep with software. Like UnRAID, these are NAS operating systems that can run popular streaming platforms like Plex and Jellyfin.

As the name suggests, FreeNAS is free to use, while TrueNAS is the paid version. Both are great operating systems, but like UnRAID, they aren’t the perfect choice for everyone.

Streaming Platforms

In addition to picking an operating system, you’ll need to choose a streaming platform to stream your media. Like the last section, we’ll briefly overview some popular options.

Plex

The most popular streaming platform available, Plex, is a go-to for media server enthusiasts. It offers both free and premium versions, with the latter unlocking even more features. These paid features include watching and recording live TV, streaming trailers of your media, and hardware-accelerated transcoding, among others.

Plex also offers both free and paid mobile apps, so you aren’t just limited to streaming to your devices at home.

Emby

Emby is a direct competitor to Plex, and is partially open-source, making it a good middle-ground between Plex and Jellyfin. Like Plex, Emby offers both free and paid versions, with the latter allotting you premium features like live TV, hardware-accelerated transcoding, and smart home integration.

Emby also has a mobile app. But unlike Plex, there is no free version.

Jellyfin

Jellyfin is an open-source, free streaming platform that easily rivals Plex and Emby. Not only does it have many of the same features as both Plex and Emby, but it also doesn’t put certain features, like hardware-accelerated transcoding, behind a paywall.

Jellyfin also has a mobile app. But unlike the other two services, it doesn’t charge money or lock features behind a paywall to use it.

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