Plex on an Old Laptop

When I first started a previous job in 2007, I was issued a used Dell D600 laptop.  The machine was outdated when I got it.  The machine had a Centrino processor, 256MB of RAM and no wireless card.  I used the computer at work for a year or two before I was issued a more modern machine.  When I left the company, the gentleman in IT told me not to return the machine.  The laptop sat in a closet for five years slowly losing value.

“Keep it.  If you send it back, I’m just going to throw it in the dumpster.”

I had a 2TB external hard drive plugged into my router to serve as a network folder, but I found the solution unstable.  One time while copying files from my computer to the drive, the copy failed a lot of the data on the drive got corrupted.  I blamed the router, so I unplugged the drive.

I had the idea to use the old Dell as a networked linux computer where I could use the external drive as a network folder.  As a bonus, I would be able to finally install Plex for my Roku.  I reformatted the laptop’s hard drive and went to work.

I tried to install Ubuntu, but the OS was too cumbersome for the old machine.  It wouldn’t ever boot into the graphical installer.  When using text installer, it would freeze while trying to install packages.

I ended up using a distribution I hadn’t heard of – CrunchBang.  The OS is meant to run with very low overhead, and other people have had success running it on the D600 as well.  The distro defaults are great – the desktop shows computer resources in use and updates them in real time.  For such a weak machine, I found this information invaluable.

I installed Plex, setup a Samba share onto the external drive, and mapped the Plex library to the shared folder.  When I went to stream home movies to the Roku, the videos played for a couple seconds before pausing, buffering, playing, and pausing again.  The memory was maxed out, so I ordered and installed 1GB of RAM from Amazon for $16.

The memory issue was fixed, but I was still getting buffering issues on the videos.  I dug further and found the CPU was maxed out.  I found the Plex client was requesting the server to transcode the videos in real time.  My network is fast enough that I can stream the videos in real time at full resolution, so I switched the Plex default client video quality from 720p to “Direct Play”.  The videos are playing nearly perfectly now.

I am happy to have resurrected an otherwise worthless machine to use as a network server.  If I want to physically get on the machine, it’s convenient to have a built-in monitor, keyboard, and mouse, but I rarely do this.  The machine plugs into the router with ethernet, so it’s hidden out of view anyway.  All of my network administration is done via SSH, and I load files onto the computer with the network share.  The only time I’ve opened the machine was one time when it froze.

 

Cutting the Cord – Symbolic Steps Backwards

Two days ago, I was cord-cutter.  Yesterday I signed up for a new telephone landline.  Today, I am still a cord-cutter.  How did this come to be?

I have been paying for cable television for almost five years.  During that time, I never plugged the television into the cable.  The cable outlet is on the opposite side of the room from the television.  I can’t be bothered to run an ugly wire across my room.  A year or so ago, my cable company sent a new digital DRM box to “enhance” my television experience.  My unused cable TV would stop working unless I installed this anti-cable-theft device.  Nonplused, I placed the unwanted device in a closet – box unopened.

I am an archetypal cord-cutter.  I’ve never subscribed to land-line telephone service.  I watch television and movies on my Roku.  I read and listen to my news.  I have no use for a hundred channels of mediocre programming and intrusive advertising.  Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the PBS online station, I have more than television than I could possibly watch.  If I want to see a particular show not offered free, Amazon is happy to sell me the program.  I would rather pay $2 to watch a 20 minute show on demand than pay nothing to watch a 20 minute show and 10 minutes of commercials at a set time.  I find channel surfing unpleasant.

So why do I subscribe to cable television?  Because my Internet connection, which is integral to my business and entertainment of choice, is cheaper if I bundle cable television.  That’s it.  I’ve called my cable company several times over the years and asked if I dropped my cable, could I get a discount.  Every time I make that call, the answer is the same: “Your bill will go up”.

Over the past few months, I have been dealing with a reoccurring billing problem with my cable company.  Each time I called, the cable company agreed my bill was incorrect and fixed the problem for that month.  They promised the problem will not reoccur – and yet here we are, on the phone again.  I spent hours on the phone dealing with the issue.  Fed up, I started the process to cancel my service.  In response, the customer service representative offered me a new package:  Faster Internet download speeds, cable television, and home telephone service for about $30 less per month than my current rate, good for twelve months.  The cable company will send a technician out to install my home phone, but they will waive the $20 service-call fee.  I accepted, obviously, because I like money and faster Internet.  I have no plans of plugging a phone into the wall.  If I end up with a VOIP box, I will likely stack it neatly on top of the cable television box in my closet – unopened, unused.

Professionally, I’ve worked extensively with customer service representatives (CSRs) and phone provisioning systems.  Time is money with these people, and seconds count.  The waste is extensive:

  • The CSR took 15 minutes to provision my new phone number.  That’s 15 minutes the CSR could be talking to other customers – driving sales, solving issues for other customers.
  • The technician will come to my house at to install the VOIP interface into my phone box.  That house-call will cost the cable company in compensation to the dispatcher, inventory person, and technician.  They also have to pay for gas, a truck, training, back-office support, etc.  I will likely unplug the box as soon as the technician walks out the door for the same reason I turn off the lights when I leave a room.
  • The cable company will purchase VOIP equipment which will languish unused in my closet.
  • The cable company will need to expand their infrastructure to accommodate another phone customer.
  • Phone line taxes will be paid – although I suspect this will come out of my pocket on top of my bill.

What could possibly be the business driver behind this business waste?  My bill went down, but my expenses to the cable company went up.  The cost of the technician call will likely eat up several months of profit.  Short-term profitability is clearly not the motivator here.  I have no insight into the corporate workings and plans of my cable company, but to me, this stinks of bad internal business drivers and sneaky business practices.  If I may speculate, maybe one or more of the following is true:

  • The cable company is measuring success based on number of bundles sold.  Attained goals are measured as success in the short-term.  Long-term profitability may suffer, but you can reach almost any arbitrary goal if you try.  If an executive says “my goal for next twelve months is to sell more packages than ever before”, that executive may reach the goal and get promoted.  But that doesn’t necessarily help the company grow.
  • The cable company is artificially inflating subscriber numbers for some reason invisible to me.  Maybe they are trying to show growth to investors.  Maybe it’s political.  The cable/phone/internet industry is deep in politics these days.  See: Net neutrality, local monopolies, etc.
  • The cable company intends for my bill to go up drastically in twelve months.  I’d be interested to see if this is an actual strategy or an unspoken reality.  I suspect if the cable company’s executives put this in a strategic document, some disgruntled employee would leak it, and we’d see a public scandal.  The CSR told me he did not know how much the bill would increase after the “special offer period”, but I suspect it will be higher than what I was paying without the telephone.  The CSR told me I should call back in twelve months and ask for a lower rate.  I intend to take him up on his offer.

So here I am: faster Internet, no change in services taken, still as resolutely cord-cut as I’ve ever been.  But the cable company gets to use me as a data-point to show how cord-cutting is a declining trend.  All it cost them was hundreds of dollars.

Personal Content on the Roku

I recently purchased a new home router – the Netgear AC1600.  The router has a USB 3.0 usb slot.  I plugged a USB hard drive into the router and had an instant network drive.  I am thrilled the software worked out of the box.

We’ve never had cable television at my house, so all of my content comes from my Roku or DVDs.  We use the Roku to stream from Netflix and Amazon.  We also listen to SomaFM and our favorite radio stations through the Roku.

I own a few DRM-free movies, lots of DRM-free music, and more photos.  I want a solution to watch the movies, play music, and show photo slideshows on my television.  I want to stream content directly from my network drive.

I looked at a few solutions, and I’m not thrilled with any of them.  Here is what I found:

Roku Media Player

Roku Media Player is the most promising solution.  My router provides a “DLNA Media Server”.  I never heard of this protocol before trying to perform this install, but apparently Roku Media Player uses DLNA to catalog media content on a network drive.  So far, so good.

The good:

I installed Roku Media Player (RMP) and started the program.  RMP found my drive immediately.  I didn’t have to perform any manual setup – it just worked.  I was able to play videos and audio.  The photos were available to view.  So far, so good.

The bad:

The interface is awful.

Plex

Plex looks great, but it requires an always-on computer server.  I am trying to avoid this with the networked drive.

Apple TV

I could dump my Roku for an Apple TV.  Apple TV looks the best, but their forced ecosystem is a turnoff.  I’m not even sure if the Apple TV would let me maintain a network drive without a dedicated computer with iTunes installed.