The Lazy Geek's Guide to a Home Media Center

Apple TV and iTunes let you fulfill the digital entertainment dream, especially if you add an iPad to the mix.

Reuters

The digital home media center has arrived

Geeks have long dreamed of digital home entertainment centers, with their music, movies, and more all available at the touch of a button, without the mess of CDs, DVDs, and VHS tapes. But the technology hasn't worked well, despite a brief experiment by PC vendors with home media PCs, the rise of network-attached storage, and utilities like Plex. The many pieces typically didn't really fit.

That's changed, thanks to Apple. You can now put together a digital media center with the $99 Apple TV at its heart, with iTunes as the engine that powers your media, and AirPlay as the protocol that brings mobile devices into the action.

P.S. For a great guide to AirPlay and Apple TV, check out Ben Harvell's book "iConnected."

iTunes library location

Deciding your iTunes library strategy

You can have a dedicated PC or Mac serve as your iTunes command center, using a large external FireWire or USB 3.0 drive to hold your media. Or you can have multiple computers serve as your media servers -- or mix the two strategies. (For details, see my detailed hands-on how-to.)

The key is to set iTunes to access your library. In iTunes Preferences, choose whether to copy all media to a single location or to use the media wherever it resides. Then choose File > Add to Library to tell iTunes where all the media is that it should index in your library.

importing a CD into iTunes

Importing music

When you insert a CD into your computer while iTunes is running, you'll see a list of songs and have the option to import the music. iTunes does the rest, finding the album art and adding the album and song information for you. You can set iTunes to auto-import inserted CDs if you plan on converting your whole CD library.

To import music files (such as MP3s), choose File > Add to Library. iTunes will do the rest.

To modify album or song information, select it in iTunes, choose File > Get Info, and modify and add the information as desired. Tip: Copy missing album covers from Amazon.com's product descriptions.

Ripping DVD video in HandBrake

Importing videos: Ripping DVDs and video files

iTunes can't import DVDs or video files (such as home movies), but the free HandBrake can. Insert the DVD, and then launch HandBrake (choose File > Open if it's already running), then navigate to your DVD's contents or your exiting video file in the OS X Finder or Windows Explorer and click Open.

In HandBrake's Presets tray, choose High Profile, select the video segment in the main window's Title pop-up menu (the longest segment is usually your movie; the rest are previews and extras), and click Start. Let HandBrake do its thing; it can take 25 to 60 minutes to rip a movie to the compatible MPEG-4 format.

Note: Apple's QuickTime and iMovie for the Mac can send their video files straight to iTunes.

Getting movie metadata in MetaZ and MetaX

Importing videos: Adding movie info

iTunes won't add movie information and posters to your imported videos, as it does for music. So you need to add it yourself. You could select the movie in iTunes and then choose File > Get Info to add it all manually. Or you could use an app to do the work for you.

On a Mac, use the free MetaZ; in Windows, use the $10 MetaX. In both cases, search for the movie by title, and then select the best match, Select all the fields whose information you want to apply to your movie, then write them to the movie file. Now, when you import the video file into iTunes, all that movie metadata is imported as well.

Importing video into iTunes

Importing videos: Adding to iTunes

With your files in the right format and with the movie data appended, go to iTunes and choose File > Add to Library to import it. If you want to adjust the movie info -- or add it for your home movies -- select the movie, choose File > Get Info, and modify what you want in the various panes.

You can now play the movies on your computer, just like audio. And you can sync it to an iOS device for playback there, as shown later.

Setting up AirPlay in an Apple TV

Getting your Apple TV ready to go

Playing media on your computer or even iOS device is nice, but it's not why you want a home media center. Typically, you want to play the media on your TV and perhaps through other speakers.

To play video and audio through your TV or receiver, you need an Apple TV. It connects via HDMI to your TV or receiver, and to your iTunes-running computer over an Ethernet or Wi-Fi network.

For the Apple TV to receive the video or audio you send from iTunes, go to the Settings app in the Apple TV, select AirPlay with the Apple TV remote, and then select AirPlay in the AirPlay screen to enable it. You also can set a password if you'd like.

Streaming from iTunes to an Apple TV

Streaming from iTunes to an Apple TV

Whether you're playing music, podcasts, or videos in iTunes, use the AirPlay button to open the menu from which you choose your Apple TV. Note: You can have multiple Apple TVs on the network, as well as AirPlay-enabled speakers that don't need an Apple TV to receive audio). The AirPlay button turns blue, and the media are streamed to the selected AirPlay device (such as an Apple TV). iTunes on the computer also stops playing the media on its screen, but it leaves the controls available.

Use the AirPlay button to stop the streaming.

Using AirPlay screen mirroring on a Mac

Mirroring other media to the Apple TV

If you own a recent Mac, you can use the AirPlay Mirroring function in OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion to stream your entire screen. That's a handy way to send YouTube, Netflix, and other videos to your TV.

The AirPlay button should appear in the menu bar (if not, enable it in the Displays system preference); use it to choose your Apple TV. The screen should then stream to the Apple TV, unless your app or website blocks it (as DVD Player does). This technique works best when you use sites' and apps' full-screen playback option. Note: You may have to use the Sound system preference's Output pane to reroute your Mac's audio to the Apple TV.

Buying iTunes content via Apple TV

Playing content from iTunes in the Cloud

An Apple TV is connected to your iTunes accounts, so it can access any content stored in Apple's iTunes Match service, as well as directly download videos and music rented or purchased from iTunes in the Cloud via your computer or via the Apple TV.

Note: iTunes content purchased from an iOS device is not available for direct access on an Apple TV; you'll have to stream it via AirPlay instead after downloading it from iTunes in the Cloud.

Playing an iTunes libraty from an Apple TV

Playing your iTunes library from the Apple TV

You don't have to stream content from your computer's iTunes to your Apple TV -- you can also pull it from the Apple TV itself.

To do so, go to the Computers app in the Apple TV screen, then select your iTunes library. (An iTunes library appears for any network-connected computer running iTunes, if library sharing has been enabled in the iTunes Preferences' Sharing pane.) Navigate to the desired content, and then play it.

Watching movies via an Apple TV

Watching movies via an Apple TV

However you get your video to the Apple TV, you'll see the same thing on the TV set: the video playing normally. Use the Apple remote control to play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind.

To see the progress bar, press the down or up button on the remote.

To see a chapters list while watching a movie, press and hold the Select (center) button. Release the button when the chapter list appears. At the top of the screen will appear tabs for audio and speaker options, if available.

Press Home to exit the movie.

Screen mirroring from an iOS device to an Apple TV

Playing other media from your iOS device to your Apple TV

Most iOS media apps have the AirPlay button to stream content from your device to your Apple TV -- it works the same way it does from iTunes on your computer.

But not all apps provide AirPlay directly. For some of these non-AirPlay-savvy apps, you can use the AirPlay Mirroring feature available in recent iOS devices to send the entire screen and audio to the Apple TV. Double-tap the Home button, then scroll to the left in the multitasking dock that appears. Tap the AirPlay button and set Mirroring to On. Your screen should now stream to the Apple TV. (Tap the screen to close the dock.) Note: Some apps, like Netflix, won't stream this way, or will only stream audio this way.

Controlling iTunes from iOS's Remote app

Controlling iTunes from your iOS device

Just as you can access your iTunes library from the Apple TV, so too can you access it from your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. You need Apple's free Remote app on the iOS device.

From it, tap the iTunes library you want to control. (Tapping Apple TV lets you use the iOS device instead of the Apple remote to control the Apple TV.)

Choose the desired type of library, such as movies, from the lower left button on the iPad and from the More button on the iPhone or iPod Touch. Navigate to the desired content, and play it.

The content plays on the computer hosting the iTunes library, not your device. You can use the AirPlay button to stream that content to an Apple TV.

Playing an iTunes library on your iOS devce

Playing a computer's iTunes content on your iOS device

To play content from your computer's iTunes library on your iOS device, iTunes has to be running on the computer, and both the iOS device and computer have to be on the same network. You also need a recent iOS device; older iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads can't do this.

In the Videos app on your iOS device, look for the Shared tab. Tap it, then select the desired iTunes library; it may take a few moments to load. Choose the video and play it.

In the Music app on your iOS device, tap the More button and then the Shared option. Select the iTunes library, then choose the album or song to play it.

Sorry, but there's no similar feature for the Podcasts app.

Syncing iTunes media to an iOS device

Playing iTunes content on your iOS device at any time

Your iOS device isn't always on the same network as your computer -- and not always in the same city. You can transfer media from iTunes to your iOS devices in iTunes on your computer. Select the iOS device from the Devices list, then go to each pane whose content you want to sync. Be sure the Sync option is enabled, and then select the specific content to sync in each pane. When done, click Sync. The selected media are then copied to that iOS device.

Now you can play those media from your iOS device anywhere you have it. And you can use AirPlay or a wired audio, VGA, or HDMI connector to play that content to someone else's TV or stereo.