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Latest News: Sunday, February 10, 2019

Media Server on the Road 

PlexFor years, we've had a TV in our van, which is tremendously helpful on long trips for playing movies and even hooking up a Wii at one point. Our Ford E-250 currently has a 32" TCL mounted in our high-top roof, with audio piped through the van's stereo via bluetooth. The size is great, but audio is problematic with all the road and wind noise. "Can you turn it up?" varies with "It's too loud!" from the peanut gallery out back.

I've been using (also for a few years) a Plex media server at home to cast music to my set of Chromecast Audios around the house (sadly now out of production) without having to stream anything from the internet. I also have our entire movie library available in the system, castable to our one Chromecast plugged into our TV.

Recently I've been mulling over the idea of setting up Plex in our van, so each kid can choose his own movie and music. Remember, we currently have six kids of different ages and different preferences in the back seats. And each would have headphones and a better chance of leaving each other alone? It's worth a try. If you've flow, the idea is like what many modern airliners have available in the seat back for each passengers. Speaking of which, I'm also wondering if I can get some airline seats to install in our van? I wonder. Recline, tray tables, pockets, hmm?

So, there are some challenges:

  1. Need a network in the van
  2. Need a machine powerful enough to run all the streams and enough storage to hold all the movies
  3. Need enough devices for the kids that are powerful enough to run the movies
  4. Need enough electricity to keep all this running without blowing fuses

OK, this is doable! Let's get started.

Network

I actually have three old WiFi routers sitting on my shelf. Yes, really. I pulled out the one with the lowest power draw, reset it, and set up DHCP. We tried it with the rest of the system on a trip this last weekend, but this router was horrible. Could barely even keep up with one stream, and took forever to start them up. Lesson learned: test thoroughly before hitting the road. I pulled out a second router, and this one wouldn't even start up. The third one is still good, and testing proved it was up to the task, and isn't going to kill by power budget.

Server

With a limited power budget (see below), not to mention we're in a van, the server should probably be a laptop. My Surfacebook is easily powerful enough, and quick install of Plex got me up and running. All my (almost 50GB) of audio is already local on the PC, but the 512GB drive isn't big enough to hold all 600+ gigs of our movie library. Even whittled down to just the ~150GB of DVD-quality content that's all-ages-friendly, that doesn't quite fit on the internal drive. With a sync to an external 2TB drive, I'm all set for mobile use.

Clients

Bucking today's typical trend, none of our kids at home have phones. A couple have had devices to use for music and a curated set of games, without any network access at all. I've gradually gathered a set of old unused devices that I'll share with the kids on trips. I don't have enough for everyone, so we'll typically share them around the van over time. However, we do have enough laptops, donated to us last year, for each kid to have her own. Nice big screens, games available in addition to the movies and music, and we have the potential to get a good win here.

Power

The van has a big alternator, and I have two inverters on separate circuits, handling 200W each. One easily powers the server and network router, leaving the other to charge the six laptops. With 60W chargers, we're limited to three charges, shared in pairs. This worked out in our latest trip. Next up is to wire up the van with a couple outlets down the windowsills so we can clean things up make it more convenient for USB chargers as well.

Results

Networking is usually the trickiest thing to work out, and this setup wasn't any exception. I didn't expect the old router to be operational, yet work so poorly. I had pre-configured a favorite for each laptop to point to the server by computer name, but had to fall back to IP address in the ad-hoc network. Perhaps I can get the newer router configured to get DNS properly operational for Plex's browser-based interface, but assigning the server a static IP in DHCP fits the bill just fine for this project.

The bad router meant that most kids gave up before the stream would start, and the quality was poor when it did start.

But, the Surfacebook had no trouble setting up the live conversions on the fly, and I didn't blow any fuses.

So, next trip with the new router, and we'll see how that works!

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