Overhauling a home network, Part 1 -- Making decisions

Over the years the little network within my humble abode has grown. It started as a way to connect a laptop and a desktop, but has since become a conglomeration of multiple devices -- a desktop, three laptops, an HTPC, a home server and even three smartphones. Not to mention that the Blu-ray player, DirecTV DVR and Netgear NeoTV are networked. It all comes together in a combination of ethernet and WiFi connections that are controlled through a router in the home office on the third floor of our old restored Victorian, an extender which resides in the entertainment cabinet in the living room -- sorry, "parlor" since it is a Victorian -- on the first floor and a network switch in the basement.

Parts are getting old however -- in the past year I had to buy a new router and replace my daughter's laptop. Recently, more things have become unreliable. My home server, which ran FreeNAS died recently. It was housed in an old tower PC that had once been our desktop. Our HTPC has grown old, despite having been upgraded with new video and audio cards and additional RAM. The Netgear NeoTV is not as reliable as it once was.

Decisions had to be made and money had to be spent. This week both of those things were done. It was not cheap, but I took the lowest budget approach I could.

The HTPC

I have been agonizing over this decision for some time. I was sorely tempted to build my own again. There are some absolutely beautiful cases on the market and each one would look great in our cabinet.

I also like Windows Media Center, though I have threatened to move on many times. I originally used Media Portal and then, briefly tried XBMC, before landing on WMC. I have even taken a long, hard look at Linux solutions and found that Linux MCE is a very intriguing option.

However, my days of building my own PC from scratch are likely over. It just isn't cost-effective in this market of dirt-cheap hardware that solid OEM's like Dell must sell on razor-thin margins. Dell, in fact, was the first place I looked. I came close to purchasing a bottom-of-the-line tower that would be more than enough for my family's purposes.

Then I looked at other options -- I had requirements, most notably playing DVD rips in ISO and having a web browser. No set top box fulfilled all of them -- Roku, Google TV, Boxee...nothing.

In the end I settled on a Micca EP350 G2 networked digital media player. Haven't heard of it? Join the club because I had not either. The jury is out for now, but the reviews were good and the device contained the functions I required. One caveat -- you will need to supply your own HDD, but internal drives are cheap and I didn't require much space since our media is on the home server anyway.

The Home Server

Again I was budget-conscious here. I purchased a Dell Optiplex server from a local business that was upgrading. Rather than reinstalling FreeNAS I will be moving to Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Yes, the operating system is not cheap, but at least I got a deal on the server and I had the hard drives from the old box.

The installation will take place this weekend and hopefully go smoothly. I sorely wish Microsoft would continue Windows Home Server, but the company is not doing so and if it is moving on then so will I. There is virtually no point in installing a dead operating system.

Set Top Box

Okay, here is where it gets a bit weird -- well that is not quite the right word, but I don't know how else to explain it. I wanted to replace two devices with one. I only began using the NeoTV because the HTPC was getting old and slow and I wanted to go back to those good old one-device-to-rule-them-all days.

I honestly think the Micca box may have allowed that, but this is where I went off-budget and risked the ire of my wife. That Google TV was too much temptation to ignore. If only it could play ISO then it would have been my one device -- hint to Google. In short, I ordered a Vizio Co-Star.

Now We Wait

Every part has now been ordered. Both boxes will be here within a few days, as will the hard drive. The Home Server will be up and running this weekend -- unless something goes horribly wrong. So for now, I am clueless, but hopeful, how all of this will work. That is where we will pick this up next time around.

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