A Driving Instructor's Blog

Kill Bill: Vol 1 - posterDuring the lockdown I was watching films and TV shows I’d downloaded and ripped from DVD. I prefer to watch videos on my TV rather than my computer most of the time, and I use Plex as my preferred media server.

Plex is great, but I was suffering from buffering problems when using it. A lot of others have, too, and from what I have deduced it isn’t specifically (or just) a problem with Plex, but partly with Wi-Fi. It is worse when you are watching 4K content, for example, because Wi-Fi just can’t handle the bandwidth in some cases – especially when you have several devices using it at once. Buffering was driving me insane to the extent that I tried various alternatives to Plex. But nothing comes even close to it for features and ease of use. The last straw was when I was watching Kill Bill: Vol 1 for the umpteenth time, it kept stopping during the fight scenes when a lot was happening and the required bandwidth went up.

How Plex works is this. You install Plex Server on your chosen computer, and tell it where your movies and other stuff is stored. Then you install Plex client on your smart TV, Firestick, or whatever, link it to your server, and you can watch your shows whenever you like. Most people will opt for Wi-Fi networking to eliminate the need for wires trailing everywhere in order to connect their devices.

I’m a bit of a Wi-Fi sceptic. I mean, it’s fine when it works, but it often doesn’t. The other thing is that my internet connection is 600Mbps, but there is no way Wi-Fi can match that. It doesn’t matter in most cases – when connecting devices to the network for updates and so on – but it does if you actually need the fastest connection for something. Or if you’re trying to stream high-bandwidth films.

Last year, I bought an Ethernet adapter for my Firestick (from where I run Plex client) and connected it directly to my router. Buffering disappeared, so that was one problem more or less resolved.

However, a related issue was to do with storage. My PC, which I built myself just over a year ago, has two 1TB SSDs and one 2TB SSD. You’d think that 4TB would be enough space (I also have a spare 2TB SSD which I was planning to install), but I then realised I’d got around 3TB of movies and TV shows, with the entire box set of Frasier still to rip at some point, which will add probably another 2TB. SSD is an expensive way of increasing storage, and you still have the potential for a disk failure eventually, which means you lose everything on it (I got stung with that previously when we had a power cut that blew my last self-built machine). I needed something bigger and safer

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Now, I said I was a bit of a Wi-Fi sceptic, but I am a full-on ‘cloud’ sceptic. The idea of trusting all of your files to the cloud just doesn’t make sense to me. For one thing, it is expensive if you want a lot of storage (Amazon used to offer an unlimited cloud service, but it was being abused and they stopped it). And unless you pay for it (I assume), the cloud is sloooooow. I have a 1TB OneDrive account through my Office365 subscription and if I want to download a movie file from it I can assure you it isn’t downloaded at anywhere near to my 600Mbps internet connection speed. Uploading such files is worse because of the massive difference in upload speeds even with your ISP.  Then you need to factor in how fast your cloud is going to let to have the file – usually at about a tenth of that speed if you’re lucky – and it’s a nightmare. The download also seems to be proportional to how urgently you need it – if you’re desperate, you can virtually guarantee an outage somewhere or download error.

I’d been considering a NAS (Network Attached Storage) solution for a while. This is just a storage system you maintain yourself. I wanted to be able to store and access large files immediately – not tomorrow, after several failed tries. I also wanted to be able to work on them where they were stored – just like on your PC – and not with the extra steps of having to download them first, altering them, then having to upload them again. A NAS is exactly what it says – a disk storage system that is on your network, and not someone else’s.Synology DS1821+ NAS

Be aware that a NAS is not a cheap solution to begin with. Once you have it, it is virtually free, but a NAS enclosure starts at around £150, and disks to populate it at around £70 each. I opted for the Synology DS1821+ DiskStation 8-bay, which costs just under £1,000.

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You can set up a NAS using single disk drives, where each drive acts just like one in your computer. However, if the drive fails at any point, all your data are lost. I’ve been bitten with that before, as I mentioned. I wanted better security, so I wanted a RAID system – where you use multiple disks to either ‘stripe’ the data or ‘mirror’ it. This is where you have to trade off the level of security/safety against reduced capacity. For example, if you simply ‘mirror’ across two disks (RAID 1), then you might have two 1TB disks which have the exact same data on them, which is secure if one fails, but you only have 1TB capacity, even though you have two 1TB disks. To cut the story short, I wanted RAID 5, which needs at least three disks to ‘stripe’ the data, but which gives you the capacity of two of them whilst still retaining all data if any one of the three fails. Weighing up the prices of the available disk drives against my likely storage requirements I bought three 12TB HDDs at a cost of £270 each. This would give me 24TB of storage, with the additional data security I wanted.

A NAS is essentially a PC – a computer. It runs its own operating system, which on the Synology is called DiskStation Manager. It is just a black box you put on your desk, and you access it through a web interface in your browser once you’ve connected it to your network via the router. Installing the hard drives is easy, and once you’ve plugged in the necessary cables and turned it on, finding it it and adding it to your network is also easy. Various guides take you through setting up your chosen RAID configuration, and that is very simple too. After that, all you have to do is map your drive from Windows on your PC and you can use it.

An additional detail that cropped up was when I accidentally pulled out the plug for the NAS one time, and the system reported an unexpected shutdown after rebooting. It also warned that this could lead to data loss and disk corruption – a major alarm bell for me – so I got a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) to prevent that happening again. A UPS is a battery backup system, and I already have one for my PC after that damned power cut blew all my disks. I chose an APC unit which has a data link that the NAS can interface with and perform a controlled shutdown if the power fails and the battery runs out. It cost £110.

I now have a neat system where I have 24TB of storage that I can access at network speeds. I can access it as a normal ‘disk drive’ from my PC, or via the internet on my laptop or smartphone if I wish, wherever I am. It is connected by cable to my Firestick, so there’s absolutely no buffering. My data is more secure than if I was operating on single drives (and I’ve been caught out with that previously, as I mentioned). I can expand if I need to. It is my own ‘cloud’.

I have installed Plex server on the NAS, and linked Plex client on the Firestick to it, and there is no buffering whatsoever. All my content is now on the NAS. And if I want to work on a file, it is just on another drive which I can access whenever I want. No more download, fiddle around, then upload.

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