So I’ve toyed around with Plex in the past, but it was in a very limited and limited episode. Using a mouse-free interface was cumbersome and annoying at first. That was a quickly abandoned thought, as I couldn’t really see the implications for using it on my laptop. Since then, I’ve taken a considerably more involved attempt at using Plex, and have thoroughly enjoyed using it since! The rest of this one is a doozy for page length, so you’re going to have to click through to see the rest.

Recently (more like a few months ago), I was looking for a better means to deliver digitally-compressed content that I’ve deposited onto my computer(s) in lieu of DVD-swapping. This was a random ambition since the realization that Mac systems with an optical-out could deliver multi-channel audio signals to an amplifier or receiver unit. It started out as just an ambition to hook up my music collection to my stereo system, which an Airport Express would have sufficiently accomplished. The complications that many users experienced with those discouraged me from pursuing this option. The next but more expensive option was to use an TV, but then I was disappointed with the limitations in the video codecs that could be played on it (e.g. basically only iTunes-compatible codecs)1. So the next step was basically looking at a small home theater PC (HTPC) unit in order to accomplish what I was after.

Already having the optical TOS-link cable in hand (put link to the audio cable here), I just needed to find a decent way to hook up the MacBook Pro to my television. Back when I originally got the television, I played around with a DVI→VGA adapter and a VGA cable to run the laptop’s display to the television. That looked like all kinds of horrible2. I really never returned to using that much except for shits and giggles. Ideally I would need some type of digital interface, but the television set I originally experimented on had no DVI port. I’m not sure if the current one does either, but all of these larger digital units do use HDMI. Most people are familiar with this as the common “high definition” connector for home theater systems. For the more technically apt individuals, HDMI is essentially the same as a DVI signal carrier in addition to carrying audio signals; HDMI and DVI simply use completely different connector pieces. So with that knowledge in tow, I figured I would look into costs of either a DVI→HDMI adapter or cable3.

Historically, HDMI cables are expensive; like on the order of $40-60 in Best Buy or similar retail outlets. Thankfully, much like the audio cable I earlier obtained, HDMI are among those mass-produced cables that one can find cheaper elsewhere. I got myself a very economically priced DVI→HDMI cable and I was set to go with my experimentation!

Getting the MacBook Pro hooked up to the television was cake. It worked fine connected directly into the television, so I toyed with my remaining available connections on my receiver (Sony HT-DDW995) and got it a dedicated patch through there. Upon hooking my laptop up to the television and configuring its resolution, you don’t really receive the typical options for resolution settings. I’m not sure if this was implemented in Snow Leopard, Leopard, or perhaps even earlier, but Mac OS X is set to recognize the unit specifically as a television and even show the available TV display rates according to high definition standards!. I thought this was awfully slick!

Typical display options

MacBook Pro display options

Options with television with a digital connection

Television display options

Heck, I wasn’t even aware my television properly accepted nor displayed 1080i as an effective resolution! In any case, the special TV-specific display resolutions worked just fine; the display was full screen and without distortion. I was set to get my audio connected and working.

Connecting the laptop to the receiver in the past using the optical toslink cable has not been an issue. Just use a mini-toslink adapter for the connection on the MacBook Pro4 and connect the other to the receiver as you would with any other optical-connected device and you are set! Not really having played with multi-channel audio content previously, I didn’t have any experience troubleshooting DD or DTS outputs to the receiver; now equipped with some multi-channel signals in shows/movies compressed from DVD, I had a means by which to do this now. Getting my receiver to properly play nice with the video-only signal over HDMI and audio coming in over the digital audio port was not as easily accomplished. Receivers are typically configured to override audio input signals and use the HDMI carrier as the primary audio source5, and many of them don’t make it so easy to override this feature.

For my particular receiver (and likely many of Sony’s full-featured receivers), here is the method by which you override the HDMI signal with another digital audio signal6:

  • Bring up the receiver menu (often by pressing the Receiver button, then pressing Menu)
  • Go to option “5 - AUDIO” and press Enter or the right button
  • Go to option “D. ASSIGN” and press Enter or the right button
  • Here’s the fun part: you need to remember which digital input you put your optical connector into. In my system, it was plugged into the Video 2 port (with Sat as the other optical port). In order to select this port to configure, go to option “VD2 OPT” and press Enter or the right button to configure it
  • You’ll have a slew of choices here to select (depending on the number of output ports your receiver has). For my system, I was running the HDMI in/out of the DVD lines, so I had to go with the “VD2 → DVD” option and press Enter to retain that choice.
  • At this point, you can press Menu to exit directly, and everything should be set at this point
  • Once all that is setup, you now have a setup where you can pass digital, multi-channel audio to your receiver and a sharp, clear image to your television. Then comes the fun part: installing Plex! That’s very straightforward. Configuration details I won’t get into at this time; those will vary on a case-by-case basis. I’ll get some representative images up for some of the more confusing or ambiguous settings.

    The rest of this article isn’t quite finished, but I’m posting it up now anyways to verify that I’ve got a piece of Javascript properly working on my blog in the header configuration, so bear with me here.

    If you have setup your actual iTunes library to be scanned as a source into Plex in lieu of the options to run the Plex Media Server, you’ll likely have to wait for some degree of time for this to finish. With my music library in short reach of 10000 songs, this takes a while to scan/update. If while you’re doing this you’d like to pull some “extra” information regarding musicians/albums/songs, you can do that with the following options:

    • Here is a very nice illustration of the type of information you can pull up once you’ve scanned artists into your library (as opposed to running the Plex Media Server for music management):

      Info List view of an artist

      And moving down within the artist to view the available albums can provide you with additional album-specific information, should you be curious!

      Info List view of an artist's albums

      Similarly to what you see with the artist information under the music section, you can pull up a fairly detailed synopsis of movies when they are scanned and properly scraped into your library, as shown below:

      The television series can pull down much of the information regarding which season an episode is in, the name of the episode, synopsis of the episode (which you can hide for your own personal surprise if so desired), the cover art of each packaged season, and sometimes even the theme music (at least what the public masses have come to a consensus over if it’s ambiguous).

      Media Preview view of the television series Caprica

      Upon opening a television series, you get a nice menu displaying artwork and the different seasons you have available of that series and how many episodes you have watched to date.

      Seasons view of the television series Big Bang Theory

      And lastly once you’re inside the season you’ve chosen, there are quick preview snapshots of each episode, along with synopses (should you desire them) and indicators of what has been watched or not.

      Media Preview view of the television series Caprica
    1. Reserved for details on music/video library setups (images included)
    2. Reserved for music layout re: local and remote libraries (images included)
    3. Reserved for movies layout with images of main menu
    4. Reserved for television shows layout with images of main menu, seasons, and individual episode captions

    1It’s a bit of my perfectionist nature; if I’m using something, I’m trying to use it to the utmost of its ability. No offense to Apple, but I feel there are some limitations to their file formats/containers.
    2There are inherent limitations to the resolutions that VGA can properly display, but the kicker is the fact that the display driver and display itself don’t really communicate. The laptop cannot tell the available, suitable resolutions that the TV can use well because the TV cannot communicate it to the laptop over VGA.
    3The cable is preferred in most cases, so that way one can avoid an unnecessary number of connection interfaces between two units.
    4The headphone port on the side of the MacBook Pro (or virtually any Mac machine in production since 2005’ish for that matter) is also the optical audio port; it contains hardware for both the stereo analog output and an optical transmitter for the optical digital output in the same socket.
    5Since HDMI was really aimed at home theater systems with its focus to consolidate cable usage, all of the home theater devices that utilize HDMI are usually configured (by default) to deliver both audio and video signals over HDMI when provided the option.
    6It may be possible to deliver an analog audio source of some type (in the event you want to just use a generic 8mm stereo male-male cable or 8mm stereo→RCA component adapter in lieu of a digital connection), but I at present am not aware of how. You would lose the capability to deliver surround sound content using that setup, but that would not be a big concern if you did not have a multi-channel audio system in the first place (like I did back during my college days).

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