Rolling a Media Server with Channels DVR, PlayOn, and HDHomeRun

Rolling a Media Server with Channels DVR, PlayOn, and HDHomeRun

Photo by Jens Kreuter / Unsplash

One of the challenges of RV life is watching media content on the road.  Streaming services use a lot of data.  Satellite systems are expensive and require a clear view of the sky.  How do I pull all of this together?  With a sprinkle of fairy dust on a Raspberry Pi.

Getting Started

Well, it is a little more involved than that, but not difficult to put together.  Let us start with the basic parts of the system.

  • Computer with a Big Hard Drive
  • HDHomeRun Flex Duo
  • Router with Ethernet ports
  • A FireTV or Google TV device

Yup, that is it.

Computer with a Big Hard Drive

The computer does not matter.  I have run this setup on a Raspberry Pi,  Home NAS (Network Attached Storage), a Windows laptop, and even a Chromebook.  The hardware is irrelevant.  The hardware just needs to be able to support Plex Media Server (https://www.plex.tv) or Channels DVR (https://www.getchannels.com).  I personally prefer Channels, but more on that later.

Ok, I have one.  Now what?

Follow the instructions for installation for a Plex Media Server or Channels from the products site or any one of a thousand other sources on websites or YouTube.  Each installation is really up to your preference.

If you are setting up a system to be running 24/7, I recommend spending the money on a Home NAS such as a QNAP, Drobo, or Synology system with a RAID disk setup.  This will provide some redundancy for your media as well.

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IMPORTANT: Turn off your system while in transit. The bouncing around while you drive has a very high probability of damaging your hard drives. I speak from experience.

I prefer Channels for three reasons.  

First, it integrates quicker and easier with the HDHomeRun tuner.  As we travel frequently, I need to map the stations at each stop.  I found it to be more difficult to map on Plex, especially for cable networks.

Secondly, Channels integrates with PlayOn Cloud (https://www.playon.tv/cloud).  PlayOn Cloud allows you to record media on streaming sources to download later.  The recordings are MP4 and use much less data to download than streaming directly from the source.  For example, streaming a movie for two hours could use upwards of 6Gb data.  The PlayOn recording will normally be less than 2.5Gb.  Once downloaded, you can play it over and over again without using any more data!

Lastly, Channels works with TV Anywhere.  This means if you have cable or satellite TV at home, you can login and get all of those channels streaming as well through Channels.  You can also record content straight to your server.  Be warned that this can use a lot of your precious mobile data if you are tethering to your phone.

I set up my server using Docker containers on a QNAP server, but I am extra geeky.

HDHomeRun Flex Duo

While the media server software hosts your video files locally, the HDHomeRun Flex Duo (https://www.silicondust.com/product/hdhomerun-flex-duo/) allows you to tune OTA and clear digital cable TV channels and save them to the server as a DVR.  Pause, playback, and fast-forward through commercials just like at home.  

There is a catch.  You need to hardwire to a router as the device does not have WiFi built-in.

Router with Ethernet ports

The HDHomeRun needs to be connected to a router with an ethernet cable.   A simple router will suffice.  I've connected the tuner to a simple GL.iNet GL-MT300N Router, but I recommend stepping up to a router with a few more ethernet ports for future expansion.  GL.iNet has many small travel routers which can meet your needs.

I like the GL.iNet series of routers because they run on a skinned OpenWRT operating system.  Tethering to phones or connecting to campground WiFi is very easy with these routers.  They also come with VPN clients baked in for security.  You can find instructions and reviews for these routers on YouTube.

You can connect your media server wirelessly to this router as well, but I recommend connecting to the device with an ethernet cable to prevent any wireless dropoffs.

FireTV or Google TV device

But not Roku.  Roku does not support Channels!

This is the last step.  After the server is set up and your media is cataloged, your TV needs an app to present the content.  We use FireTV sticks on our setup.  The only problem is that an internet connection is needed to populate the home screen and launcher.  In a pinch, I navigate to the app management page on the FireTV stick to manually launch the Channels application.

Go Forth and Prosper

Two years of tweaking and this is our setup.  Go out and enjoy the outdoors with your own personal Netflix.  See you on the road!

John Schroeder