Jacob Friedmann

Turning an Old MacBook Pro Into a Home Media Powerhouse

Ever since I moved into my new apartment almost 6 months ago, my mind has constantly been thinking about how to make the ultimate media organization and distribution machine. The goal here was to keep massive amounts of media off of my start-up disk and also to be able to watch any of my media from any device in any room. The catalyst that finally drove me to do this is when a few weeks ago my old mid-2009 MacBook Pro’s hard drive crashed. At first, I thought I might buy a 1 terabyte spinning disk that would be sufficient to carry all of my media around, but then reason got the better of me. Instead, I bought a relatively small solid state drive and reasoned that I would keep only some of the media on the computer and the rest on the nearly 5TB of external storage I have lying around. The result is a wonderfully quick machine that effortlessly supplies media on demand.

In this post I’ll describe the preparation I needed and define the ideal media workflow and then next post I’ll go into the implementation details.

Upgrading the Hardware

I have made many upgrades to my old laptop over the years (new battery, upgraded RAM), but if you want to breath new life into an old MacBook (or any old computer for that matter), there are few better ways than adding a new Solid-State Drive (SSD) in place of your old, slow and slowly failing Hard Disk Drive (HDD). SSDs are not only much faster than spinning disk drives, they are also very shock resistant, and for someone who is clumsy like me, that can be invaluable. The downside to an SSD is that they are still very expensive in comparison. For this reason, I decided to get a relatively small drive and keep most of my content files (media) on external drives. I suggest you do some independent research before buying one, as the technology is quickly changing and I don’t consider myself an expert, but the drive I ended up buying was the Samsung 840 Pro Series 256GB.

I also considered putting a large HDD in place of my optical drive (CD Drive) to enable more content on the go. There are very cheap kits available on Amazon and other places that make this conversion a snap, but in the end, I decided it was unnecessary as I rarely ever take this particular computer out of the house.

Another tip on upgrading hardware, especially if you’ve never peaked inside your unibody before – check out the website ifixit. It is a really remarkable site that has guides for virtually every repair you can imagine and includes what tools and equipment you will need. Hard drive replacement is fairly simple, but you will need a set of Mac screw drivers.

Defining the Workflow

Before I got started with the details of implementation it was important for me to define my desired media workflow. After some thought, I decided that first, media arrives into the system through a single folder. In my case this is a folder shared on the network, so that other people can add to the media collection. Media is then sorted into Music, TV Shows, Movies and Photos.

Music should be stored on an external hard drive (except for a small, manually labeled, often listened to sub collection that is stored on the internal SSD) using the standard Artist > Album > Track Name directory hierarchy scheme.

TV Shows should be organized into a Show > Season > Episode directory hierarchy. Unwatched shows should be stored on the SSD and once they have been watched should be archived onto the external hard drive.

Movies should be organized into Movie Title (Year) > Movie directory hierarchy and similarly to TV Shows should be stored on the SSD until viewed and then archived. However, if the movie has been manually labeled a “classic”, keep it on the SSD for quick access.

Photos should be moved onto the external hard drive and organized into folders representing the month and year the file originated.

You may have noticed a pattern here. I want to keep things that need to be accessed quickly (i.e. for streaming) or are likely to be accessed often (“classics”) on the internal SSD. I also don’t want to clutter that drive, so I will archive anything that is less likely to be accessed.

Software Requirements

There are plenty of software options out there for file organization and home media distribution (including iTunes!), but the programs I landed on are:

Hazel for automated file organization. Hazel is a really wonderful and infinitely useful bit of software, even beyond the scope of media. It is a program I had already been using for some time to keep my OCD at bay and my file system uncluttered, so it seemed like a natural choice. It does cost $28, but spend some time looking through what it is capable of and how it can make your life easier and you will realize it is worth it. Once again, this software is only for Mac.

Plex for media distribution. Plex is an up and coming media center platform that works on any operating system. First you set up a server on your computer that looks through your media and adds metadata to it. Then, you can stream it through a browser via it’s web client or through a client native app for iOS or any other system. Plex itself is free, however the iOS app (which allows AirPlay to Apple TV) is $2. Also, if you want the cutting edge releases and other cool features, you have to subscribe to PlexPass. My recommendation: if you’re into it, buy the $75 lifetime membership. The software is already awesome and they aren’t even at a “1.0” release yet. I think in a couple of years when they get rid of a “lifetime” option because of how well it is doing you will be glad you did.

In order to make everything work exactly the way I wanted, I needed to write some custom scripts both in Bash and in Python, so another consideration is to make sure Python is installed. Python is now bundled with OS X, but it may be worth updating to the newest version.

That’s all for today! Check back later this week for all of the juicy details.

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4 Comments

  1. sfhoya August 25, 2014

    Very informative. I find myself in the same boat: I have a 2009 MacBook Pro that I’m looking to upgrade shortly. You mention, “There are plenty of software options out there for file organization and home media distribution (including iTunes!),” but then you go on to discuss only Hazel and Plex. Okay, so iTunes can get very klunky after thousands of data files, but the sorting is done; the cover art is available; and I surmise if you’ve purchased media from iTunes and maintain your old MacBook Pro as an authorized computer, then you’ll still be able to file your media in a recognizable format and use AirPlay to play your files on another device. So I wonder, what do you feel are the compelling advantages of using Hazel and Plex (with the minor programming and file maintenance involved) over iTunes? Thank you.

    • Jacob Friedmann October 15, 2014 — Post Author

      Thanks for the comment and sorry for the delayed response (I didn’t know anyone actually read this!). There are a number of reasons why I didn’t end up using iTunes, here they are in brief: 1.) While your assumption that I purchased most of my media on iTunes is not a bad one considering this is an article about a MacBook Pro, that is not the case. My media comes from a smattering of locations, some of which are not compatible with iTunes. 2.) Plex is a truly cross platform set of applications and could be used easily on, say, my Raspberry Pi, etc. iTunes doesn’t play as nicely with as many platforms. 3.) Probably most important on this list: I am a software engineer and I enjoy a challenge. The easiest solution is very often not the one I end up choosing for my weekend side projects, because where is the fun in that! 😉

  2. marc November 9, 2014

    Thanks for this. Been looking for a better solution to this problem for a while. Also been looking to replace my mac book and didn’t want it to go to waste. Perfect!

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