Taking a break from our regular awesome software reviews and tutorials, I thought it’d be interesting if myself and some of the other staff writers here at MakeUseOf show you our own home setups – whether that be in the form of fantastic custom desks, complicated home media-streaming networks, or just the apps and services we make use of on a regular basis and our favourite software tools. It’s also a good chance to clean my desk up a bit.
My main work machine is a 27” iMac. Bored of sitting all the time and for health reasons, I switched the desk legs for some extendable ones at IKEA and I now have a fantastic simple standing desk that’s actually really solid. If you already have a suitable desktop, you can pick up just the legs for about $100. I do need to do something about the cables though.
I have a second monitor beside it which runs Windows 7 inside a virtual Parallels machine, mostly used for testing purposes and because it’s much easier to take screenshots with a virtual machine.
With a total of about 10 clients, everything in my house is networked together – including the TV. Where possible, I run a wired ethernet connection. No matter how good your wireless router is, a wired connection is always going to be faster, especially important when shuffling around large files and streaming HD movies. The main router is a stock firmware device given to me by my cable company – it’s good enough, and acts as both a 4 port switch and a wireless router. To extend the network upstairs, I then have a separate network switch connected via a simple crossover ethernet cable.
The number of devices is perhaps a bit excessive, but most are old laptops that wouldn’t sell anyway, and like most geeks I can’t bear to throw hardware away.
If you’d like to learn more about setting up a home network of your own, be sure to read our Easy Guide to Computer Networks for a great primer on the topic.
Sitting in the cupboard is my home media, backup, and file server. Right now it’s running Windows Home Server 2011 – I know we’ve covered a lot of free alternatives before (such as Amahi and all these), but ultimately I prefer the stability of a Windows server and the fact that apart from being a rock solid server, it can also run Windows apps at the same time. With 2 x 1TB drives, it’s able to backup all the Windows machines on the network automatically, as well provides a remote time machine based backup for any Macs (though I don’t use that). Apart from the usual Windows file-sharing, I also run Plex Media Server which I showed you a few weeks ago. That’s then able to serve movies and TV shows around the house with full metadata information and covers automatically downloaded.
Of course, with all that space it also runs uTorrent. Rather than use the built-in uTorrent remote access, I prefer to have Windows Remote Desktop activated so I can use the entire desktop remotely. You can set this up on any Windows 7 machine easily using new features introduced in the Windows Live Mesh app. For security, any traffic to the outside world is secured across an anonymous VPN – I use VPN Tunnel (a paid, unlimited access service perfect for torrents).
Situated in a small room with a window upstairs, it’s also ideal as a motion-sensing security system using a webcam and a suite of tools I showed you before. When activated, the system can send Growl alerts to my mobile and around the network. Learn how to set up your own free home security system here.
Though the TV is able to read some files straight off the network, I prefer to use my media centre PC and just output to the TV. This avoids any format issues, and allows me to have wonderful metadata and covers from Plex as I said, streaming from the server – this is done through XBMC and the PleXBMC plugin. Last week, I hacked the Xbox360 Kinect camera into this Windows PC to let me control XBMC by frantically waving my arms around, but plugging the camera back into the Xbox got tiring quickly so I’m making do with a long-corded USB mouse until I get a chance to test out some remote control apps. Android owners have a free official app from XBMC, and here’s a free app for iOS that handles Plex, XBMC and Boxee – I just haven’t got around to trying them yet!
To be honest, there’s quite a few Media Center apps you could use, and it’s really down to personal preference which you choose in the long run. Some of the writers here prefer Boxee, which I’ve yet to try myself but apparently has great social features, while others go for a straight up XBMC install, with all the hacks and tweaks that involves.
I must admit I’m quite minimalist when it comes to web services. GMail and Reader have permanent tabs in my Chrome browser, and I have the obligatory Facebook account. Other than that, I don’t tweet, and virtually all my web browsing originates through various feeds in Google Reader. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m much more of a hardware and networking kind of guy.
That’s it from me, but I hope you’ll get to see what works for other writers in the coming weeks, so stay tuned and we can both look forward to reading those. As ever, feel free to comment or ask questions and I’ll do my best to reply. For general questions, you might want to ask in the Q&A part of the site, where our regular contributors and eagle-eyed editors jump at the chance to share their computing knowledge.
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