Turn that Old PC into a Media Streaming System for Free
Recently upgraded your old PC did you? Just have one laying around? Don't throw it out! It costs you nothing to turn that old tower or laptop into a media streaming system straight to your TV. If you're like most people, that old system probably has Windows XP or 7 and it runs about as fast as a glacier in winter. Fortunately we don't need windows. No doubt you might have a console, Roku, Apple TV or DVD/Blu-Ray player that streams to that TV as well so why should we bother? Simple, flexibility. I'm sure you probably prefer the web interface of Netflix or Hulu over that box hooked up to your TV that makes it such a pain to find anything interesting. Honestly, you ever tried surfing Amazon Prime's streaming collection from AppleTV or a smart player? Its horrid. We also have the flexibility to surf the web, stream music, or anything else you normally do from a PC right from your couch. You also can no longer play DVDS from Windows 10 without buying software, it used to be free but Microsoft dropped that option. Once you finish this article, you'll be able to play DVDs on that same box.
By design, Linux is a lighter OS that Windows or MacOS will ever be and that means it runs great on older hardware. The one thing the PC must have for this to be simple is an HDMI out port. If you are running a tower, it'll be on the drop-in video card most likely. As far back as the NVidia GTX 470s, released in 2010, came with HDMI outs, maybe earlier then that. If your PC does not have an HDMI out, it can still be interfaced with your TV but you will have to explore options to port your PC's 3.5mm audio out jack to the TV's audio in port(s) as well as going from the DVI video out to your TV's video in ports. Luckily, many modern TVs also still carry the old VGA ins with a 3.5mm audio in port right beside it for just such an occasion.
Got that figured out? Good, now you just need to download your favorite Linux distribution and write the ISO to either a USB or DVD. Originally, I recommended Linux Mint for new users for media streaming however with the decision to drop those codecs and leave it to the user to install, that is no longer relevant. In which case, just download Fedora Workstation HERE. Instructions to create a live USB is found HERE. The trick to actually installing Linux requires that you boot to the USB drive (or DVD if you created that). That sometimes means you need to change the boot order in your BIOS a task that varies with every PC. However, once you get it installed that ends the hardest part. The actual act of installing Fedora can be found in this excellent article HERE
The easiest way to get many streaming services up and running is by downloading and installing Google Chrome from http://www.google.com/chrome. Just make sure you download the .deb version if your on a debain based distro (like Mint or Ubuntu) or the .rpm version for the RHEL based distros like Fedora, CentOS or OpenSUSE. However that won't actually let us use all streaming services. Hulu has a different protocol than Netflix and won't work in Chrome without some codecs we must download. This option actually isn't a bad idea because then you could just use Firefox that already comes installed (and it doesn't track you like Chrome). We must activate the repo called RPMFushion, which carries software that for one reason or another Fedora does not want to ship by default. This is not dangerous software but software that does not meet the vision of Fedora. We then can install the required codecs that let us stream just about everything! Here are the commands below.
When I say terminal, I mean a window that resembles the old command prompt on Windows. In Fedora Workstation, the terminal window is aptly named - Terminal. Open that up and type or copy and paste into the Terminal window. You'll have to actually right click and click paste to paste the lines of code.
1) Install the RPMFusion Repo, instructions HERE. I recommend using the terminal command option. The actual terminal command is below:
sudo dnf install https://download1.rpmfusion.org/free/fedora/rpmfusion-free-release-$(rpm -E %fedora).noarch.rpm https://download1.rpmfusion.org/nonfree/fedora/rpmfusion-nonfree-release-$(rpm -E %fedora).noarch.rpm
2) To get the codecs, in a terminal run the following:
sudo dnf install gstreamer1-plugins-base gstreamer1-plugins-good gstreamer1-plugins-ugly gstreamer1-plugins-bad-free gstreamer1-plugins-bad-free gstreamer1-plugins-bad-freeworld gstreamer1-plugins-bad-free-extras ffmpeg
Another program you might enjoy having on your shiny old free media streamer box is VLC Player. Its a program that plays just about any video format you might download. You can find it in the software "Store" or run in a terminal:
sudo dnf install vlc
The final element you might want is a wireless media keyboard like Logitech's K400. Its a small keyboard with a touchpad built in. You can find it on Amazon for $28 HERE. Congrats! You just re-purposed your old hardware into a media streaming, web surfing, music playing box for nothing! Once you have those codecs, VLC Player will actually let you play (most) DVDs too, something Windows 10 no longer does by default but instead makes you buy software which I discourage. Neither on Windows 10 nor Linux will all DVDs play and no Blu-Ray. It is an unfortunate problem with software developers and the encoding on the disks. Simply put, DVDs and Blu-Rays have never completely worked on PCs like they do in your standard players. But at least the vast majority of DVDs will work in Linux for free, can't say that for Windows 10 now.
One final note, you may not get sound coming from the box at first. This can be caused by the built-in audio card being chosen as the default audio device - which we're not using over HDMI. All you have to do to fix this is go to Settings -> Sound and click on the audio device that corresponds to the HDMI Out, usually called HDMI/Display Port 2 - Just turn your TV down first.