HOW TO: Turn your Windows HTPC into a reliable appliance using Instant Sheller and AlwaysUp - AVS Forum
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post #1 of 35 Old 01-06-2013, 08:14 PM - Thread Starter
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Intro

One of the major things that bugs me about HTPCs is that, well, they feel like PCs. Ever had to pull out the keyboard and mouse after something crashed? Ever had a rogue application pop-up steal focus from your frontend? Do you just want your HTPC to feel like an appliance like your cable box or Xbox 360?

I for one would like my HTPC to feel as appliance-like as possible. OpenELEC, which is a linux based system using XBMC does just that, and it’s fantastic. However, Plex has pulled me back in with the upcoming Plex Home Theater front end. Unfortunately, there is no OpenELEC-like solution for Plex (Update: Not true anymore, although it's unofficial and a work in progress). So how do I get Plex HT on Windows to behave like OpenELEC?

It turns out I already had a copy of an interesting application called AlwaysUp. In conjunction with Instant Sheller, I’ve turned my Plex HT-based HTPC into a very reliable appliance.

Disclosure: There are probably many ways to accomplish this, including some that are free. AlwaysUp in $50. I think, though, after you see what AlwaysUp can do, you might find it worth it. Thankfully it has a free trial so you can test it for free.

I’ve done this on a completely clean Windows 7 64-bit installation. I’m not sure if all this will work on Windows 8 or older versions of Windows. Also, Instant Sheller can completely break your system, so you must back everything up first!

Always Up

Alright, let’s start! First, download and install AlwaysUp.

Open it and press the gear button with the plus icon.



You’ll be presented with this screen. Pick a name for your application, and then browse to the frontend exe. I’m using Plex HT, but you should be able to use WMC, XBMC, JRiver, etc. I also encourage you to look at all the options in these tabs as you might find them useful depending on your setup. For instance, you can add arguments here for the application’s launch.



On this tab, you should check the box at the top and enter your Windows login credentials (I left this blank the first time but later ran into some issues. If left blank, Plex HT and XBMC can't access their respective userdata folders).



The default on this tab set the application to relaunch if it stops. This is extremely useful if your frontend crashes or if someone in the house inadvertently closes it. It will immediately reopen it (much like OpenELEC does with XBMC).



There are some interesting options here. I have it set to automatically close Plex HT if it hangs for a minute.



You can have AlwaysUp notify you via email if something goes sour or for other reasons.



Very useful options here. Some applications (*cough* JRiver *cough*) can experience issues if they launch too soon at startup before your network connection has been established. There’s a specific option here for that, as well as a startup delay and even an option to ensure that certain services have started.



You can have scripts and executables run when your frontend starts.



Also some interesting options here. The option to dismiss crash windows is great because you generally don’t want this in an HTPC environment. You just want the application to stop and then restart. I also have it set to start Plex maximized and keep it on top of other applications. This may or may not be necessary, but it doesn’t hurt. As I understand it the “on top” feature was removed from WMC in Windows 8, so it’s nice to have the option here.



Okay you’re done! Press “Save.”

Now, it’s possible you have other applications that need to run when your HTPC starts. For instance I needed an AutoHotKey script to run. Go ahead and add these applications to AlwaysUp like you did your frontend. AlwaysUp gave me a warning because it didn’t recognize AutoHotKey’s “ahk” extension, but it worked fine anyway.

Also, since we’re going to be launching all of our necessary programs using AlwaysUp, we want to ensure that they aren’t being launched at startup by other means. Make sure your startup folder in the Windows start menu is empty. Then open msconfig (type “Run” into the Windows start menu, open it, and then type “msconfig”), and you’ll see what programs Windows has set to run at startup. You’ll want to disable them, unless of course you don’t want them to startup using AlwaysUp.

IMPORTANT: For some reason, I’ve encountered that some programs have issues launching from AlwaysUp the normal way, Plex HT and AutoHotKey included. Fortunately, there was a simple solution for this.

At this point go ahead and restart your computer to make sure everything launches appropriately.

Instant Sheller

This application essentially removes all of what makes Windows the OS you recognize, including the task bar, wallpaper, splash screen, cursor, etc. What you’re left with is your HTPC front end and nothing else. I’ve definitely suffered from the task bar randomly appearing in front of WMC before. No more of that!

IMPORTANT: Instant Sheller makes SERIOUS changes to your system. Everything should be reversible, but myself and others have encountered issues before. Make sure to BACK UP your system! More info on Instant Sheller here.

Download and unzip Instant Sheller to whatever location you like. Now, there’s a trick here. Instant Sheller forces you to select an .exe to launch at startup, but we’re already using AlwaysUp to launch our frontend. What you can do is create a dummy EXE. To do this create a new file in notepad. Then save it as dummy.exe (be sure to select “All Files” next to “Save as type” in the Save As menu).

Now, open the Instant Sheller folder you unzipped, and right-click the InstantSheller.exe. Select “Run as administrator”. Now, browse to your dummy.exe file. It’s worth looking at the options here. I recommend unchecking “Replace Cursors with Dots (including login)”, mainly because the dot is very hard to find on your screen if you need to make changes to your system. Once you know you’re done making changes, then you can disable the cursor if you want. Click “I am ready, Do it!”, and you’re done! Windows should restart and you should be greeted with your frontend. No Windows startup logo, task bar, wallpaper, or anything else to interfere with your HTPC experience.



If you ever need to undo the Instant Sheller changes, press control+alt+delete to bring up the Windows task manager. Then go to “File -> “Run new task”. Then type in “explorer” or “explorer.exe”. Navigate to the InstantSheller.exe again and open it (again you need to “Run as administrator”), and there should be an option to undo the changes. Realize you don’t have to undo Instant Sheller just to make changes to your system. If you needed to open AlwaysUp again for instance, you could just open it using the task manager like you did Explorer. Another example: you can just type in “control panel” and the Windows control panel will open.

One last tip: if you’ve ever had to force shut-off your HTPC before, you might have been annoyed by the 30 second wait time in the Windows recovery boot screen. This can be changed in Control Panel -> System and Security -> System -> Advanced System Settings. Go to the Advanced tab and click “Settings” under “Startup and Recovery”. There you can adjust the “Time to display recovery options when needed”. I changed mine to 5 seconds.

That’s it! Hopefully now your HTPC feels much more appliance-like (with increased WAF!).

Again, this is just one way to do this. There are other methods to change the Windows shell and probably other ways to do what AlwaysUp does. I like both though because they are easy to use and have a lot of useful options to choose from.
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post #2 of 35 Old 01-06-2013, 08:14 PM - Thread Starter
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Phew! This is my first big guide in a while. I hope it went well!
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post #3 of 35 Old 01-06-2013, 09:59 PM
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This is really cool... thanks! I have an idea for my in-laws' HTPC now. I have their machine VPN to my network to access my media, and this will allow me to have the system wait until the network is up, VPN attached, etc. before launching WMC.
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post #4 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 06:08 AM
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Really like the post. I've been thinking about doing something like this for awhile (just didn't know how)
Thank!!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Puwaha View Post

This is really cool... thanks! I have an idea for my in-laws' HTPC now. I have their machine VPN to my network to access my media, and this will allow me to have the system wait until the network is up, VPN attached, etc. before launching WMC.

How do you use VPN to share your media with your In-laws? I've been wanting to do this for years for both our In-laws and my Grandmother. I figured it would work with music, but all my movies are BDMV and VIDEO_TS (full folder rips for both).
Please let me know how, it would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks
Bill P
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post #5 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 08:03 AM
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Originally Posted by wdpaynter View Post

Really like the post. I've been thinking about doing something like this for awhile (just didn't know how)
Thank!!
How do you use VPN to share your media with your In-laws? I've been wanting to do this for years for both our In-laws and my Grandmother. I figured it would work with music, but all my movies are BDMV and VIDEO_TS (full folder rips for both).
Please let me know how, it would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks
Bill P

I'd love to hear about this too!

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post #6 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 08:03 AM
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@OP

What about Plex do you prefer over XBMC?

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post #7 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 08:11 AM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mfusick View Post

@OP
What about Plex do you prefer over XBMC?

Plex Media Server is miles ahead of XBMC's mysql solution. Plex obviously lets me do other things too like stream to my phone and to my girlfriend's Google TV. I was using XBMC and Plex at the same time, but I got sick of dealing with two sets of metadata, artwork, and watched statuses. Using Plex Home Theater ensures congruity across all my devices. I also had issues collecting artwork in XBMC, especially for music.
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post #8 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 10:36 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by wdpaynter View Post

How do you use VPN to share your media with your In-laws? I've been wanting to do this for years for both our In-laws and my Grandmother. I figured it would work with music, but all my movies are BDMV and VIDEO_TS (full folder rips for both).
Please let me know how, it would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks
Bill P

I don't want to hijack the thread, but basically we both have 50Mb/s fiber optic service. I then have an Ubuntu-based OpenVPN virtual machine running on my network. The in-laws' HTPC will auto connect to my OpenVPN server on boot up. This gives them a split-tunnel VPN so any Internet activity like Netflix streaming will go over their Internet service and not use my bandwidth, while accessing my media will go over my pipe.

I'm still tweaking the process for things like keeping the VPN active when they aren't using it (thinking of just running a ping to my server by scheduled task periodically to keep it active.). And getting the shortcuts to my media to work initially when loading WMC. Right now they have to reboot when the VPN connection drops so that it auto connects again, and they have to restart WMC after the reboot as the shortcuts don't initially work.

Other than those two issues streaming Recorded TV, movies, whatever works really well over the 50Mb/s connections. I'm even thinking of giving them access to my HDHomerun Prime tuners so they could watch live TV and record what they want and drop their cable service all together.

When I get the time soon I'll post a guide on how to do all this. I'm building a new VM server and putting together a guide for this first to give back to the AVS community.
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post #9 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 10:45 AM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Puwaha View Post

I don't want to hijack the thread, but basically we both have 50Mb/s fiber optic service. I then have an Ubuntu-based OpenVPN virtual machine running on my network. The in-laws' HTPC will auto connect to my OpenVPN server on boot up. This gives them a split-tunnel VPN so any Internet activity like Netflix streaming will go over their Internet service and not use my bandwidth, while accessing my media will go over my pipe.
I'm still tweaking the process for things like keeping the VPN active when they aren't using it (thinking of just running a ping to my server by scheduled task periodically to keep it active.). And getting the shortcuts to my media to work initially when loading WMC. Right now they have to reboot when the VPN connection drops so that it auto connects again, and they have to restart WMC after the reboot as the shortcuts don't initially work.
Other than those two issues streaming Recorded TV, movies, whatever works really well over the 50Mb/s connections. I'm even thinking of giving them access to my HDHomerun Prime tuners so they could watch live TV and record what they want and drop their cable service all together.
When I get the time soon I'll post a guide on how to do all this. I'm building a new VM server and putting together a guide for this first to give back to the AVS community.

Have you guys tried using Plex instead to share your media? It seems far less complicated. The usual limitations apply though like no live TV and no video_ts, BDMV folders, or ISOs.
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post #10 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 10:57 AM
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I'm trying to avoid transcoding as I think Plex will do over an Internet connection. Correct me if I'm wrong.

If Plex won't transcode over a fast Internet connection then it might be something to explore, but I might want to present recorded tv or even live tv and WMC plays pretty much anything with the right codecs and backing software. Plus I'm trying to get the in-laws used to the WMC interface and don't know if Plex is easier for technophobes.

Do you think Plex is easier to understand for people who have never a media center before over WMC? I haven't played with Plex for at least 12-18 months. There would have to be compelling reasons to switch. Does it have native (or plugin) Netflix Hulu or something else? Or is it simply just a media front-end?
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post #11 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 11:37 AM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Puwaha View Post

I'm trying to avoid transcoding as I think Plex will do over an Internet connection. Correct me if I'm wrong.
If Plex won't transcode over a fast Internet connection then it might be something to explore, but I might want to present recorded tv or even live tv and WMC plays pretty much anything with the right codecs and backing software. Plus I'm trying to get the in-laws used to the WMC interface and don't know if Plex is easier for technophobes.
Do you think Plex is easier to understand for people who have never a media center before over WMC? I haven't played with Plex for at least 12-18 months. There would have to be compelling reasons to switch. Does it have native (or plugin) Netflix Hulu or something else? Or is it simply just a media front-end?

You can choose whatever quality you want from remote (and local servers), including Direct Play. Plex plays basically every format and it's very easy to use. It's hard to imagine the UI being more straightforward. The only problem may be how it presents your recorded TV. Very long names will be truncated, so you'll get something like "0800_12_12_Chopped_Seaso...." depending on how WMC names them. I'm not sure if there is a way to automatically rename WMC recordings so they're in a more sensible format (like Chopped S01E03).

There are Netflix and Hulu plugins, but they are not official, meaning they are subject to breakage if Netflix changes something about how their site works.
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post #12 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 11:46 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Puwaha View Post

I don't want to hijack the thread, but basically we both have 50Mb/s fiber optic service. I then have an Ubuntu-based OpenVPN virtual machine running on my network. The in-laws' HTPC will auto connect to my OpenVPN server on boot up. This gives them a split-tunnel VPN so any Internet activity like Netflix streaming will go over their Internet service and not use my bandwidth, while accessing my media will go over my pipe.
I'm still tweaking the process for things like keeping the VPN active when they aren't using it (thinking of just running a ping to my server by scheduled task periodically to keep it active.). And getting the shortcuts to my media to work initially when loading WMC. Right now they have to reboot when the VPN connection drops so that it auto connects again, and they have to restart WMC after the reboot as the shortcuts don't initially work.
Other than those two issues streaming Recorded TV, movies, whatever works really well over the 50Mb/s connections. I'm even thinking of giving them access to my HDHomerun Prime tuners so they could watch live TV and record what they want and drop their cable service all together.
When I get the time soon I'll post a guide on how to do all this. I'm building a new VM server and putting together a guide for this first to give back to the AVS community.


Dude I am so interested in this it's ridiculous. Please keep me informed.

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post #13 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 11:55 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by lockdown571 View Post

Have you guys tried using Plex instead to share your media? It seems far less complicated. The usual limitations apply though like no live TV and no video_ts, BDMV folders, or ISOs.

I have used Plex but I get inconsistent performance and quality.

I can't figure out if it's my internet upload speed or my CPU transcode speed.

I just build a new server- so I am going to install and try again this weekend.

Should I be able to run it with a G860 3.0ghz dual core Sandy CPU /Asrock Z77 board/ 8GB DDR3 1600mhz ????

My Internet upload is ~3.50 Mbps and my download is about 20 Mbps when I test on SpeedTest.net

Is there a certain setting I should be using ?

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mfusick View Post

I have used Plex but I get inconsistent performance and quality.
I can't figure out if it's my internet upload speed or my CPU transcode speed.
I just build a new server- so I am going to install and try again this weekend.
Should I be able to run it with a G860 3.0ghz dual core Sandy CPU /Asrock Z77 board/ 8GB DDR3 1600mhz ????
My Internet upload is ~3.50 Mbps and my download is about 20 Mbps when I test on SpeedTest.net
Is there a certain setting I should be using ?

Are you talking about playing files directly on your home network, or transcoding files either for playback on phones/tablets in your house or devices outside your network?
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post #15 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 12:26 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mfusick View Post

I have used Plex but I get inconsistent performance and quality.
I can't figure out if it's my internet upload speed or my CPU transcode speed.
I just build a new server- so I am going to install and try again this weekend.
Should I be able to run it with a G860 3.0ghz dual core Sandy CPU /Asrock Z77 board/ 8GB DDR3 1600mhz ????
My Internet upload is ~3.50 Mbps and my download is about 20 Mbps when I test on SpeedTest.net
Is there a certain setting I should be using ?

It's your upload speed

Also, I've used it several more times this past holiday season, and I can definitely say Plex is not perfect for everything. I had to restart it twice during one movie (full mkv rip transcoding to stereo and 720p). Also, I leave the "seek" functions alone since they are typically met with complete plex lockup. I like Plex a lot, and there's very little out there to compete with it, so I'm mostly just pointing out bugs I've noticed. It works well if the client receiving the transcode doesn't want to pause, rewind, or fast forward.
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Nice write up lockdown

Another note, xbmc library sharing is intended to be done via upnp now
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post #17 of 35 Old 01-07-2013, 12:44 PM - Thread Starter
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Nice write up lockdown
Another note, xbmc library sharing is intended to be done via upnp now

This is not really true. The upnp method is quite limited, and most users still recommend the mysql method. See this thread.
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Great writeup! I too would like my HTPC to be as appliance like as possible. There was another poster here who once showed how he made TMT5 look like you never left WMC. That one was good too.

Anyone know of a good guide on Plex? I'm intrigued by it, but like much open source software, its hard to find an entry point. I poked around their site, but I couldn't find an answer to a lot of my questions.
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Great writeup! I too would like my HTPC to be as appliance like as possible. There was another poster here who once showed how he made TMT5 look like you never left WMC. That one was good too.
Anyone know of a good guide on Plex? I'm intrigued by it, but like much open source software, its hard to find an entry point. I poked around their site, but I couldn't find an answer to a lot of my questions.

Honestly I think the best guide is just trying it out yourself. Plex Media Server and Plex Media Center are both free and very user friendly. They also won't interfere with any of your existing metadata. The only snag I can think of is if your router isn't configured for automatic port forwarding.

If you want a detailed guide, I know Assassin has Plex included in his paid guides.
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This is not really true. The upnp method is quite limited, and most users still recommend the mysql method. See this thread.

Quite limited, or slightly limited smile.gif

I thought you were trying to head down the "appliance" route. Upnp seems more appliance to me, no library update/clean, no caching

It's slight limitation (which could be bigger issue depending on needs) is the watch status? I'm still at an age where I don't need the checkmark to remember what I've seen and not seen, but I would like them to sync (wishful thinking for later). I didn't have synced watch status with my multiple mediabrowser instances before using mainly XBMC (also my fault for never taking time to use similar method for shared library in MB)
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post #21 of 35 Old 01-08-2013, 08:52 AM - Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by Dark_Slayer View Post

Quite limited, or slightly limited smile.gif
I thought you were trying to head down the "appliance" route. Upnp seems more appliance to me, no library update/clean, no caching
It's slight limitation (which could be bigger issue depending on needs) is the watch status? I'm still at an age where I don't need the checkmark to remember what I've seen and not seen, but I would like them to sync (wishful thinking for later). I didn't have synced watch status with my multiple mediabrowser instances before using mainly XBMC (also my fault for never taking time to use similar method for shared library in MB)

Can you even scan the UPNP items into your library? I thought it just behaved like a simple file list with some artwork and metadata. You can actually do the same the same thing in XBMC with your Plex Media Server. File lists in XBMC also don't integrate that well with skins.

The other serious problem with XBMC is there isn't an official server mode. Obviously the PC storing the content needs to be on with XBMC running in order for your XBMC client to access that media over UPNP. In order to accomplish this I would have to install video drivers on my WHS machine, just so I could open XBMC. What a mess.

Also, I don't use the watched status to remember which movies I watched. I use it so I can easily filter out all the watched movies so I just see all the movies I haven't watched yet. Pretty convenient!
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No, just a file list. That was the beauty of it for me

I forget about the WHS setups since my main instance of XBMC is W7 and that's where all my storage resides

Watched status would be nice. Is there more of a bulk way to edit your video library watch status? I don't want to pull up the contextual menu on each of the 300 or so videos that I watched prior to my XBMC library
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dark_Slayer View Post

Is there more of a bulk way to edit your video library watch status? I don't want to pull up the contextual menu on each of the 300 or so videos that I watched prior to my XBMC library

Just press the 'W' key.
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post #24 of 35 Old 01-31-2013, 01:06 PM - Thread Starter
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So the guy from AlwaysUp support was spot on when he cautioned me against leaving out the username info. I learned that if you don't enter the username info, XBMC/Plex can't access the files in your userdata folder. I noticed this when none of my entries in advancedsettings.xml were respected. So yeah, definitely enter your username and password for the program in AlwaysUp.
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post #25 of 35 Old 02-01-2013, 06:01 AM
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User name for what ?

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"Too much is almost enough. Anything in life worth doing is worth overdoing. Moderation is for cowards."
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post #26 of 35 Old 02-01-2013, 06:03 AM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mfusick View Post

User name for what ?

Just your Windows login information for whatever account you're using to run your front end.
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post #27 of 35 Old 02-14-2013, 09:03 AM - Thread Starter
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This just saved me again. Occasionally after booting, my media libraries wouldn't appear in Plex HT. I knew Plex relies on Bonjour to communicate with Plex Media Server, so I assumed Plex HT was launching before the Bonjour service had properly initialized. I just told AlwaysUp to ensure Bonjour had started before launching Plex HT, and viola, Plex HT starts up properly every time now.

So it might be worth investigating which services your front end relies on.
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post #28 of 35 Old 12-10-2013, 06:15 AM
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are you still using "Always up" to start Plex as a service, if you are has it been trouble free, looking for a way to run Plex as a service so I don't have to log on to stream non protected recordings using the Roku.
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post #29 of 35 Old 12-10-2013, 08:50 PM - Thread Starter
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mac25 View Post

are you still using "Always up" to start Plex as a service, if you are has it been trouble free, looking for a way to run Plex as a service so I don't have to log on to stream non protected recordings using the Roku.

Now I actually run Plex Media Server on a separate Windows 7 machine that auto logs in. I used it with AlwaysUp on my WHS2011 for a long time without any issues though.
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post #30 of 35 Old 12-10-2013, 10:14 PM
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I had asked because I had seen that app 'alwaysup' , and didn't want to use auto login, I found out this eve there is another app for plex users that sets a service to start without logging in so roku will stream without logging in, Thanks though.
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