How to Set Up a Media Center in your RV

Red cartoon motorhome drawing on aqua background with RV server and network information

When we purchased our RV, one of the first upgrades we made was to our entertainment system. The systems that tend to come standard in the current generation of RV’s will most likely include a smallish television, a DVD/CD player, and a cable TV hookup. This setup didn’t really match the way we consume our media since our family “cut the cord” over 10 years ago. We needed a modern entertainment system and media center in our home on wheels, to match our entertainment delivery options in our sticks and bricks home.

This post is all about how we achieved that modern home entertainment system in our RV. In hopes of heading off any comments related to “you are camping and should be doing any number of out of door activities, instead of watching TV”, know that we totally appreciate that sentiment. We are an active, outdoor family and drag our kids out for all kinds of hikes Things do change a bit, at least for us, when you are using your rig to go on extended travels or living full time. We find lots of down time where we can sit down and enjoy a family movie or listen to some good tunes from our music catalog. Having access to our content, actually improves our camping experience and also helps to make us feel more at home.

Following the ideas in this post will also make it possible for lots of personal entertainment options. Since the foundation of the home media center in our RV is a robust network, including a router and Wi-Fi setup, that means we can stream all of our content both Internet based or locally hosted, to our devices like tables, laptops, and phones. This works for our locally hosted content even with absolutely no Internet connectivity!

If you haven’t ready our post about how to setup a system like that, please check it out here.

Home While We Roam Tip

When we talk about Internet based content, we mean things like Netflix, Hulu, or Spotify.

When we say locally hosted, we are talking about music, movie, and TV files that own, that live on a server in our rig, and that we don’t need the Internet to enjoy.

Let’s dive in. Our RV media center is comprised of:

  • Larger than standard RV flat screen TV’s
  • Digital media players for each TV, that allows us to stream video and music
  • A server for hosting media
  • A network in your RV – see our post here
  • Some content – There are many ways to acquire digital content. Some include legally purchasing, some fall into a grey area, and some are clearly copyright infringement. We aren’t going to get into how to build your digital catalog in this post.

A Modern TV

Flatscreen tv showing Netflix, Roku, Hulu and Spotify
Image courtesy of: Roku

The TV our rig came with was not the size or the picture quality we desired so that was the first target of our upgrades. We have seen some information that indicates the flat screen TV’s that come installed in RV’s today are somehow more ruggedized and able to absorb the bumps and bruises that life on the road delivers. We haven’t been able to discern if that is accurate or not but have driven many tens of thousands of miles with two standard TCL Roku TV’s with absolutely no signs of road wear and tear. We opted for the largest TV our rig’s entertainment area could support, which was 43 inches. In the master, we went slightly smaller and installed a 30’’ Roku TCL. More on why we went TCL Roku in the media player section.

When searching for a TV we recommend getting the largest and lightest TV you can fit in your space. Prices are so cheap these days that we find it really worth it to go as big as possible. You want to think light as well because installing a new larger TV, will probably mean you will want an articulating arm TV mount. These things are incredibly strong, but why tempt fate while pulling across a bumpy campground road.

Media Player

Roku, Amazon Fire tv cube, Apple tv digital media players
Image courtesy: Amazon Fire, Apple TV & Roku

The media player is what is going to allow you to distribute your digital content to your TV’s. There are great standalone options from Amazon, Apple, and from other vendors. We have been longtime Roku users and like to stick with their technology. As a bonus, Roku has done a great job integrating its media player technology directly into TV’s like the TCL TV’s we mentioned above.

Home While We Roam Tip

We went with TV’s that are integrated with a digital media player to have less stuff to plug in. If you get a stand-alone player, then you will need to consume two power outlets. A digital media player/TV Combo means only one power outlet is going to be used.

Media Server

If you only watch TV shows from Netflix, movies from Amazon Prime, and listen to music from Spotify, then you can probably skip this component of your system. If you do own digital content that is not protected by digital rights management (DRM) then the media server is going to be one of the most important components in your RV home entertainment system. That is because having locally hosted content in your RV means it is still possible to enjoy that family movie or watch a Seinfeld re-run with absolutely no Internet connectivity.

Your media server is made up of two components

  1. Hardware
  2. Media Server Software

Hardware

For your hardware, focus on something that is a small form factor. This is going in an RV after all! We use an Apple Mac mini for our media server. It is a pricier option but has good power and features. One of the most import features you will want is an HDMI output so you can hook up directly to your television. This is handy for the cases where your media player might not work correctly in a no Internet scenario and you want to connect directly to your media server to watch a show on your TV. You also need to consider storage capacity. Video files, especially full-length movies tend to be in the two gigabyte range in terms of files size. This can fill up a small hard drive pretty quickly!

 

Mac mini
Apple’s Mac Mini makes a great media server in an RV thanks to its small form factor. Image courtesy of: Apple

Media Server Software

Kodi and Plex logos

There are a ton of media server software options out there. The two top choices for most are Plex Media Server and Kodi. The both have a great set of features, good looking UI, and make organizing your media a breeze. We use Plex as we tend need multiple screens streaming different content at the same time for the times Dad is watching Seinfeld but the kids want to watch Teen Titans Go!. Plex is better suited for streaming to multiple devices out of the box. Kodi is great because it has a very active 3rd party developer community which means lots and lots of plugins are available to expand the base functionality.  There are lots of Plex vs. Kodi comparison articles on Google so we encourage you to do your own research and make a choice.

Netflix and Chill and Camp

With a small investment, a little DIY spirit, and a few hours of time you can completely transform your RV’s entertainment system options. Streaming a football game from ESPN on an iPad, connected to your rig’s Wi-Fi, while sitting around the fire pit, is a fantastic way to spend a Fall Saturday. That kind of entertainment freedom is just not possible in the traditional TV mounted to the outside of your rig/cable hookup from your campground configuration. Following these steps will literally allow you to cut that cord from your Campground’s cable TV entertainment options and even give you access to HD streaming content if you are dry camping in Mesa Verda miles away from any cell phone signal and Internet access. Happy RV streaming!

 

 

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