Getting your media digitized. Now, you need to get those physical media into digital form for iTunes. For CDs, that's easy: Insert a CD in your computer while iTunes is running, then click Import CD. In iTunes' Preferences dialog box's General pane, you can make this the default action when a CD is inserted. Do this for all the music you want to store in the media folder.
For audio and video files that are already in digital form, choose File > Open to import them from whatever disks they reside on, including your local media folder (the one where you stored your iTunes files before switching to the external disk).
For DVDs, you need to first rip the contents. I recommend the free HandBrake software for OS X and Windows, which can import most commercial DVDs' content so that you can add them to iTunes. (Reminder: U.S. law allows you to make such digital copies for your personal use only.) Use the Universal setting in the side pane so that the video looks good on everything from an iPhone to an HDTV. To ensure that you get the full 5.1 surround sound experience, go to the Audio pane, check the Mixdown box next to the audio track, and choose Dolby Surround from the menu.
Once HandBrake has created the MPEG-4 files, bring them into iTunes by choosing File > Add to Library.
You'll want to pretty up the imported files in iTunes by going to the Movie window, selecting them one at a time, and for each choosing File > Get Info to open the Info dialog box. Fill in the movie name, release date, and all other relevant information you have in the various panes. Copy an image of the DVD cover from a website such as Amazon.com into the Artwork pane. Or use the free MetaZ app for OS X or the $10 MetaX app for Windows to gather this information for you; it's a bit tricky to use, but it will save you a lot of time once you get the hang of it. Now those ripped videos will appear in your iTunes library like they do in the iTunes Store.
Syncing media files to your iOS devices. You can sync those media files to your iOS devices via iTunes so that you have them when on the road. Select your device from iTunes' Devices list, go to the appropriate content panes, check whatever you want synced, then click Apply or Sync.
Using media files on other computers. Other family members will first need to import the media files into their own computers' iTunes media folders to have them available for viewing when they're elsewhere or for syncing to their iOS devices. One flaw in iTunes today is that it has no support for families -- media are considered owned only by individuals and are thus managed that way. Home Sharing lets you federate your media for playback via an Apple TV, but not for syncing to different family members' local libraries or iOS devices.
The media center anyone can use
The beauty of an iTunes/Apple TV media center strategy is that it's easy to work with once set up. iTunes works the same on Macs and PCs, and the Remote app's interface on iOS devices is the same as iTunes when accessing iTunes content. The simplicity of AirPlay means streaming video to or from an Apple TV is child's play.
Competing media playback offerings from Google, Amazon.com, and Microsoft aren't as simple, nor do they support as many devices. One day they may. In the meantime, the lazy geek can use these two core Apple products to achieve the dream of an all-digital media center that anyone can use.
This article, "The lazy geek's guide to building a home media center," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.