January 03, 2007
| by Lisa Montgomery
You can store hundreds of songs on them, as well as your entire collection of digital photographs and sometimes even movies. The media server has turned home entertainment on its heel, offering families a convenient way to collect, organize, manage and play CDs, DVDs and other content. It’s single-handedly eliminated the need for traditional CD players and discs by allowing you to rip every song in your CD collection onto a hard drive and even download new tunes onto the device from the Internet. While media servers all do the same basic thing—store content digitally on an internal hard disk drive—there are some differences that you’ll want to consider when picking out a unit for your family.
What They Can Hold
Some servers are designed to store music only, others can handle both music and movies, and some can hold pictures and connect to the web for access to Internet radio programs, for example. Music-only servers are fairly affordable and are great for households that want more enjoyment out of their CD collections. Look for a server with a built-in ripper—most have them. This device lets you pop in a CD and convert it to an MP3 in a matter of minutes. If most of your music collection is already stored on your PC, be sure that your server can get to those songs as well. And look for support for online music stores that let you download new music directly onto the server—a good feature if you’d like to keep your PC out of the loop.
Higher-priced servers can also store video so that both movies and music can be stored in one place. These units typically cost several thousand dollars, so you’ll need to start saving your pennies for this type of media storage.
Finally, shutterbugs may want a server that can keep their digital pictures. The server might have a slot for a memory stick or a CD, or it might even be able to access the photo files that are already stored on the hard drive of your computer. No matter how your pictures get transferred onto the server, you’ll love being able to view them on the screen of your TV instead of on a computer monitor.
Managing the Media
Being able to stuff your media into one device is great, but you’ll also need a way to organize it all. Media servers usually come with some type of management software that lets you organize music into specific playlists, like “mom’s favorites” and “dinner party tunes”; categorize DVDs into comedies, dramas and kids’ flicks; and attach music to your photos to create personalized slide shows. You’ll probably want to use a PC to organize the media, the screen of a TV to view the playlists and show titles, and a handheld remote to enter your selection.
Delivering the Goods
In the early days of media servers, the units could share their content with only one TV and stereo system. These single-room servers still exist, and they’re perfectly fine for families that listen to music and watch movies primarily in one place. But if you’d like to spread the content throughout the house, be sure your server has multiroom capabilities. There are a couple of choices: Some servers come with optional slave units that pull information from the main server and feed it to a connected TV or speakers. This setup is a great solution for those who want to extend their music system gradually. You could start with a server and one slave unit, then purchase additional slave units later.
Another option is to buy a server that’s designed to work with a whole-house music system. This type of server has multiple outputs, which enables it to feed two or more streams of audio or video simultaneously to different areas of a house. If you’re planning a whole-house music system, a multiroom server is definitely worth a look. You might even be able to get one from the manufacturer of your whole-house music system.
No matter what type of entertainment content you own—music, movies, digital photography or a combination of all three—there’s a server that can store, sort and secure it in one convenient spot. From there, you can have the server share it with any and all TVs and speakers, creating a personalized entertainment network that finally lets you access and enjoy your media quickly and easily.
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.