March 17, 2009
| by Lisa Montgomery
It all began with the introduction of the music CD. As album owners realized how much better their tunes could sound when spun on a digital format, they couldn’t get enough of the shiny new discs. The same happened when photos turned digital. We started printing more pictures. As our CD and photo collections grew, so did our need for a place to store them.
Enter the media server. Built with its own hard-disc drive, the machine holds thousands of digital music and photos.
PC hard drives can do the same thing, but media servers have proven to be much more efficient at it. “A media server is on 24/7, unlike a PC that has to be turned on to provide access to stored content,” explains Arash Marzban, chief technology officer of Envive, a manufacturer of high-end media servers.
Another benefit is a more engaging experience. Instead of holing up in the den with a computer to retrieve content, you can view your collection of music, photos and videos from the screen of a TV or home theater display. “You get a 13-foot interface versus a 13-inch interface,” says Marty Wachter, senior product manager for D&M Holdings’ Escient Division.
Over the years, the media server has undergone a series of transformations. The device has evolved from being used solely as a photo and music repository to one that can download content from the Internet, store and stream high-definition programming, and even control certain features of your home. It has morphed into a sleek, sophisticated entertainment device that belongs in the rack with other audio and video components.
Storing entertainment content into a server has become easier, and so has navigating its menu of options. As Internet radio and on-demand TV services, high-def satellite and cable TV programming, and other types of content gain steam, servers are offering not just one but several terabytes of internal storage space.
All of the technology in the world means nothing if you can’t use it. That’s why manufacturers have been committed to developing incredibly simple user interfaces. Many have chosen to design their server software to work with the Microsoft Windows Media Center platform, facilitating a smooth transition from the computer screen to TV for millions already familiar with the Media Center interface.
Having an intuitive interface is crucial when managing such a wide range of media, says Wachter. “Without it, it would be extremely difficult to find the content that’s been stored on the machine.” Many interfaces, like the one used by Escient in its FireBall and Vision lines, guide you through the selection process by displaying a menu of icons that represent music, videos, photos and other categories.
The menu is displayed on the screen of a connected TV and is navigated easily via a handheld remote. A list of media can be pulled up from chosen categories. Depending on the system, the list might include full-color images of album covers.
Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.