Media Servers Centralize Music and Movies
Listen to tunes and watch video anytime, anywhere -- via wires or wireless technology
media server
There may be only one place in the home where you can play pool, arcade games and watch the big-screen, but with proper wiring, you can set up a network to distribute audio and video around the house. Electronics design and installation by Projectus of Lake Oswego, OR.
March 01, 2006 by EH Staff

As anyone living in today’s digital world knows, there’s an overabundance of audio and video content just waiting to be enjoyed throughout the house. CD and DVD libraries are taking up valuable shelf space, music and maybe photos and video are stored on our computers, and much more audio and video are just broadband downloads away. It seems so simple and right, but for many of us, actually enjoying all that stuff anywhere in your home can feel as distant as interplanetary travel.

More and more people today are conquering their scattered media and shattered expectations to achieve wall-through-wall entertainment dreams. This usually starts with finding a primary place in the home to store those ever-growing music libraries. “There has been large growth in media servers due to the convenience of easy and instant access to their content,” says Steve Vasquez, co-founder of ReQuest Multimedia, which makes hard drive–based music servers.

Because the content is in a digital format, it can be delivered to other devices throughout the home over standard Category 5 communication cables, which are used for computer networking and structured wiring. “This allows different members of a household to listen to different content from the same collection at the same time,” Vasquez adds.

Adding a whole-house audio system that runs off an audio server, such as those from ReQuest, Escient and others, can be an expensive proposition. Hard disk–based media servers run from a couple thousand dollars to well into five figures—and that’s just for the music. However, ReQuest and Escient offer DVD-changer systems for video storage. Dedicated video servers that can store DVDs onto hard drives are few and pricey. These include slick offerings from AMX and Kaleidescape, each starting at $10,000 and running up to $27,000 just for a base system—and that’s before you add multiroom capability.

The most popular media server today may just be Apple’s ubiquitous and much less expensive iPod. Many love downloading songs to the handheld music carrier and plugging it into their whole-house entertainment systems to enjoy favorite tunes everywhere in the house. Sonance, SpeakerCraft, iPort, Russound and others are even developing ways for people to dock the iPod for access to those tunes throughout the house. Then, of course, there’s wireless music and even wireless video streaming that uses the power of the PC to convert your workhorse computer into a home entertainment server.

Screaming for Streaming
While using wire to distribute audio and video signals is best in terms of quality, there are some intriguing and affordable wireless options that can turn your PC into a media server. Any homeowner can install most wireless media players. Just load the server program onto your PC, and it feeds content over the air to the player, which is connected to a TV or stereo.

One wireless media player making a splash is Microsoft’s Media Center Extender, a set-top box that delivers favorite shows, music, pictures and home videos anywhere in your abode using the same streamlined interface as the Media Center PC. The Extender communicates with a Media Center desktop or laptop over wireless Wi-Fi technology and connects physically to a TV, stereo or receiver in another room so you can hear and see every media file stored on your computer.

Tom Laemmel, product manager of Microsoft Windows, believes today’s souped-up computers are powerful and nimble enough to shuttle our content around the house. “In many cases, [people] already use the PC to store their digital videos, pictures and music. In addition, the PC often has the fastest processor and the biggest hard disk of any device in the home,” he says. “We believe that this makes the PC the best platform for storing and distributing digital content.”

Because even the most state-of-the-art Media Center PCs max out at about 200 gigabytes (GB) of storage space, dedicated media servers are stepping in with whopping hard disks that can store multiple seasons of sitcoms, dramas and reality shows. The Niveus 1 Terabyte A/V Storage Server, for example, boasts a whopping 1 terabyte (TB) of storage. That’s 1,000 GB, or enough room for 100 hours of high-definition TV, 16,000 hours of music and 670,000 photos.

If you don’t own the latest and greatest Media Center PC, there are several stand-alone wireless digital media receivers that work with other flavors of Windows. Apple, Creative and Netgear each offer wireless audio players that stream MP3s and other music files to a stereo. Most work well, but with the exception of higher-end gear like the Roku SoundBridge, they mostly look like mutated routers that don’t exactly fit in with the rest of your entertainment center. For those who want to access pictures and have something that complements the living room, there are some wireless media players that should more than satisfy.

More wireless home entertainment buzz comes from Sonos, whose solution includes ZonePlayers that operate over a network and an iPod-like remote control. The Sonos software is installed on a PC, which searches for music files. From there, a main ZonePlayer distributes your music collection to other ZonePlayers located throughout the home wirelessly via radio frequency. Because the ZonePlayer is only a receiver and amplifier, you’ll need to supply your own set of speakers for each unit.

Philips’ WACS700 Wireless Music Center takes a similar base station and satellite speaker approach but skips the PC entirely. Instead, it rips CDs directly to its built-in 40-GB hard drive (enough for 750 CDs) and streams tunes to other audio stations in the home. What’s more, these sleek satellite units sport their own Super Sound Panel, so you don’t have to connect external speakers to them. The Philips system also boasts a Music Follows Me feature. Just press a button on the six-line LCD remote, and your favorite songs will come to life in whatever room you enter.

Wire-Free Video
The fun isn’t just limited to music, since video-streaming capabilities are being built into everything from DVD players to LCD TVs.

Even though stand-alone wireless media adapters continue to be refined, devices that stream music, pictures and movies from your PC to your home theater have not exactly taken the living room by storm. That’s why companies are combining wireless connectivity with progressive-scan DVD players. Take D-Link’s MediaLounge DSM-320RD. Not only does it offer Wi-Fi (802.11g) connectivity for faster, smoother streaming, it’s also compatible with several subscription content providers so you don’t have to fret if your desktop isn’t overflowing with media files.

Buffalo Technology’s LinkTheater is a wireless high-def media player with a progressive-scan DVD. Not only can it upconvert DVDs to HD (the player supports 720p and 1080i), the LinkTheater can also stream HD movies over its 802.11g connection. And it can stream MP3 and WMA audio files and high-resolution photos. The aesthetic minded need not worry: The company worked hard to design a component that would fit in with the most stylish audio/video gear.

TVs Untethered
Until recently, many have had to put up with a rat’s nest of wires hanging off the back of regular TVs, spoiling the whole minimalist aesthetic. Things are looking up for wireless TVs, though, starting with Sharp’s 15-inch LC-15L1US wireless AQUOS, which was introduced last year. This battery-operated TV receives audio and video signals from a transmitter from up to 50 feet away.

Sony’s LocationFree line features a 12-inch TV designed more for home use, since it communicates with a base station. However, the LocationFree models use the more robust 802.11a/g Wi-Fi standard for video transmission. They also double as a touchscreen remote control and let you surf the web and check email.

Look for even bigger wireless LCDs and plasma screens soon, even some that are capable of routing HDTV. The hitch? Expect to pay a hefty price for the convenience of finally being able to cut every cord—except the one for power.

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