There’s a fine line between variety and chaos when it comes to owning a library of entertainment media. Having a wide assortment of CDs and DVDs means you’ll never run out of great content ... if only you could find what you want to watch or listen to. If your family is like most, there’s probably a corner of a closet or a drawer of the entertainment cabinet where the crew stashes stacks of discs. That solution probably worked for a while; you were able to keep those 30-or-so music and movie cases fairly organized. But now that the library is well past the 100-item mark, it’s an unruly, disorganized mess.
So what should you do? Build a bigger closet? Teach your 6-year-old to alphabetize? Demand that your teens put the movies back in the same spot they found them? Yeah, right! Even Martha Stewart would have a hard time keeping your movies and music under control.
Thankfully, there is a simple solution that requires no extra space in your home and no military action from you. A media server can hold every piece of music and video you own—as well as digital pictures—within a component the size of a DVD player. The server converts your CDs and DVDs into digital format, which means you can pack up your library for good. A server usually comes with software that allows you to organize your media in a number of different ways: alphabetically by title or artist, by genre or simply by clumping all your favorites together. Depending on what type of media server you choose, you could use either your PC mouse or your TV remote control to make your selections.
Living Room or Office?
Media servers come in two basic flavors: those that are designed to reside in your living room with the rest of your entertainment gear and those that are meant to sit in your home office or den alongside your computer. A living room-based media server offers the advantage of connecting directly to your TV and stereo system. Because the video and audio signals travel a short distance, they suffer little degradation. This means that images on your TV and music on your stereo look and sound crisp and clear. The latest twist in this type of setup is to place smaller receiver units at each TV in your house. The idea is that the main server distributes signals to multiple receivers so that every entertainment system you own can access the content that’s stored on the main unit.
So what if you’ve got a slew of pictures, videos and MP3s already stored and organized on the PC in your home office? For less than $150, you can buy a device that streams that content from your PC to your entertainment system. The PC behaves as a server that offers a direct connection to the Internet where tons of music, video and other information can be found.
Network in the Works?
No matter what type of server you choose, it’s essential that your home have some type of network system in place (or at least that it’s been wired for one). An office-based server, for example, will need either a wired network or a wireless one to transport content from the PC in your office to the TV in the living room. Even stand-alone servers that connect directly to a TV can benefit from a network. Should you add receiver units, you’ll need a network to distribute the content throughout the house. Start preparing for your digital media system by having your house wired with Category 5 cabling. If your house is already built and can’t easily be rewired, buy the fastest, most reliable wireless networking products you can find—802.11g products are a good choice. Once your home is networked, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying entertainment anywhere, anytime—without having to scrounge around in the closet.
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.