Media servers have been the Al Gore of home electronics: They used to be the next big thing. Then they weren’t any more, thanks largely to that little device known as the iPod. And now they are back … we think. So many companies are making media servers that they must be back. Hard drives that can store music, movies and photos are everywhere. There may even be a media server in my coffee mug.
Just look for a whole-house music system that can play your tunes in a number of rooms, and at one end, you’re likely to find a media server. Chances are it can store your music and photos to hard drives, and some can also store movies from DVDs. Want a whole-house control system? You can have a media server from Crestron, AMX or Elan Home Systems as well. Even media server company ReQuest Multimedia now offers its server technology as part of a whole-house music system.
The media server segment includes everything from slick high-end uber systems like those from Kaleidescape that can store a video store’s cache of movies and costs five figures to more conventional hard drive–based music servers and from Media Center PCs to a $300 Squeezebox from Slim Devices that doesn’t have a hard drive but can stream your PC tunes to your stereo.
The high-end systems have met the needs of the high-end folks, and Media Center PCs and devices like the Squeezebox have met the audio/video storage and streaming needs of many computer users. But the middle-ground systems are the ones that for a few years went the way of Mr. Gore. We figure that’s because those early media servers were fairly one-dimensional. They stored music ripped from a CD to a hard drive in a stand-alone black box—and you couldn’t use them to buy music directly over the Internet. Enter iTunes, Window’s Media Center Edition and the iPod, and these media servers lost their mojo—if they ever had any.
Now they are made for better things. Some can be used to purchase tunes from services such as online high-def music distributor MusicGiants. And many can be networked to other systems in your house—like your PCs—to share music and photos and more. And a big reason for this is Windows.
That’s right. Not only have hard drives insinuated themselves into all kinds of home electronics products, but Microsoft’s Windows has done so as well. The Windows XP system is either “embedded” or used as the operating system in media servers from Niveus, QSonix, Elan, iMerge, Integra and others. “Everyone expects to see some kind of Windows OS,” says Rick Gratz of Elan Home Systems, whose new VIAdj II servers can also be controlled via PC or Macintosh computers.
Media server maker iMerge, which produces media server technology for many companies, finds the Windows platform more appealing. “When you have Windows in the box, you have plug-and-play connectivity,” says national sales manager Mike Meyers. “We went that way because it’s much easier. Networking is the key to plug-and-play setup in the home.”
Windows is even appearing in some high-end systems. One media server company a lot of people are watching is Niveus, whose servers run Windows and who will upgrade to Microsoft’s new Vista operating system, due out to consumers this month. “We chose Microsoft for its open platform,” says Niveus CEO Tim Cutting. Niveus media centers also offer HD DVD high-definition disc support.
The Niveus system, among some others, uses Intel’s Viiv technology, which helps manage protected content across networks. Look for Viiv and Microsoft’s Vista to help produce more robust and flexible media servers—in a host of products that don’t look at all like computers. We know you’ll be hearing a lot about Vista, and we expect you’ll be hearing more about Viiv as well.
And what about the whole problem of these computer-based systems crashing?
“Windows is OK with time-tested drivers,” says iMerge’s Meyers. In other words, don’t expect to see a lot of media servers based on the new Vista platform right away, especially in consumer-electronics components. Most will likely stick with XP for a while.
And Windows doesn’t mean all media servers will be the same. There are other ways media server companies are differentiating themselves. ReQuest Multimedia, for example, offers high-end servers that can rip an uncompressed, high-fidelity version of a song while you’re copying a highly compressed MP3 for your portable player. They also have a synching feature for iPods and allow for multiple servers in multiple homes.
Oh, and be sure to look for iPod connectivity with these systems and the ability to play or stream the songs on your portable player—even to store your iPod’s iTunes to your server. Despite all the media server noise from the big boys, we expect the powerhouse pod to stick around for a while.
Follow Electronic House
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates