Understanding Media Streamers and Servers
Pick the system and service that fits your usage
By Kevin Gallucci
Today we have access to what seems like an unlimited supply of entertainment. Our favorite music, movies, sporting events, and television shows are only a click away. The technology to stream content into the home and store it on home servers has changed the way we consume media. CDs and Blu-ray discs are becoming things of the past, as we flock to the vast Internet cloud for our content. It’s quick and convenient, and it’s now easy to set up a system. Only the most advanced systems require hiring a custom electronics (CE) professional, as there are now options available that even the most inexperienced computer user can set up.
Let’s tackle media streamers first. A media streamer is a device that can be connected to the Internet to access content available from services like Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime. You can typically find television shows, movies, music and even books from online content providers. The content isn’t free, of course. You’ll need to pay a monthly fee and buy some type of media streamer to gain access to it. The great news is that you may already own a streamer and not even know it, because there are so many different devices that have streaming capabilities built-in. If you own an Android or Apple iPhone, for example, you already own a media device. Odds are, if you own a Blu-ray player or a smart television that is less than a year old, you own one, too. Just about every current Blu-ray player available at your local electronics store has the ability to stream Internet content.
Standalone streaming devices are widely available as well, from companies including Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG, Motorola, Apple, Boxee and Roku. Prices range from$50 for a basic streamer to a few thousand dollars for a smart television. Once you own a media streamer, it is essential that you set up an account with the Internet service you want to access. This is as easy as purchasing something from your favorite web page. Just load your personal information and credit card info, and you are ready to go. Cloud computing has finally come of age, and this has given companies the ability to offer consumers a huge selection of media content. For example, if you want access to music from thousands of artists, you should check out Spotify or Pandora. If movies and television shows are more up your alley, then look into Netflix or Amazon Prime.
As media streamers become more commonplace, some homeowners will take the next step by installing a home media server. Media servers are different than streamers in the sense that the content they provide is usually contained in your own household. The benefit of a media server is that it offers unparalleled control of your media content. Media streamers rely on the Internet to work, because the media content they provide is stored on company servers, more commonly referred to as the cloud. Consequently, if the Internet stops working you have no way to access your favorite music or movies. Amedia server, on the other hand, isn’t affected by a slow or finicky Internet connection. This is the reason media servers, in general, offer a higher-quality experience than most media streamers. Music and movies tend to be stored in their original format and aren’t compressed. This means your music will sound just as good as it did on the original CD, and movies will be exact replicas of the original Blu-ray discs. While streaming services like Netflix offer high-definition content, the visual quality of its movies can’t compare to the quality of Blu-ray discs. This is primarily because the Internet infrastructure currently available in the United States cannot support the bandwidth needed to stream a movie at Blu-ray quality. The downside to a server? You are limited to the media you already own. If you want to listen to or watch something new, you’ll need to buy the disc first.
As with streamers, there is a large selection of media servers available today. Some notable manufacturers are Kaleidescape, Autonomic, Sonos, NuVo and Linksys. What makes up a media server? The core of a media server is a control system and storage device that delivers media content to devices synced with the server. These types of systems can range from a simple receiver, router and hard-drive setup to a sophisticated arrangement including a server that’s been integrated into a complete home automation system and tailored to distribute media to as many rooms as you choose.
Check out the slideshow for a roundup of great streamers and servers.
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• Offers a control app for smartphone or tablet PCs (Android or Apple)
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• Supports either DLNA or Universal Plug and Play (UPnP)
• Compatible with Windows, Mac OS X, iOS (Apple mobile operating systems), and Android
• Plays a wide selection of digital video files (Blu-ray, MPEG-4, AVCHD, etc.)
• Plays a wide selection of digital music files (WAV.AIFF, FLAC, Apple Lossless, etc.)
• Supports popular apps (Netflix, Hulu Plus,Vudu,YouTube, etc.)
• Wireless Internet connectivity (802.11n, etc.)
• Wireless capability (AirPlay, Bluetooth, etc.)
• Internal hard-drive and/or ability to attach an external hard-drive
• Ability to update software via firmware updates