What Makes a Media Server?

Fusion Research Genesis

Some media servers, including Fusion Research’s Genesis, operate on the familiar Windows platform.

Rip, store, play! More than just a networked hard drive, today's media servers are able to serve media of all flavors, anywhere.

Dec. 12, 2007 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

For those of you who have made the leap to TiVo or some other digital video recorder, you know there’s no turning back. Now imagine adding the same convenience for audio into that mix. Get that Journey retrospective and umpteenth Led Zep compilation ready—because you can. Even though they hate to admit it, A/V manufacturers have learned a little something from the PC. Adding a hard drive into the entertainment world has created a new category, known as the media server. This new crop of electronics gear also allows said companies to throw around the word “convergence,” marrying the computer and A/V realms. Let them have their fun; you’ll be too busy loading and enjoying the vast amount of content now available at your fingertips.

TiVo handles your ever-growing TV addictions and lets you watch whatever you want, whenever you want; the iPod similarly transforms your entire music collection. The media server essentially brings the two together to make the greatest pairing since the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. According to research firm Parks Associates, 50 million media servers will be sold annually by 2010. That’s some serious sweetness.

What Makes a Media Server?
Media servers come in many shapes and sizes. There are stand-alone audio servers, which store and deliver audio anywhere the system is connected around the home. There are even some servers that deal with the video side. However, to truly qualify as a full-fledged media server, the device must also be able to handle those one-hit wonders, videos of baby taking her first steps, and thousands of digital holiday photos overstuffing your PC.

Some servers allow you to share work presentations, Word documents and other important files, too. Your 50-inch flat-panel TV probably wasn’t made for PowerPoint, but computer-based systems make it an option anyway. The Windows Media Center operating system is very popular among set-top boxes, but the OS is also readily available in the very familiar desktop PC. Intel’s Viiv platform also promises media server–styled features, and even Apple has gotten into the A/V act with its Apple TV. 

The vast media server maze can cover just about anything that converts, stores and shares digital files. Dissect some of the specs, and soon you’ll be a multimedia master.

Examining the Specs
When shopping for a media server, the first thing to look at is the unit’s hard drive. Exactly how massive do you want this machine to be? Just like your iPod, the unit’s memory will dictate the number of files that the device can store.

If you’re not sure what your future holds, look for a unit that can be daisy-chained or is compatible with an external hard drive. More storage can never be a bad thing.

Regardless of the number of gigabytes (or terabytes) that a server or the external drive can hold, you can squeeze plenty of files onto almost any machine if the files are compressed enough. Uncompressed audio files take up a ton of hard drive space, while compressed packs ‘em in. However, ask any audiophile about what compression does to sound quality: It’s like turning a New Yorker opus into a condensed Reader’s Digest version.

Compressed files come in two flavors: lossless and lossy. Lossless audio is much more desirable, since it preserves the track’s original signal. Lossless files can even be converted back to an uncompressed format. People who are perfectly happy with the iPod and all it can hold are probably used to the lossy format; however, the major complaint is that this format not only takes away from the original content’s quality, but it can also often make files sound or look worse. The type of file can reveal a bit about the quality you can expect. MP3s use the lossy compression format. FLAC, TIFF and AVC are all examples of audio, image and video formats that are considered to be lossless.

Next, you’ll want to look at your media center’s operating system. Media servers often operate on a Windows OS, while some use Linux or have a proprietary system. Like shopping for a computer, you have to think: Are you a Mac person or PC person? Weigh the pros, cons and user interface of each system to determine which you are most comfortable using.

Besides every CD you own and some software, there are other items inside that media server that make the magic possible. The processor acts as the brains behind the system, and it determines how fast and smooth the system will run. From there, a good graphics card delivers killer images, whether it’s for photos or video. This will be important if the unit records TV—especially if it’s in high definition.

Another feature to consider is whether or not the media server connects directly to the web. This allows users to stream radio, video or other applications, whereas some units just connect to devices on the home network. Some units have built-in tuners so you can listen to FM radio or satellite radio or record right from your local TV lineup. Other built-in features allow you to record to the server and transfer the file to your iPod or other portable.

Still not sure which features will make you the master of your digital domain? Look for connections that might fit into your current (or future) plans. RS-232 ports can connect the media server to your home control system; audio connections often come in analog and digital; and other familiar connections might include Ethernet, S-Video and HDMI. The possibilities for a media server can be endless—that is, at least until your hard drive reaches full capacity.

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