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January 04, 2008 by Rebecca Day

A few years from now, we may all look back and wonder how we ever got along without a media server. Today we’re trying to figure out exactly what a media server is, but one thing seems certain: It’s the next big thing.

There’s no hard and fast definition, at least today, of what media servers do. They come in different flavors. For years, companies catering to the custom installation market, including Escient, Crestron, AMX, Audio Design Associates, ReQuest, iMuse and others, have offered their versions of music servers: hard-disk recorders that dub music from a customer’s CD collection, store it as an MP3 file and then distribute it around the house. Homeowners access the music via a keypad system, where it joins FM, satellite radio, cable music channels and, lately, the iPod as another source of music. Some of these companies have added video to the mix, and that has complicated the picture a bit.

The tricky part is trying to send encrypted content around the house over a network. Content owners want to be sure their work doesn’t end up as free media on the Internet, so they encrypt it to prevent piracy. Consumers are allowed to create MP3s from their own CDs and can send those files easily to any room. Creating an encrypted video file from a DVD or premium TV show is a shadier area, and manufacturers have different approaches and philosophies for how to do it.

The Kaleidescape server, at the high end of the market, makes exact copies of DVDs and stores them on the hard drive, which can handle up to 440 standard-definition DVDs. Consumers buy the DVDs, which Kaleidescape stores on the server, but they don’t have to contend with the discs themselves. You can start a movie in the home theater and finish in the bedroom without having to take a disc with you. Kaleidescape systems start at more than $12,000, including the server, DVD reader and a player, and are typically managed by a high-end control system like those from Crestron, AMX, Elan and others.

But Kaleidescape’s road has been rocky. The company was sued by the DVD Copy Control Association, and although the suit was tossed out of court last year in California, other companies remain wary about facing the same legal issues.

At the other end of the spectrum is Microsoft, which is targeting the broader market with its media server, the Media Center PC. Media Center PCs make music, video and pictures available to TVs throughout the house via Media Center extenders. Early-generation Media Centers could only record standard-definition cable TV—or high definition from over-the-air broadcasts—which limited their appeal. Today’s advanced Media Center PCs come with digital CableCards, enabling consumers to receive HD cable signals the same way they would with an HDTV.

Media Center extenders take various forms. The Xbox 360 (at press time, $349 for the 20-GB version with HDMI) is an extender, allowing users to hit a button on the Xbox remote to access music, video and pictures stored on a Media Center PC and show them on a TV elsewhere in the house. HP’s Media Smart TVs—another version of an extender—pack networking technology and software that let you access content stored on your Media Center PC. Media Smart TVs ring in at $1,999 for the 42-inch LCD and $2,499 for the 47-inch LCD model. Even the Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD Blu-ray Disc Player includes Pioneer’s Home Media Gallery feature, which allows you to access digital media files stored on a PC over your existing home network. You can view photos, music and movies on TV and assign a music file to be the soundtrack for a photo slide show.

Expect to see extenders appear in many forms over the coming years. Linksys and D-Link recently introduced extenders as set-top boxes with and without built-in DVD players (prices not yet available). Niveus Media has also introduced a higher-end, rack-component media center extender (price also unavailable).

You can credit Apple for a big part of the popularity of media servers. As soon as consumers had a serious investment in downloaded music and video files, they wanted a way to enjoy them around the house. Apple’s solution is the Apple TV, which stores music, videos and photos to play back on TV. Apple TV receivers, $299 for the 40-GB version and $399 for the 160-GB model, connect to a wired or wireless home network via a simple setup process.

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