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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Over the past 15 years, Rachel Cericola has covered entertainment, web and technology trends. Check her out at www.rachelcericola.com.