Media Centres

Media Streamers

Media Streamer

The other components of the media-server setup is the client machine, the devices that takes the stored media on the server, carries it over the network, and display it on screens around the house.

Media streamers are set-top like devices, designed to draw media from a media server stored somewhere else in the house, and display it on a local screen. Typically, a house would have more than one, with each capable of independently streaming video or audio from the media server.

Here's a quick example of a typical media server/streamer setup: a house has a media server, kept in the study, with the family's entire collection of DVD movies stored on the hard disk. In the kitchen, in the bedroom and in the lounge room, media streaming appliances are plugged into television sets. Each of those streamers can independently browse the collection of movies stored on the server, and play them back using the remote control. Assuming the server can keep up the demands of serving three movies at once, each TV can show a different movie (or the same movie at different positions).

Media streamers can have wildly different capabilities, and its best to research them before deciding on a platform to use. Some key questions you need to consider include:

  • Does the media streamer support the kind of media you want distributed, be it video audio or pictures?
  • How does it connect to the display or audio device, or is it self-contained?
  • Does it support the video file formats and compression systems you have used to store your video, images and audio (for instance, MPEG2, Xvid, MP3, Ogg Vorbis)?
  • Does it require special software installed on the media server (or does it use Windows/CIFS standards-based file sharing)?
  • How does it network to the media server (wireless, Ethernet)?
  • What playback capabilities does it have (pause, rewind etc.)?
  • Can I set up playlists?
  • Do I like the remote control?
  • Does it support Internet radio? From which service providers?

Media streaming technology is quite popular, and even starting to become mainstream in some cases. Nevertheless, some of the best solutions are actually hacked solutions, such as installing the homebrew Xbox Media Centre application on a modified ("chipped") Xbox (XBMC is, incidentally, almost a fully fledged media centre software package, with full support for many video and audio systems, but lacks TV recording capabilities). XBMC is open source, available under the GNU GPL, but actually compiling it requires a breach of the Xbox Developer Kit licence agreement - as a result it can be difficult to find compiled executables online.

In a very short period of time, a huge number of products in this category have appeared. There are way too many to list here, but most will cost in the region of $200-$1500 per box, depending on the capabilities.

Some of the present media streaming products include:

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