Thanks to relatively fast internet speeds and cheap hard drives, we've never had access to so much digital media. Many people's music collections run to tens, if not hundreds of thousands of songs, and while most methods of downloading TV shows and movies are generally not exactly legal, you can bet that most technologically aware consumers have a healthy library of AVI and MPG files.
However, while the various forms of digital media can all be viewed or played on a PC, few people choose to have a PC located in the living room. Microsoft's persistent vision of the PC as the centre of your digital living room has generally failed to materialize. Although it's now easier than ever to connect a flat-screen digital TV to a PC, few of us actually want an ugly, noisy and generally large box in our living rooms.
PCs were never intended as media delivery platforms, and although they now excel at that task, they are generally found in studies and bedrooms. Even if you do have a PC in your lounge, the chances are that it's tucked away in a corner, probably connected to printers and other peripherals, and nowhere near your TV and surround-sound amp.
There's also the issue that if you use your TV as your PC's monitor, the display is going to suck for anything other than watching video, because a horizontal resolution of 720, or if you're lucky 1080 lines, is frankly horrible for standard Windows operation. Laptops are perhaps more suited to connecting to your TV as they are by their very nature portable, and if you have a relatively new one, it is likely to have an HDMI output and maybe even a Blu-Ray drive. Still, it's not the most elegant solution, so we'll look at what options you have for streaming your media around your home.
Hot and Bothered
A couple of years ago, before Vista's storm cloud darkened the horizon, there was a flurry of enthusiasm for the so-called Home Theatre PC. The idea was to take the PC out of its native environment, and stick it next to your TV, to serve up music, films and TV, and if you were really advanced, use it as a PVR, too. The problem is, no matter how much you spend on a small-form factor case, finished in aircraft-grade aluminium with blue LEDs and a VFD display, it's still essentially a PC, with all the drawbacks that implies.
If you want to use it as a PVR, it needs to be left on 24 hours a day, which Windows was never designed to do. If you don't, it can take an age to startup. On top of that is the noise that most PCs generate, which can ruin the ambience during quiet parts of your favorite film. In terms of PVR functionality too. The original version of Windows XP Media Center was also not without its problems, although the version within Vista is much improved. Still, do you really want to use Vista, unless you really have to? The solution then, is not to put your PC next to the TV, but rather get the media files from your PC onto your TV, stereo or laptop that's situated in another room of the house. Although there have been devices round for a few years to do this, most of them have been pretty limited.
As the technology has matured, things have improved significantly, and there's a wealth of media streamers and media extenders to choose from. Most will require some sort of network connection, but some make use of internal hard drives, or have USB ports so that you can plug in an external drive. We'll look at two ways of streaming media, either to your TV or to another PC or laptop, and the software and hardware you'll need to do the job.
Give us a Squeeze
When it comes to connecting your PC to your TV or stereo, there are some devices that just stream audio, while others can stream audio, video and pictures. Most of the best ones will be of a similar form factor to a hi-fi separate, or DVD player, so that they won't look out of place in a hi-fi rack, or under your TV.
One of the first audio streaming devices was the Squeezebox, from Slim Devices (now part of Logitech), which used an Ethernet connection to stream audio to any hi-fi source. It had a basic remote and display, but just about did the job. Squeezeboxes now use 802.llg wireless, and can stream pretty much any music format from your PC, as well as connect to a number of internet radio stations.
Terratec has the Noxon which does a similar job, although it has to be said, it not only looks odd, the menu is pretty hard to use, which makes it a bit of a chore to use. The latest streamer from Slim Devices is the Squeezebox Duet, which consists of a base unit, and a handset, complete with color LCD display. The base unit is connected to your stereo or portable speakers, and the rechargeable handset is then used to control your music, in a very similar way to how you would control an iPod. The handset uses WiFi to control the server software, but it will also work with Direct Access Storage devices, such as MAS drives with media server support, so you don't even need to leave your PC on to use it. You can even control older Squeezebox devices, if you purchase the handset on its own. At around $370 it's not exactly cheap, but it does represent the ultimate boy's toy when it comes to music control.
If you're more of an Apple fan, then you can stream your iTunes music library using AirTunes and an Airport Express adaptor, which will work with any router, and not just Apple's. The Airport Express adaptor plugs into a wall socket, and then into your speakers or stereo. The only issue with this is that you either need to set iTunes to just play a load of music, or you will need to control AirTunes from your PC, unless you have a set of speakers that enable direct control of your iTunes library. Still, if you have a laptop, it's probably easier to use AirTunes than it is to connect your laptop to your hi-fi, but it's still not an ideal solution.
Rather than just listen to our music collections though, most of us want to be able to watch downloaded video on our TVs. There are two main types of device that enable you to do this, pure streamers and units that contain an internal hard drive.
Perhaps one of the best known is the Apple TV. The Apple TV looks much like the Apple Mini, is devoid of buttons and comes with the same dinky remote that is supplied with the Apple MacBook.
The unit contains a hard drive (either 40 or 120GB), 802.1ln wireless and a variety of connection methods for attaching to your TV and stereo. The interface is pretty slick (it's the same one used in Leopard for Front Row), and the latest update enables you to download video directly onto the internal hard drive, rather than the previous method where you had to download videos to your PC using iTunes, then sync with the Apple TV. Although MPEG4 video is supported, it is only in Quicktime or H.264 format, so you won't be able to playback any DivX or XviD content. TV shows and films can now be both bought as well as rented, although it has to be said the selection is pretty limited.
Still, it's one of the few legal ways to download and watch high-definition movies, which counts for something. Though it pains us to say it, being an Apple product, it does tend to just work. However, while it may appeal to less technical users, it has too many limitations to recommend to the more savvy PC user.
Dual Band Equals Win
There are plenty of alternatives to choose from though, pick any major brand associated with networking, and the chances are that the company has a solution. We've tested a number of them over the last couple of years, and it has to be said that a lot of them have had some serious flaws, from a lack of HD outputs, to slow, or even no, wireless connections.
Usability is a key issue with media streamers and many of the devices produced by networking companies have tended to fall down on this front in the past. The main issue is usually the interface, it's not uncommon for menus to have too many levels, so just choosing a song to play back involves several minutes of button-pushing on the remote. In addition, any device using an 802.11g wireless connection is going to suffer when it comes to video and you can forget about HD video entirely. Last year saw a raft of new media streamers released, and while most have moved to 802.lln, some are using 802.11n dual-band, which uses both 2.4 and 5GHz spectrum to provide the extra bandwidth needed for HD video. You will of course need a compatible router.
When choosing a media streamer, look for a good range of outputs, including HDMI, Component, S-Video, digital audio output via coaxial or optical ports, and analogue stereo RCA plugs. File format supports is one of the most important aspects, make sure the device you choose can play all the common file types, such as DivX, XviD, H.264 encoded video, MP3, AAC, WMV audio, JPEG, GIF and BMP image formats. Due to Apple's proprietary DRM, you probably won't be able to play any music in your music library that has been purchased from the iTunes Music Store, although some manufactures have claimed compatibility in the past.
While some media adaptors come with their own server software, others rely on Windows Media Center, or Windows Media Player 11. Some software is better than others, but the best will enable you to select a series of folders to share, and the server software will then monitor the folders for changes, so that even when you add new files, they are accessible on your media streamer. The problem is that as the software has to be installed on your PC, you need to leave it on if you want your media streamer to be able to connect to it. Some NAS devices come with a built-in media server and this can often be accessed by a media streamer, but you'll need to check the specs to find out if this feature is supported. The advantage of this system is that you can simply copy all your media to the NAS, and you don't have to keep your PC on 24 hours a day. Media Player 11 tends to work best when sharing between Vista machines, but can be used to share media with other PCs running Windows XP and some media streamers.
However, we've found it can be notoriously fickle, often refusing connections, and it doesn't seem to update the library with any consistency when you add new files.
Systems that use Media Center tend to be much more reliable. Getting content from your PC to your TV requires a network connection, and few people are fortunate enough to have network points in every room of their house. It is, of course, possible to run network cable from room to room, but unless you're redecorating and can bury it in the wall, or run the cable under the carpet, it's not terribly practical or attractive. While wireless has been widely used in the home for quite a few years now, unless you are running an 802.11n system, you'll find that streaming video is a distinctly unhappy affair, and streaming HD is virtually impossible. Even 802.11n can struggle with HD video, if your house has thick walls, or your router is a long way away from your media streamer.
The latest routers and some media streamers use 802.1ln dual-band, where the extra bandwidth is used in order to maintain a high data throughput. If you want to stream HD content, then you may want to look at these options. Some CD burning software, such as Roxio's Creator Suite, and Nero Burning ROM also offer media sharing, but we're not great fans of these suites, as they add a huge amount of bloat to your Windows install.
A Noise Annoys
If you can't get a good wireless signal and Ethernet cable is impractical, then you could try powerline networking. There are a number of products available from the likes of Devolo and Netgear. These are basically plug adaptors, which you connect a network cable to and then plug into a three-pin mains socket. Plug another one into your router and you can use your house's electrical cables as an extended network.
Results can be a bit mixed, depending on how old the wiring in your house is and how much 'noise' is on the wiring. Noise is high-frequency interference on your wiring, and is generally created by any device that contains a motor, such as a vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, washing machine or tumble dryer. If there's a lot of noise on your powerline network, then speeds can drop, or you may lose the connection altogether, so it's something you need to be aware of. Another issue is that there is no single standard for powerline networking, although most devices use either standards from either the HomePlug Powerline Alliance or Universal Powerline Association.
If you are using devices from more than one manufacture, make sure they both use the same standard. An alternative to a networked device, is one that contains a hard drive, and which can be loaded with content by connecting to your PC using a USB cable.
We're great fans of the Tvix series of devices (www.tvixbox.co.za), because they often do a far better job than most of the standard media streamers, and have menus that are more intuitive and easier to use.
One of our favourites is the HDM-6500A. You will need to pop a SATA hard drive inside, but once you do you get HD output through HDMI or if you are lacking in a TV that has HDMI support you can use either the Component S-Video or composite that are provided. You can connect it to your PC using USB 2.0 and transfer files to the internal hard drive, plug a removable drive into one of the USB ports, or connect it to your network using an Ethernet cable.
The server software is basic to the extreme, as it's basically just using Windows networking and Samba, but as an added bonus, you can upload files across the network to the unit, using FTP. Tvix is also one of the few companies that provides regular firmware updates, in order to add new features to its devices. Not only that, but the HD M-6500A has an expansion slot, into which you can plug an optional analogue or digital TV tuner card, and the unit has full PVR functionality; something that's not offered by virtually any other media streamer. Even better than that though, the remote control has glow-in-the-dark buttons, so no matter how low you turn the lights down, you'll always be able to find the right control.
The final choice is to not buy a media extender at all, because you probably have one in your living room already. Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii, can all be used as media extenders to some degree or other. Although this functionality was built into both the Xbox and the Playstation, it's not something that was originally intended for the Wii, yet using the console's internet connection, it suddenly becomes possible. But no matter how good these consoles and streamers are, it's actually your humble PC that makes it all possible.