How Software Turns Your Computer into a Media Server

Play photo, video, and music files on other devices on a home network

Plex Software on Laptop
Plex

Media Servers make it easier to share (stream) content with digital storage and playback devices within a home network. However, without media server software, photo, music, video, and data files may be saved on a drive, device or computer, but a network media playback device may not be able to "see" or access it.

Devices like network attached storage (NAS) drives and other types of dedicated media servers already have the appropriate sharing software embedded. However, PCs and laptops often require the installation of media server software so that it can organize and provide access to media file content in the same fashion as a self-contained media server.

Media Server Software In Windows

Windows 7, 8 and 10 do have media server software built-in, but you must take steps to activate so that you can see or hear your selected media files on other devices. A network media playback device can find files imported to, and playlists created by Windows Media Player 11 and above as your PC acts as a media server.

For Windows 10, here are the activation steps enable basic media server capabilities:

  1. Open Start.

  2. Go to the Control Panel and search the term "media" using the provided search box and select Media Streaming Options under the Network and Sharing Center.

    Network and Sharing Center Media Streaming Options Windows 10
    Screenshot
  3. Click the Turn on Media Streaming button to turn on the media streaming server.

    Turn on Media Streaming in Windows 10
    Screenshot
  4. Choose the Media Streaming Options for Computers and Devices, then click OK on the bottom of the screen to apply the settings.

    Choose Media Streaming Options for Computers and Devices Windows 10
    Screenshot

    You can customize the streaming settings further, but The default settings allow all devices on your local network to access the media files in your PC's media libraries.

  5. You can further go into Windows Media Player and under the Stream pull-down menu, select Automatically Allow Devices to Play Media.

    Windows Media Player — Allow Other Devices To Play Media
    Screenshot 

Third Party Media Server Software Options

If your PC or Mac does not have pre-installed media server software that you can activate, if the already embedded software does not meet your needs, you can choose from one or more third-party options that can add or extend your computer's media server capabilities. Each has its own, but similar setup procedures.

Third-party options for (some compatible with both PC and Mac) include:

PlayOn Desktop App — Compatible Devices
PlayOn Desktop App — Compatible Devices. Screenshot

What Happens After You Install Media Server Software

When using media server software on your computer, it will search for media files in the usual places: The Pictures folder for photos; the Music folder for music, and the Movies folder for videos. Most media server software programs will also let you specify other folders where you have stored your media.

If you have stored your music or movie library on an external hard drive that is connected to your computer, you can list that as a folder. Of course, the hard drive must be connected to the computer for the media server software to make those files available.

Likewise, media server software must be running on your computer so that the network media playback device, such as media streamer, smart TV, smart Blu-ray Disc player, network home theater receiver, or other compatible devices can access the media files.

Typically the software is set up to launch automatically at startup and run in the background when your computer is on, waiting for an outside device to access it. While this is convenient, it uses a lot of the computer's resources and may slow down your system. You may want to turn it off if no one on the home network needs to access the files on your computer. You can always launch it when you need to share content.

Media Server Software Does More Than Make Files Accessible

Media server software not only finds media files and the folders they are located on in your computer but, using information embedded in the media files (metadata), it also aggregates and organizes them into its own folders for more precise access.

When you open the media server on your network media player device's list of sources, you can access the files either by "folders" that you have created on the computer or device, or you can open folders created by the media server software.

The media server-created folders organize media files to make it easier to find files by grouping them together in ways that you may search for them. For example:

  • Photo files may be grouped into folders for "camera" (the camera used to take the photo), or the "year" it was taken.
  • Music folders may include "artist", "genre," "personal rating," and "most played" or "playlist".
  • Video folders may include "recently played," "by date," "genre", or "playlist".
Media Server Folders as Displayed on Roku Media Player App
Roku 

Not all Media Server Software is the Same

While all media server software works similarly, some have special features including what types of folders it can create, converting file formats (transcoding), and compatibility with media libraries of particular programs. This is especially important for Mac computers as Photo and iTunes libraries cannot be accessed by all media server software.

In addition to organizing user saved media files, some media server software solutions, such as PlayOn and Plex also provide access to a select number of internet streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and YouTube.

PlayOn Media Server with Streaming Apps
PlayOn

Media Server Software and DLNA

For added access flexibility, many media server software solutions (including Windows 10), are DLNA certified. Software that is DLNA certified assures that it can communicate with devices that are DLNA certified as media players, media renderers and media controllers.

TwonkyMedia Server has been used as a reference when testing DLNA certified home network devices because it has been reliably compatible.

Other examples of DLNA-compatible media server software platforms include PlayOn, Plex, Serviio, TVersity, and Universal Media Server. If your playback device is compatible with one or more of these platforms, you may be able to access them directly through a general media playback app. One example is the media player app for Roku.

Roku Media Player App — Select Media Server Source
Roku

However, even if everything in your network is DLNA certified, to access media files through specific media server software, you may have to install a playback or client app for that specific software on a compatible Smart TV, media streamer, or other devices.

This is important if you have more than one type of media server software installed on your PC or laptop. For example, it is possible to have both PLEX and PlayOn installed on the same PC.

Media File Playback Compatibility

While media server software allows you to stream or share your music, photo, and video files across devices in your home network, not all your playback devices will necessarily be compatible with all digital media file formats or those that are DRM encoded (copy-protected). You need to check your playback device user guide to find out what file formats they are compatible with.

The Bottom Line

With the activation or addition of software, a PC or Mac can function as your home media server. It is an especially practical way to access and share all the photos, video, and music you have downloaded and stored on it with other networked media playback devices you may have around the house, such as smart TVs, media streamers, Blu-ray Disc players, some home theater receivers and game consoles, and even your smartphone.