How a Media Server Shares Photos, Music, and Movies

Access your digital collection from a central hub

Playing Blu-ray discs, DVDs, CDs, and streaming from the internet are some of the ways you can enjoy music and video on your TV and home theater setup, but you can also use other content sources, such as media on compatible devices in a home network.

To access stored photos, movies, and music—and stream them to compatible playback devices—you must have a storage device that can function as a media server.

What Is a Media Server?

A media server is a central device on which you store your files. A media server can be a PC or MAC, a Network-attached storage drive, or another compatible device.

NAS drives are the most common external media server devices. These devices can communicate with your home network, so smart TVs, media streamers, and computers can access them. In some cases, you can also use a NAS remotely with a phone or tablet.

For a playback device to communicate with a media server, the device must be compatible with one of two standards: DLNA or UPnP. DLNA is an outgrowth of UPnP and is more versatile and easier to use.

  • DLNA: Certification from the Digital Living Network Alliance trade group ensures that home networking devices communicate and share media. The media server and the media on the home network must be compatible with DLNA.
  • UPnP: Universal Plug and Play is an alternate sharing solution between a media server and a compatible playback device. While DLNA is a standard for hardware that manufacturers agree to, UPnP describes the network protocols that hardware uses.

Closed-System Media Servers

Some closed (proprietary) media server systems are also available. These options work similarly to a NAS, but they typically include all necessary hardware and software in a single box with minimal setup. This box is similar to a DVR, which you can use to watch and record TV shows and movies when they air, but they also contain room to store files from other sources. Examples include the TIVO Bolt, ​Dish's The Hopper, and the Terra by Kaleidescape.

How to Find and Play Files Using a Media Server

A media server organizes its contents into virtual folders, whether using a DLNA, UPnP, or a closed system. Go to a "Music" or "Movies" section to play media on a compatible player instead of looking through a complete list of everything on the device.

Go to your media playback device's photo, music, or video playback menu for a list of each available source (a device containing compatible files) on your home network. When you select a labeled source, the playback device then lists its media folders and files. Browsing files on each device should be similar to locating them on your computer.

A media server may organize items like photos by the camera used or by year. You may also browse music and movie files by categories like genre, year, or personal ratings.

The Software End of Media Servers

Media server software finds and then organizes the media on your hard drives into folders that your compatible network media playback device can find. Windows devices, for example, have built-in DLNA-compatible software.

Owners of Macs and PCs that don't have media server software included will need to download a program to manage digital files. A range of third-party software is available, including TwonkyMedia Server, Yazsoft Playback, TVersity, Younity, and more. Some options are free, while others provide basic media sharing capabilities at no cost but may require a subscription for additional features, such as interaction with mobile devices or DVR capabilities.

Media Servers and Apps

Some smart TVs, Blu-ray players, and media streamers require apps to communicate with network-connected media servers. Sometimes the necessary apps are preinstalled, but if not, install an app like Plex or KODI to connect with your media server. Roku media streamers also have the Roku Media Player, which works with several server software platforms. 

Cloud Storage

Another type of storage that behaves like a media server is cloud storage. Instead of saving all of your files to a physical device, upload them to a cloud storage drive like Amazon Drive, Google Drive, iCloud, or Dropbox. Once they are in the cloud, you can access files from any compatible playback device anywhere in the world.

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