How a Media Server Shares Photos, Music, and Movies

Playing Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, and 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 take advantage of other content sources also, such as media files stored on compatible devices in a home network.

To access your stored photos, movies, and music and stream them to compatible playback devices, such as a network media player, media streamer, smart TV, or most Blu-ray Disc players, you must have a storage device that can function as a media server.

What a Media Server Is

A media server is where your media files are stored. A media server can be a PC or MAC (desktop or laptop), NAS drive or another compatible storage device.

Network-attached storage (NAS) drives are the most common external media server devices. These large, networked hard drives can be accessed by a smart TV, media streamer, or computer that is connected to the same home network. In some cases, a NAS drive can be accessed remotely by a smartphone or tablet.

In order for the playback device to communicate with a media server, it must usually be compatible with one of two standards:

  • DLNA. DLNA certification ensures that home networking devices can communicate and share media. Both the media server and the media must be DLNA certified.
  • UPnP (Universal Plug and Play). This is a more generic sharing solution between a media server and a compatible playback device.

DLNA is an outgrowth of UPnP and is more versatile and easier to use.

Closed System Media Servers

In addition to the DLNA and UPnP standards, there are also some closed (proprietary) media server systems, such as TIVO Bolt, ​The Hopper (Dish), and Kaleidescape ​that store movies and TV programs and distribute that content via satellite players that can be plugged into a TV in a similar manner as a traditional media streaming box or stick, but all of the needed hardware and software is built into both the server and the plug-in playback unit—no additional hardware or software is required—other than any required subscription fees.

Finding and Playing Files Using a Media Server

Whether using a DLNA, UPnP, or a closed media server system, to make it easier to find stored media files, the media server gathers (aggregates) the files and organizes them into virtual folders. When you want to play media on a compatible player, you must find the files on the media server ("source") where they are saved.

Looking at your media playback device's photo, music, or video playback menu, the device should list each available source on your home network (identified by name), such as a computer, NAS drive, or other media server device. Clicking on each labeled device, the playback device then lists each of the source's media folders and files. Often you will choose the source that has your desired file(s), then browse through the folders and files in the same way that you find files on a computer.

A media server does not actually move any of your files. Instead, it places all your media files in virtual folders that bring together types of media music, movies, or photos. For photos, it may further organize by the camera used (digital cameras provide identifiers for its files) or by year for photos, by genre for music—or by date, album, personal ratings, or other categories.

The Software End of Media Servers

Dedicated media servers have embedded software to make your media files available to your media playback or display device. To access the media that you have saved on the computers connected to your home network, you may need media server software.

Media server software finds the media on your computer and attached hard drives, aggregating and organizing the media files into folders that your compatible network media playback device (smart TV, Blu-ray Disc player, media player/streamer) can find. You can then choose a media file or folder that is saved on your computer in the same way that you would choose another media server device.

Windows 7 with Windows Media Player 11 (and above), Windows 8, and Windows 10 have DLNA-compatible media server software built-in.

For Macs and PCs that don't have media server software included, a number of third-party media server software companies have products available: TwonkyMedia Server, Yazsoft Playback, TVersity, Younity, and more.

Some software is offered for free, and others provide basic media sharing capabilities for free but may require a subscription fee for additional features, such as interaction with mobile devices and/or DVR capabilities.

Media Servers and Apps

For smart TVs, Blu-ray Disc players, and media streamers, apps can be installed that will communicate with network-connected media servers. Sometimes the required apps are preinstalled, but if not, check for apps such as Plex or KODI. Roku media streamers also have an app available, Roku Media Player, that works with several media server software platforms. 

Cloud Storage

Another type of storage that behaves like a media server is Cloud Storage. Instead of saving all your files to a physical device, such as a NAS, you can, instead, upload all your files to an Internet-based storage option (that is where the term Cloud comes from). From there you can access any of your files from any compatible playback device, such as a smartphone, laptop, or PC, anywhere in the world. There are several Cloud Storage providers including Amazon Drive, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, and Dropbox. However, storage space may be limited and require initial or periodic fee payment.

The Bottom Line

Physical media (Blu-ray, DVD, CD, USB) are popular ways to access and play media on your TV. However, most of us have hundreds of photos, music, and videos that we have taken or downloaded from the internet stored on a PC or other storage device. With the right combination of hardware and software, you can turn your storage devices into media servers. In addition, with complementary software, a Smart TV, most Blu-ray Disc players, and media streamers can reach out and access those files for your TV viewing or home theater enjoyment.

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