Your media, anywhere

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Personal Computer World

Your media, anywhere

Nigel Whitfield explores the latest technology that allows you to access your music, films and photos, wherever you like – both inside the home, and when you’re away

When we last looked at home media networks, in 2007, they were still very much the preserve of the enthusiast, with only a few ‘mainstream’ pieces of equipment available to help you share your digital media around the home. Now though, there’s a steady stream of devices to help you play back or share your media – from high capacity NAS drives with built in streaming servers, like those in our group test last month, to audio systems that can browse your network for media files to play, and even televisions with built in Ethernet ports. With the BBC’s iPlayer set to be available on Freesat set top boxes later this year, and new standards for Freeview boxes including Ethernet ports as well, together with mobile phones that are capable of live video streaming, there’s plenty of potential for setting up a home network that will let you access anything, on any device. Unfortunately, as is often the way with technology, there’s also a bewildering soup of acronyms, and plenty of scope for incompatibilities. So, in this feature we’ll set out to explain what’s possible with the latest equipment, and what you need to worry about when you’re trying to set everything up to access your media, anywhere.

Imagine…

Before going any further, let’s set the scene. Imagine a typical living room, with a digital TV recorder that allows you to watch one channel and record another, or even record two at the same time. A media streamer lets you play back downloaded videos or shared music from a NAS drive. So far, relatively ordinary. But imagine the TV recorder links to the network – suddenly you can schedule recordings via the web, or text message. PCs in other rooms can play back the recordings that are on its hard drive, using free software, as well as those that are on your NAS. More free software lets you share your iTunes library of music from your laptop, so every computer can access all your media files, whatever system they’re stored on.

And there’s still more you can do. A script on one of the PCs can watch for files moved to a particular folder on the TV recorder, and automatically convert them for your iPod or PSP, or just copy them to the NAS, freeing up space on the recorder. Plug a network TV tuner in, and any PC can watch live, even if it’s in a basement miles from the aerial; and you can even sit the other side of the world and see exactly what’s on your TV screen.

Not all of this can be done free of charge – hardware’s never going to be free. But much of the essential software is – so it may be a lot cheaper than you imagine to take your network to the next level.

Beyond file and print

The basics of home networking are probably pretty well understood by most PCW readers; every laptop these days comes with WiFi, and so do many home broadband connections. You’d have to look pretty hard to buy a PC without an Ethernet port, too. And for most people, setting up a home network is a matter of plugging the desktops into the broadband router using cables, hooking up the laptops and netbooks using Wifi and perhaps adding a NAS unit, or a networked printer. The software built into Windows takes care of sharing files and printers without too much fuss and – unless you have severe interference problems with Wifi – you don’t need to think about any of it too much more, other than the odd grumble when backing up from one computer to another takes a little longer than you’d like it to.

On the whole, modern networking technologies are remarkably adaptable; if you have some PCs with 10Mbit Ethernet, and some with 100Mbit, then most modern switches, including the ones built into your broadand router, will quite happily auto-detect, and everything will talk to everything else. The same is, broadly, true of Wifi. So it’s hardly surprising that a lot of people just assume that since the network’s up and running, using it for home media is a breeze.

Unfortunately, you couldn’t be more wrong. If you want reliable playback of media using a network, then it’s no longer good enough to just accept what comes with each device, plug it all into a cheap hub, switch or router, and hope for the best. You really do have to start planning, and make sure you know what the capabilities of all your different pieces of equipment are.

When all you’re doing is saving Word documents to a NAS, or copying a few photos between your laptop and desktop, then the speed of a home network isn’t crucial. It might be mildly annoying if a file seems to stall part way through being copied, but it’s not the end of the world.

Things are very different when media is involved. For all the talk of programs being streamed, at the network level, the process is essentially the same as copying data from one place to another – so instead of stalling file transfers, you’ll see stuttering playback, or hear interrupted audio.

Faster, Pussycat

Before you even think about issues like media formats, which streamers to use, and so on, it’s vital to make sure that your network is up to scratch. And that means making sure that everything is running as fast as it can, especially if you want to view high definition video.

If you’re using cabled Ethernet to link devices on your network, we recommend at least 100MBit network adaptors for the PCs – and check the properties in Windows to make sure an adaptor is connecting at that speed; some combinations of switches and adaptors have difficulties auto-adapting, and it’s necessary to force the adaptor to the higher speed. In fact, if you want to futureproof, you may even want to investigate gigabit Ethernet, though for that you’ll need very good quality cabling, and a gigabit switch; those start from under £50, and with some NAS units and desktops coming with gigabit as standard, it could be a better bet than simply relying on whatever switch is built into your broadband router or wifi access point.

If your network seems unreliable, the PassMark Performance and BurnIn tests can help shed light on the problem, and 30 day demos of the software can be downloaded from www.passmark.com; lower than expected speeds – especially if you have gigabit Ethernet – might be attributable to poor or damaged cables, as well as to some of the issues we’ve already mentioned.

Of course, in many home networks, wires aren’t used, or only link a few key pieces of equipment – and we’d certainly recommend that any media server, like a NAS, is connected via a cable. But there’s no getting away from wireless. Sign up to a broadband account, and you’ll very likely get a wireless router thrown in, allowing you to use your netbooks, laptops and an increasing number of streamers that come with wireless connectivity built in.

For all that people say wireless is easy – and it can be – just plugging and playing is not the best way to set up a wireless LAN and use it for media playback. With increasingly congested airwaves in urban areas, you’ll find that 802.11b and even g may not provide you with enough bandwidth. Click here to learn how you can try and find a free channel, but it’s also worth investigating 802.11n routers that can operate in the 5GHz band, either instead of the more common 2.4GHz or, preferably, in addition to it. With less interference, you should have better luck streaming – though you’ll very likely need to use a separate external adaptor for any media devices you wish to connect this way as few, so far, have 5GHz radios built into them. In fact, we’d probably go so far as to that that, if you live in an urban area, you can probably forget wireless for anything beyond audio and still picture playback.

Many people are turning to power line networking to solve that problem, and the best currently available system is the HomePlug AV standard; billed as 200MBps, in reality you can probably expect to see around 85-100MBps, though that’s more than sufficient for playback of high definition video. It’s not the only standard however – as we explain here there’s a new one in the works, called G.hn – and won’t even communicate with older HomePlug products, though they can co-exist on the same network.

And it’s not immune from problems either. You can’t network across different mains phases, for example; not usually a problem in homes, it can be an issue in commercial premises. Performance can suffer with sockets that aren’t on a ring main too, so if you expect to link up to an outhouse, or have a separate spur powering all your AV equipment, as in one of our installations, you might have problems with the connection dropping. The small external power supplies used by some media gizmoes, like external hard drives or games consoles can also interfere too, so sometimes it’s necessary to try plugging things into different sockets to get the best results.

Network checklist

So, before we look in more detail at what’s possible on the media side of things, let’s recap. First, make sure your wired network is up to scratch, with gigabit Ethernet if possible, good quality cables, up to date drivers (and router firmware), and all is working properly. Make sure your wireless network isn’t suffering too much interference, choose a appropriate channel, and consider upgrading older devices with external adaptors, so they don’t slow down the whole network. Disconnect noisy pieces of equipment, like cheap power adaptors, from the mains to avoid interference with a powerline network, and experiment with different sockets if you have performance issues.

Showtime

Once your network’s up to scratch, you can start planning how to handle all your media. Key to that is deciding what you have, and what you want to do with it. Is music the most important thing to have available? Or is it video that you want to access from everywhere? Are there any particular devices on which you definitely want to be able to access certain types of media? For example, an increasing number of pieces of home AV equipment, such as surround amplifiers, now support playback of media over a network. And if you’ve just spent a few hundred pounds on a new AV amplifier, then it’s probably more sensible to ensure that you can play back music using its built in streaming than to buy an extra box to use alongside it. Likewise, if you have a new TV that supports playback of video from a network or via memory cards, having a simple solution may be more acceptable – especially if all the family have to use it – than taking up another input on the TV with a media streamer than needs yet another remote control.

So, key to this is finding out which media formats and playback methods are supported by the devices you already have, and seeing what different file formats you have managed to amass already. Prepare for an large portion of acronym soup.

For most people, mention of digital music files probably brings to mind the MP3 format; it’s certainly popular, and you’d be quite hard pressed to find a media player that didn’t support it – but if you’ve been merrily shuffling your CD collection in and out of your PC’s drive to digitise it, you might be surprised to find that your files are in a different format, like Windows Media Audio or AAC.

That in itself needn’t be a problem, as long as you’re happy with the quality, and all your devices can play it back; if not, you’ll need to convert files to a format that is understood.

And there’s another gotcha – not only do your files need to be understood by whatever’s playing them back, but any media server software you’re using needs to recognise them too. Some software can transcode files on the fly, turning WMA into PCM audio, for example. Other media servers are less clever; for example, the server in one of our test NAS units only recognises a limited number of audio formats, which doesn’t include FLAC files. The FLAC codec provides great quality sound, and some streamers will play back the file. But since the server software doesn’t recognise the .flac extension on files, it won’t even show them to devices on the network. In practical terms, what that means is that you need to ensure that every link in the chain supports the media formats you’re using.

The same, of course, is true of video, where there’s also an abundance of formats; if you record digital TV, then it’ll be in MPEG2 format; though Windows Media Center wraps that up in its own dvr-ms format, you can convert it easily enough. If you’ve downloaded video from the net, chances are it’s in an avi file, containing DivX or Xvid mpeg 4 video, a WMV file, QuickTime or an H.264 file. And even within these few formats, you’ll find sufficient variation to confuse some servers and streaming software.

You might hope that another acronym would come to the rescue here – DLNA. The DLNA is an industry group that tests equipment to ensure interoperability between things like servers and playback devices. Unfortunately – as you can read in last month’s group test of DLNA NAS devices – while the standard does indeed offer some guarantee that devices will at least be able to see each other on the network, when it comes to which media formats are supported, and awful lot of them turn out to be optional, so you can’t simply look for the DLNA logo on two pieces of equipment, like an AV amplifier and a NAS unit, and be certain that your music files can be streamed from one to the other. You still need to check and make sure the same formats are supported.

In fact, you may need to go even further than that – if you’re hoping to play back video files on a DLNA-compliant television set, for example, you can find that it may be very pick. A ‘.mp4’ file might feel like a format, but it covers a very broad church, and it’s not unusual to find that some files will play audio, with no picture or the other way round. That’s because formats such as mp4, avi and mkv are “container” formats. An mp4 file, for example, might have PCM audio, MP3, or AAC; convert or save video with the wrong audio format, and it’ll be mute.

Which formats?

As far as possible, you need to keep the number of formats to a minimum. We’d recommend using AAC for audio, which is widely supported these days, and better quality than MP3.

Video is trickier; you don’t want to convert from one format to another unless you really have to – it’s time consuming and loses picture quality. If space allows, keep TV recordings in their original MPEG2 format. If you want to recompress, H.264 is becoming much more widely supported on streamers, mobile phones, and portable players and would be our format of choice, followed up by DivX/Xvid. As well as tools like the DivX encoder (www.divx.com), the free FFmpeg (www.ffmpeg.org) can convert video from one format to another fairly easily, and plugins for Windows Media Centre can convert the dvr-ms files to other formats.

Audiophiles may prefer to use a lossless codec for sound files, like FLAC; it’s gaining more support, but you’ll need to choose equipment carefully, or maintain two copies of your music files. Fortunately, disk space isn’t as much of a consideration as it would have been only a couple of years ago.

As well as file formats, don’t forget that DRM can also be an annoying fly in the ointment; it’s seems to be slowly dying out, at least in some quarters, but if you’ve bought music online in the past, there’s a good chance it’s protected – and that means that even if it is in a format like AAC or Windows Media, you probably can’t play it on remote devices. For audio files, a quick solution is to burn the tracks to a CD, and then re-import them; it’s tedious and time consuming, but sometimes it’s the only way to make sure that you can listen to tracks that you’ve bought on all the devices on your network.

Streaming or sharing?

Once you’ve solved the format issue – or at least, decided to stop trying to acquire material in any more formats than you have already – you need to think about how you’re going to share your media on the network. The most obvious answer is streaming, using a streaming software like some of the options mentioned here, or a NAS unit with a built in server, like those reviewed in last month’s issue of PCW. You should ideally look for a device with DLNA certification – but as we explained last month, that’s not a cast iron guarantee of anything more than two devices being able to see each other.

DLNA/UPnP streaming – DLNA is built on UPnP – is not the only way of accessing media on a network, though. Some streaming devices and software, including XBMC, can also access media in a shared folder. Typically this is referred to as CIFS or SMB support, and it means that if a folder is shared by a PC or NAS so that Windows systems on the network can view it, the media player can too.

Why would you want to do that? Firstly, it’s very simple to set up, if you have a lot of media files on a PC already, without the additional overhead of running a dedicated streaming server.

Secondly, as we’ve mentioned, some streaming software may not support all the formats that your player does. So, for instance, if you have a NAS device with built in streaming software that doesn’t support the FLAC audio format, but your streamer can connect to shared drives, then you can cut the streaming software out of the equation, and allow the streamer to simply browse the shared folders and play back whatever it finds there.

There is a downside, however. Some modern routers, network switches and homeplug devices can prioritise traffic based on its type, something often referred to as QoS, or “Quality of Service”. They can identify streams being sent over your network using standard streaming protocols, and ensure they get priority over other traffic. Devices accessing shared folders will just look like any other file transfer, and won’t have the same priority – so it’s not such a great idea for playing back video files, and one reason why it’s important to make sure your network is up to scratch, as we explained at the start of this article.

When it comes to choosing a device to access your shared media, there’s a huge number available – we’ve reviewed many in PCW over the months. To a degree, the choice is partly personal – you might want something that will fit visually with the rest of your kit, for example. Perhaps a dual-purpose device, that can be used as an external hard disk as well as for playback is more convenient – or simply an external, non-networked drive that can play media, like LaCie’s Cinema Classic. But file formats are obviously crucial, especially if you already have a collection of things that you want to play back. While wifi may look a tempting addition on many devices, we don’t really recommend it’s worth worrying about – a homeplug or other Ethernet connection is a much better bet, for reliable streaming.

Some products, like the HDX1000 reviewed in PCW this month, will play just about anything you throw at them, while others are much more limited, though that needn’t be an issue if they do what you want. For example, Pinnacle’s Soundbridge may be a handy bedroom device, allowing you to play music from an iTunes collection, and pick up internet radio, and if that’s all you want, it can be found at bargain prices.

Tune in

There’s one obvious thing missing from what we’ve talked about so far – TV. For most of us, TV is still one of the main ways we access media, so how do you integrate that into a home network? One of the most obvious ways is with a media centre PC, either using Windows Media Centre, or one of the alternative, like MythTV or GB-PVR. While these can take care of your recording and live viewing needs, many people just aren’t ready for a PC chugging away in the corner of the living room.

Thankfully, you don’t have to go down that route. There are some alternatives. First, some PVRs, like the Topfield 5800 and 5810, have a USB port, which allows recordings made on them to be shared via a link to a PC or a small dedicated Linux box. You can use one of these twin-tuner devices, and either copy files to a NAS for playback later, or even use a program like XBMC to play them while they’re still stored on the PVR.

Another solution for live TV is HD HomeRun (www.silicondust.com), which has just been launched in the UK (www.nectar.uk.com); originally designed for the US market, the UK version has two Freeview tuners, and an Ethernet port. You just plug it in to the aerial, connect to the network, and any PC with the appropriate software can connect to a free tuner and watch free digital channel – but if you’re hoping for high definition, note that it doesn’t support the new DVB-T2 standard that Freeview HD will launch with later this year, so in that regard the name is a little misleading for the UK.

Thanks to standard BDA drivers and other plug-ins, Homerun can be used with a range of software, including Media Centre, XBMC, GB PVR and MythTV – so you can have a PC set up to handle recordings in a dark corner, and a small, silent box in the living room feeding it streams from your TV aerial.

Again, make sure your network’s up to scratch; we got perfect playback via Ethernet, but the congested airwaves caused plenty of picture breakup watching on a laptop via Wifi –we’d still recommend putting tuners in the PC that will be doing the recordings, if possible, and using Homerun just to provide live TV on portable PCs.

Live TV isn’t the only way to watch these days, of course; the BBC’s iPlayer is something we take for granted on our PCs, and it can be accessed on mobile phones or the Nintendo Wii too. There aren’t yet any media streams that offer it – but there are plugins for software media players like XBMC.

In fact, so flexible are software players that – as long as you don’t mind the extra cost – a small form factor PC is likely to be the most flexible media streamer available. With systems like GB PVR and MythTV capable of being split across multiple machines, too, you can have a silent PC in the living room, with the work of recording live TV, or sharing files on a system tucked away where you can’t hear it, all controlled over your network.

On the go

So far, we’ve looked at solutions that will let you access music, tv and video files on your home network, but what about when you’re away? There’s a growing number of options; the simplest is just to convert the media that you want to take with you, and synchronise it to a portable player. There’s a wealth of software available to do the job, whether you’re using an iPod, PSP or some other device, and plenty of free tools like FFmpeg will convert files to the right formats.

That, of course, requires a little planning in advance – if you’ve not taken the right file with you, you can’t watch it. But that’s becoming less and less important. LaCie’s Internet Space (www.lacie.com/uk) not only provides UPnP streaming on your home network, but provides a way of accessing media remotely, so you or your friends can look at it from elsewhere.

Cyberlink Live (www.cyberlinklive.com) allows you to remotely access any DLNA-compliant device on your home network, and will stream TV from the tuner card in your PC as well – effectively a software version of the SlingBox (www.slingmedia.com). It will even allow you to watch on a Windows Mobile device.

There’s one big problem, however, when it comes to remote access to your media – picture quality. Most home broadband links are extremely limited when it comes to sending information from your home, and even with good quality compression, you’re not going to get a great quality picture. Think web video, and occasional viewing, rather than high quality playback – for the time being, if you want to watch when you’re away from home, we’d still recommend syncing the files you want, before you go.

Ubiquitous media

Making all your media available around the network is, certainly much simpler now than it used to be – that’s not to say that it’s without problems, and some areas, such as live TV, can be particularly prone to compatibility problems, or driver hell. But you can start setting up a home media network very easily too – and a NAS with a streaming server is a great place to start, with a hardware streamer connected to your TV, and a program like XBMC to turn your laptop into a media player.

You’ll find a look at how to set up the HD HomeRun with XMBC in this GoneDigital post.

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