Once upon a time, it was considered quite a task just to get videos you’d downloaded to play well on your TV.
Now the goal is to have your media everywhere, all the time. We’re still a long way from one solution fitting all, but here’s a rundown of your options if you want to start throwing video and audio around the house.
If you own everything Apple, AirPlay makes things rather easy. You can easily stream video or photos from your iPad or iPhone to your Apple TV or MacBook, and AirPlay-compatible receivers and speaker docks will happily play audio wirelessly. You can also send the same tune to every set of compatible speakers in your house simultaneously, and the Remote app for iPhone and iPad can help you tie it all together. There are limitations to what you can play and do, but there are apps that subvert AirPlay’s original intention for more functionality.
Not an all-Apple person? You can still take advantage of AirPlay; XBMC can receive AirPlay streams, for one, as can Windows Media Center with a plug-in.
In theory, Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) is a wonderful thing that allows you to fling media around compatible devices and have it play anywhere. Consoles support it, TVs support it, mobile phones, tablets and media players support it; it’s all one big, happy, logo-emblazoned family. The current “thing” for demonstrating DLNA has been “flinging” content from a touchscreen phone to a TV with a single swipe, and it’ll start playing.
In practice, though, everyone implements DLNA differently, and it’s not as easy as it should be. Sometimes it flat out just doesn’t work. There’s no unified interface, which can be a blessing in terms of innovation, but a curse in terms of usability.
One of the big stumbling blocks is codecs. If your receiving device (TV, PS3 or otherwise) doesn’t understand the codec your media is encoded in, then it simply won’t play.
Thankfully, if you’re the type who loves to run a server, there are some decent transcoding options to help get around the problem — that is, applications that will convert a movie on the fly, so the receiving device can understand it. These include Plex Media Server, PS3 Media Server, TVersity and the venerable Twonky. Many NAS actually have Twonky already built in.
Aieee! The choices never end! The big front runners would be the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 via the DLNA path, but of course these do cost a choice amount, and don’t necessarily have the best codec support without a transcoding server sitting somewhere. They are, however, plugged in to an increasing amount of catch-up TV and video-rental services, and that will only improve over time.
The sideways step would be dedicated media streamers, like the WD TV Live Hub, D-Link’s Boxee Box or a “media tank” like the Popcorn Hour. These (with the exception of Apple TV) typically have a huge list of codecs they support, and for the price involved are one of the cheapest ways to get in on the streaming game.
Laptop wireless to TV
Intel’s WiDi, or Wireless Display, should allow you to connect to your TV using 5GHz Wi-Fi and stream without hassle. The problem, though, is the requirements; you must have a specific, quite recent wireless adapter in your laptop, and something to receive the WiDi signal, whether it’s a set-top box or compatible TV. To anyone just starting out, it could be an expensive proposition to get all the pieces in place.
In saying that, Netgear makes a WiDi receiver, and LG is including WiDi functionality in its 2012 range of TVs.
Another wireless option is the McTivia, which, unlike Intel’s solution, will work with any Wi-Fi adapter, but definitely has its limitations — especially when it comes to high-definition performance.
The reality of the situation is that right now, it’s much cheaper and more convenient to just plug your laptop in directly via HDMI.
If your whole motivation isn’t just flinging media about the place, but hiding the cables from your existing media set-up, check out Belkin’s Screencast AV4, which can take up to four HDMI inputs, then wirelessly transmit to your TV over a proprietary 5GHz connection. It works incredibly well.
There are plenty of universal remote apps out there for smartphones and tablets. If you’re on the Android side, Joseph Hanlon recommends the Universal Remote.
For those who are using their computer to play content, you might be interested in Mobile Mouse Pro, which allows your smartphone to be used as a keyboard, track pad and gyroscopic controller.
Servers and NAS
If you’re really serious about your media, and don’t intend to jump on the digital rental bandwagon, you’ll need some hefty storage for all of your videos and music, paired with suitable software so your collection can be accessed by all of your devices. This means one of two things: your own server; or network-attached storage (NAS).
A custom-built server will give you the most flexibility, but it can be a time-consuming path to follow in terms of configuration. For total device compatibility, you’ll likely have to set it up with some of the software mentioned in the DLNA section, along with the typical SMB shares.
While serious media fans are likely to have rack-mounted gear, a server need not be a big, hulking thing; HP‘s microserver, for example, is a small and rather affordable four-disk solution.
Buying a NAS is a slightly easier path. Many NAS devices have their own DLNA-capable server built into them, and some even support AirPlay. Just be aware that you’re at the mercy of the NAS manufacturer should any of the software break in an update; it can’t just be replaced with an alternative, like on Windows.
While they’ve never taken off as a mainstream device (as evidenced by the slow death of Windows Media Center), if you’re a serious video/audio enthusiast, you’re likely to build your own home-theatre PC, likely kitted out with XBMC or ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre. We’d recommend spending some time in the A/V Science Forum to get your set-up down pat, and reap from the incredible amount of knowledge stored there.