What Is A Media Server?

What Is A Media Server?

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By Chris Brass
Writer

So you made the plunge.  You got rid of your cable and now have three Roku’s, two Apple TV’s and a Firestick spread across your home.  The TV in the living room has an antenna permitting you to watch the local news.  You are a member of one of the many groups on Facebook telling you what is soon going to be coming to Netflix and Hulu this month.  But every once in a while you see these terms pop up and you have no idea what they are or why people are talking about them.

PlayOn…

Plex…

Emby…

NAS…

Server…

HandBrake…

Welcome to Server 101, the basic fundamentals of Network Attached Storage (NAS). What Is A Media Server?

The Disk Station is the latest NAS from Synology.

I’m going to start off with a few fundamental basics to make sure that we are on the same page, when you read “Server”, especially in this article, you can substitute the term NAS.  Not only are we talking the same functions, it also makes it better for my productivity because its far easier for me to type the word ‘server’ then it is for me to stop, find the cap key and type in three letters when you have my typing skills.

The Basic function of a server is to provide extra storage in much the same way that your USB thumb drive does on your key chain or the external hard drive you use for your netbook does, but the major difference is that you can access it from all the devices in your home that can access the internet.  Do you have pictures on your cell phone?  You can send them to the server to save them when you get home.  Is your kid writing a term paper on their laptop?  They can save it to the server and then access it from the desktop in the office and continue to do the work.

But when you start using devices like Roku and Apple TV you will begin to see a whole new world open up to you where severs come into play.  It does not matter if you converted a 10 year old computer, custom built a server or purchased a pre-built NAS from Best Buy, they all provide the same basic function but when you talk about “Media server”, which is a form of NAS server, they often provide a little extra that is beneficial to those who have various streaming devices.

Server Based Apps
Servers though can store more than pictures and papers. A lot of people use them to store entire video libraries and access them through set-top boxes and other connected devices. Back when servers were more of a tool for tinkerers and computer geeks the videos were accessed directly from computers attached to tvs. Some aficionados still use this kind of setup, they are called “HTPC’s” or home theater PCs. But such a set-up might get cumbersome for the average

Many media server allow users to connect to web based media like this selection from PlayOn.

user. The good news is that most of the servers have the ability to download and install various software suites which permit you to stream videos stored on your server to much smaller devices hooked up to your TV, or in some cases even directly to the Smart tvs and Blu-ray players themselves. Knowing what each one does will help guide you to decide which one works best for you, and knowing your budget and skill level will also be an issue. Here are a few of the big names in that field.

PlayOn
PlayOn is the only server software in this article that requires you to payment in order for you to use it.  For that payment, users get phone and email support. Features include the ability to record things directly from the web and save it on the hard drive. This is really helpful for lots of shows on Hulu like the ones where only the past five episodes of your favorite show are available.  No problem with PlayOn, you can just access it from your Roku and tell it to record all episodes of Lethal Weapon.  Let’s say you just found out that Netflix is taking your movie off this month and you haven’t had an opportunity to watch it?  No problem, just tell PlayOn to record it for you and you can watch it as soon as you are able.  Other features includes the ability to act as a ‘bridge’ between your Roku and a recognized page that provides videos, for example, if you have PlayOn you can use it to access the NBC website where they make various classic and recent TV shows available and watch it on your Roku through the PlayOn app or channel.

At the time of this writing PlayOn can only be installed on Windows based computers and it requires a more modern computer (lots of ram and speed) than most of the others, otherwise you may be unhappy with the results, but it’s ease

PlayOn apps are available on a number of devices

of use and support from the company make it worthwhile to try out.

Plex
The apps for this media server program are available for multiple platforms. The Plex server program supports both Windows and Mac.  Do you have an old Apple computer sitting in the corner collecting dust?  Consider cleaning it up, installing Plex and turning it into a server so you can watch videos with your Apple TV or Roku.  If you use one of many variants of Linux out there, fear not, you are covered, they have several to choose from.

Plex can also serve as a bridge between videos available on the Web and your streaming device by supporting various “network” websites.  Install the NBC supported channel on your Plex server and watch the latest episode of “This is Us” when it becomes available on the web or ABC you can watch “America’s Funniest Videos”.  Plex is popular with those who copy their DVD’s or Blu-ray discs as well.  Its user-friendly interface on both the computer it’s installed on as well as the device that you use to watch makes it very similar to Netflix or Hulu.

Cool Features
Once you install a movie or a TV episode on a server containing Plex, the software searches the web for the info pertaining to the video.  When Plex is done you will see the actors, directors, genre and release date of the movie in question.  TV show?  It will automatically fill in the broadcasts dates for the episode.  It has an extensive filtering system

Plex will add metadata info on movies and TV shows from the web for free to help you learn more about your favorite.

as well.  Are you in the mood for a movie or TV show that’s directed by Alfred Hitchcock that stars either James Stewart or Cary Grant?  No problem.  You can also create your own custom playlists.

 

The Plex app is free to download and install on your Roku and a few other devices, but if you wish to stream videos to your phone or want support you will need to purchase it.

Kodi
Kodi is media server that can be downloaded to Windows and Mac computers, Linux-based machines and Android devices. Like Plex and PlayOn it can be set up to access your entire library of music and video content and will also find integrate artwork and metadata about your media to give you a Netflix-like experience. The program also supports a vast array of apps that pull in content from websites. The biggest drawback is that Kodi is not compatible with Roku and has to be side loaded onto other devices like Apple TV and The Fire TV. Android TV devices have their own apps for the program. Kodi is free to download and sets up very easily. There are any number of  Android boxes that advertise themselves as Kodi boxes, which in most cases are just devices with the app downloaded as one of many.

The interface is popular because it is very easy to customize. Many users have created variants on the program that

Kodi can provide local weather info on your screen.

integrate beautiful artwork and themes as well as unique menus. Users can also sync up their own pictures in order to have a media center with a very personal twist. The program can become a one-stop shop for media needs with the ability to access many apps outside of the Kodi system including Android and windows apps, meaning that the system can serve not just as a server interface but an interface for an entire system.

Emby
Emby is one of the newest server suites.  It has a wider variety of servers that it can be installed on and according to the website even supports Live Streaming.  It is free to download and install on your server and devices but offers support for a price with several choices.

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