The Lenovo IdeaCenter D400 is a media server that can transmit your movies, photos and more from your PC to your TV. It costs around $500 -- but you can build one yourself. (Lenovo)
Streaming video and audio from the Web is now commonplace. Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, Spotify and other services make it simple to watch or listen to what you want when you want.
You don't even need a computer. Most services have apps for smartphones and tablets. Many newer TVs are Internet enabled, so they can stream online video and audio with no extra gear.
For non-Internet TVs, you can grab an Apple TV or Roku box for $100 or less and plug it in. You might already have a Wii U, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. These all include media streaming.
Google's new $35 Chromecast takes a different approach. It plugs in to your TV via HDMI and connects to your Wi-Fi network. You can stream online video from your smartphone or tablet, or the Chrome browser on PC and Mac, right to the TV.
That's all fine for bringing in outside media, but what about media already in your home? You might have a collection of music that isn't on any service. You probably have thousands of photos. Don't forget any home videos or purchased movies you have on your hard drive.
How do you bring these to your TV? You could just connect your computer directly and use the TV like a monitor.
Of course, that doesn't help you stream to mobile gadgets. And you might already have a streaming box plugged in to your TV. Who needs more clutter in your entertainment center?
There's another solution: Set up a home media server.
Don't let the name intimidate you; it's actually not that hard once you know how. And that's what I'm going to tell you.
There are three things you need for this to work.
1. A media server to stream content
2. A fast home network to carry the content
3. Gadgets to receive and display the content
Let's start with the server. A server is just a computer that stores and shares information. Any computer can be a server. You could use your existing home computer or an unused older computer you have sitting around.
If you're just serving photos or audio, you don't need a high-end system. Almost any Windows Vista or 7 machine will do fine. Just make sure the computer's hard drive is large enough to hold everything.
As a side note, I know people still have Windows XP computers at home or sitting in a closet. I wouldn't use that. Most of the software I'm going to talk about won't work as well on it. Plus, Microsoft is dropping support for XP in less than a year. At that point, no one should be running XP.
For streaming video, you'll want a something a bit newer. It should really run Windows 7 and have 4 gigabytes of RAM.
Once you have the hardware, you need software. There are some paid options out there like Pogoplug PC ($30) and PlayOn ($40 a year, $25 a year on sale). These make it simple to stream your media to mobile gadgets and other compatible electronics. Plus, they include plenty of other online media sources.
However, there are free options as well, such as Orb and Plex. When I say "free," I mean the computer-based streaming software. Additional hardware and apps will cost some money.
For example, Orb has hardware you can plug into your stereo ($79 per unit) and TV ($99 per unit). The Orb software detects these automatically, making streaming simple.
I should point out that Orb is the only service with an easy solution for stereos. So, if that's what you're after, start there.
Orb can stream to other hardware, like a video game console and some streaming gadgets. Orb also has apps for smartphones and tablets. You can watch your media on your home network or on the go.
If you're looking for the most powerful system, however, check out Plex.
You download the Plex Media Center for free and install it on your computer. It works on PC, Mac, Linux and some standalone network attached storage (NAS) units.
Plex organizes your media and streams it wherever you want. It has apps for iOS, Android, Windows 8, Roku, Internet-enabled LG and Samsung TVs, and Google TV. These apps range from free to $5, depending on the gadget. Of course, Plex also streams to newer video game consoles.
Then there's the free myPlex service. This streams your content to a smartphone or tablet on the go. It even streams to an Internet browser on any computer. You can use it to share photos and videos with friends and family. Not a bad deal.
The one drawback to Plex is that it can be a little harder to set up than some other systems. However, every new version makes it easier, and it's free. So, there's no harm in giving it a try.
A media server doesn't work if you can't send the information anywhere. You need a network.
Any wired network set up in the last 10 years is going to be fast enough for streaming media. For wireless, however, you really need an 802.11n router. This has the speed, range and signal strength you need for streaming media.
An older 802.11g router could work if you're only doing a little streaming here and there. However, you might find your network bogging down very quickly.
Then, of course, you need gadgets on the other end to receive and display the media. I mentioned most of them already: mobile gadgets, streaming video gadgets, video game consoles, and so forth.
Given the number of gadgets out there, this can seem overwhelming. How do you know what works and what doesn't?
Start by listing what gear you already own. Then compare it to what each streaming service says is compatible.
When you do this, you might find you already have the gear you need. That's thanks to DLNA.
DLNA stands for Digital Living Network Alliance. It's a set of standards built into many network-connected electronics. DLNA makes it easy for various gadgets to communicate and do just this kind of thing. There is a certification system, so DLNA-compatible electronics will list it as a feature in the manual.
Any DLNA gadget should be able to receive streaming media from your server. That includes many TVs, Blu-ray players and audio receivers.
That's enough to get you started on your media-streaming project. Have fun!