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How a Media Server Shares Photos, Music, and Movies

Access your digital collection from a central hub

Playing Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, CDs and Internet streaming are some of the ways to enjoy music and video in a TV and home theater setup, but you can also use other content sources such as media on compatible devices on a home network.

To access and stream stored photos, movies, and music to compatible playback devices, you must have a storage device that can act as a media server.

What is a media server?

A media server is a central device where you store your files. The media server can be a PC or MAC, a network attached storage drive, or another compatible device.

NAS drives are the most common external media server devices. These devices can communicate with your home network so smart TVs, media streamers and computers can access them. In some cases, you can also use the NAS remotely with a phone or tablet.

For a playback device to communicate with a media server, the device must support one of two standards: DLNA or UPnP. DLNA is an extension of UPnP and is more versatile and easier to use.

  • DLNA: Digital Living Network Alliance certification The trade group enables home network devices to communicate and share media. The media server and the media in the home network must support DLNA.
  • UPnP: Universal Plug and Play It is an alternative sharing solution between a media server and a compatible playback device. While DLNA is a hardware standard agreed upon by manufacturers, UPnP defines the network protocols that the hardware uses.

Closed system media servers

Some closed (proprietary) media server systems are also available. These options work similarly to a NAS, but usually include all necessary hardware and software in one box with minimal configuration. This box is similar to a DVR that you can use to watch and record TV shows and movies as they air, but it also includes space to store files from other sources. Examples include TIVO Bolt, Dish’s The Hopper, and Kaleidescape’s Terra.

How to find and play files using media server

A media server organizes your content into virtual folders using DLNA, UPnP, or a closed system. Go to “Music” or “Movies” to play media in a compatible player instead of searching for a full list of everything on your device.

Access your media player device’s photo, music or video playback menu for a list of every available source (a device with compatible files) on your home network. When you select a tagged source, it lists the playback device folders and media files. Searching for files on each device should be similar to finding them on your computer.

A media server can organize items such as photos by camera used or year. You can also browse music and movie files by categories such as genre, year, or personal rating.

End of media server software

The media server software finds the media on your hard drives and organizes them into folders that your compatible network media player can find. For example, Windows devices have built-in DLNA compatible software.

Mac and PC owners without media server software will need to download a program to manage digital files. Various third-party software is available, including TwonkyMedia Server, Yazsoft Playback, TVersity, Younity, and more. Some options are free, while others provide basic media sharing features for free, but may require a subscription for additional features such as mobile device interaction or DVR features.

Media and application servers

Some smart TVs, Blu-ray players, and media streamers require apps to communicate with networked media servers. Sometimes the required apps are pre-installed but if not, install an app like Plex or KODI to connect to your media server. Roku media publishers also have Roku Media Player that works with various server software platforms.

cloud storage

Another type of storage that acts as a media server is cloud storage. Instead of saving all your files to a physical device, upload them to a cloud storage drive such as Amazon Drive, Google Drive, iCloud or Dropbox. While in the cloud, you can access files from any compatible playback device anywhere in the world.


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How a Media Server Shares Photos, Music, and Movies

Access your digital collection from a central hub

Playing Blu-ray discs, DVDs, 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 also use other content sources, such as media on compatible devices in a home network.

To access stored photos, movies, and music—and stream them to compatible playback devices—you must have a storage device that can function as a media server.

What Is a Media Server?

A media server is a central device on which you store your files. A media server can be a PC or MAC, a Network-attached storage drive, or another compatible device.

NAS drives are the most common external media server devices. These devices can communicate with your home network, so smart TVs, media streamers, and computers can access them. In some cases, you can also use a NAS remotely with a phone or tablet.

For a playback device to communicate with a media server, the device must be compatible with one of two standards: DLNA or UPnP. DLNA is an outgrowth of UPnP and is more versatile and easier to use.

DLNA: Certification from the Digital Living Network Alliance trade group ensures that home networking devices communicate and share media. The media server and the media on the home network must be compatible with DLNA.
UPnP: Universal Plug and Play is an alternate sharing solution between a media server and a compatible playback device. While DLNA is a standard for hardware that manufacturers agree to, UPnP describes the network protocols that hardware uses.
Closed-System Media Servers

Some closed (proprietary) media server systems are also available. These options work similarly to a NAS, but they typically include all necessary hardware and software in a single box with minimal setup. This box is similar to a DVR, which you can use to watch and record TV shows and movies when they air, but they also contain room to store files from other sources. Examples include the TIVO Bolt, ​Dish’s The Hopper, and the Terra by Kaleidescape.

How to Find and Play Files Using a Media Server

A media server organizes its contents into virtual folders, whether using a DLNA, UPnP, or a closed system. Go to a “Music” or “Movies” section to play media on a compatible player instead of looking through a complete list of everything on the device.

Go to your media playback device’s photo, music, or video playback menu for a list of each available source (a device containing compatible files) on your home network. When you select a labeled source, the playback device then lists its media folders and files. Browsing files on each device should be similar to locating them on your computer.

A media server may organize items like photos by the camera used or by year. You may also browse music and movie files by categories like genre, year, or personal ratings.

The Software End of Media Servers

Media server software finds and then organizes the media on your hard drives into folders that your compatible network media playback device can find. Windows devices, for example, have built-in DLNA-compatible software.

Owners of Macs and PCs that don’t have media server software included will need to download a program to manage digital files. A range of third-party software is available, including TwonkyMedia Server, Yazsoft Playback, TVersity, Younity, and more. Some options are free, while others provide basic media sharing capabilities at no cost but may require a subscription for additional features, such as interaction with mobile devices or DVR capabilities.

Media Servers and Apps

Some smart TVs, Blu-ray players, and media streamers require apps to communicate with network-connected media servers. Sometimes the necessary apps are preinstalled, but if not, install an app like Plex or KODI to connect with your media server. Roku media streamers also have the Roku Media Player, which works with several server software platforms. 

Cloud Storage

Another type of storage that behaves like a media server is cloud storage. Instead of saving all of your files to a physical device, upload them to a cloud storage drive like Amazon Drive, Google Drive, iCloud, or Dropbox. Once they are in the cloud, you can access files from any compatible playback device anywhere in the world.

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