Entertainment Media Servers

One thing the tech industry fails at is explaining things so normal human beings can understand them. If you happen to walk into a discussion between two tech geeks, you’ll likely hear a collection of strange jargon and acronyms.

Nerd 1: The HDMI output on my media-server is having handshake issues with my 1080p screen.

Nerd 2: Does your server have a DVI out? Try that, or go with component.

Nerd 1: Want to come over to my house later? I’ve got some awesome Jedi special edition action figures.

Nerd2: Sure, let me ask my mom first.

See what I mean? This is usually the point at which you walk away from the conversation, turn on your iPod, and thank God you don’t own any action figures. Technology doesn’t have to be like that.

So, what is a media server? Well, let’s start with this simple question:

What is an iPod, and why does everyone have one?

Answer: An iPod stores music and movies and plays those movies and movies back on a cute little device that you can take everywhere you go. iPods are also very cool, trendy, and an assumed possession of any young person. (Years from now, teenagers will complain to their therapists if their parents didn’t buy them one.)

What is an entertainment media server, and why haven’t I heard of it?

Answer: An entertainment media server is kind of like an iPod that sits in your house, except it usually has more storage space, plays movies with a higher picture quality, and most of them can stream movies and music to multiple rooms of a house.

Unfortunately, that’s where the simple stops. Things get more confusing from here on out. Because it’s still an emerging technology, every media server company sets up their systems differently. Not only that, but media servers are part home appliance and part computer-and usually requires setting up a network, and the very mention of the word “network” turns most people off faster than Rosie O’Donnell on a hot day.

Still, even with all the confusion most entertainment media servers have a few basic components:

1. A network: Ethernet cables that connect everything together so they can communicate with each other. Networks need awesome things like IP addresses (IP addresses are to digital devices, as your house address is to the US postal service), a network switch (manages all the data in the network), and a modem (provides access to your Internet provider).

Networks are where most people get screwed up with media servers. Geez, does the office tech guy have to come over to my house to set up my entertainment system? And, can he bring his action figures?

2. A media server: The media server acts as the brain of the system. It’s essentially a computer designed to grab entertainment and stream it out to the right room of the house. It does this via the network-over that same Ethernet cable we talked about above.

3. A media player: This little device is what actually plays your movies and music, and shoots that information out to your TV set, or your stereo system. So, when you use your remote to play a movie, the media player talks to the media server (the brain), and the media server gets all happy because he gets to stream the movie to the media player, which shoots the appropriate video and audio signals to your TV set. And, with that, you’re entertained.

Okay, you’re wondering…why don’t media servers and media players come in one unit? Well, some do, some don’t. And not every company makes it clear what you really need.

4. Media Storage Device: This is the hard drive that stores all your digital movies and music. The media server (the brain of the system) accesses this storage device, and shoots the information to the media players, which shoot the information to your TV and stereo.

Still confused? Well, the good news is this – media servers are getting less and less confusing every year. Already, some leading companies are figuring out ways to simplify network configuration, combine media servers and media players in one unit, simplifying installations to 30 minutes or less, and lowering cost.

Within 3 years media servers will probably be something a) everybody owns, and b) everybody will be able to set up in their home without a degree in computer science or a collection of Star Wars action figures.

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