The hulking hard drives on today's PCs have plenty of space to store hundreds of hours of music and video, as well as thousands of photos. But let's face it, you don’t have to sit in front of your computer to listen to your favourite album or watch a movie. By tasking your PC as a media server, you can access your files on any networked device – such as a tablet, mobile phone or smart TV – without having to copy the files across first. Our Explained Guide takes you through the steps to set up a media server; read on to find out how to make the most of yours.
1. Make your TV smart
Streaming video from your PC to your TV is one of the great benefits of having a media server. But if your TV is a few years old, it might not have the technology required to connect to your home network. But don’t worry – you don't need to splash out on an expensive new telly. You might already own a connected device that can serve as the middleman between your PC and TV – an Xbox 360 will do the job, for instance. Or you could invest in a networked device such as the LG BP620 Blu-ray player that will give you all the benefits of smart TV for a fraction of the price.
This networked Blu-ray player will enable you to access all kinds of ‘smart’ features on your TV
2. TV through the net
It’s easy to watch live television through your computer – and you don’t need a TV tuner to do it. TunerFreeMCE is a program that adds itself into Windows Media Center, making it possible to stream programmes from the likes of BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD and Channel 5, via the internet. It blends seamlessly into the Windows software, so you can scroll through TV channels, search for programmes and even watch live broadcasting from some stations. Oh, and it's free.
By installing TunerFreeMCE, you can stream archived and live TV programmes on your PC, via the internet
3. Other media centres
Windows Media Center is a powerful tool for streaming your pics, videos and music. It’s free with Windows 7 and Vista, but what if you’re running Windows 8 or XP, or you want a consistent media centre experience across other platforms too? The best WMC alternative has to be XBMC: it’s free, cross-platform and customisable. Better still, it’s constantly being updated with new features and is noted for running well on less powerful computers.
4. Going mobile
With your media server running, you can now stream content to your smartphone or tablet. However, first you'll need the right app. Among many options, Plex is a neat solution for almost any platform: install the media server on your PC then download the app to your Android, iOS or Windows Phone device. While the media server is free, there is a small charge for the mobile app. If you want an app for free, try UPnPlay for Android, or Air Video for iOS.
Plex is a good choice for an all-in-one solution – offering media server software and mobile apps
5. The upgrade path
Keeping your PC in shape can make a big difference to your experience of using it as a media server. If you watch video directly on your PC, make sure it has a decent graphics card so you can watch at full resolution with no glitches. You don't need to spend a fortune, something like the Radeon HD 6670 is more than capable.
Performance can also be quickly improved by increasing your PC’s memory, a particularly worthwhile move if your system has 2GB or less. Video files, in particular, use up a lot of space, so you might need to upgrade to a bigger hard drive, or add an external one – such as the 1TB Western Digital Elements USB drive – specifically for storing large media files.
6. Improve your wireless network
Older wireless networks may struggle to keep up with the speeds required to stream high-volume media such as HD video, especially in busy urban areas with lots of interference. If you’re finding streaming glitchy, you might need to look into upgrading your router – or perhaps consider investing in a wireless range extender such as this one from Belkin.
7. Adding to your network
Don't want to leave your PC on all the time to access your files? A NAS drive is the solution. These devices are designed to run as media servers – they are simple boxes (basically stripped down PCs) that use very little power and are therefore very energy efficient. You'll get a large hard drive, giving plenty of space for all the family to store their media. The WD My Book Live is a good choice, with 3TB of space, available from PC World.
8. Select the media that's available
You can choose the content that will be streamed from your PC to certain devices. Why might you want to do this? Well, perhaps you don't want a certain computer to access 18-rated movies, or you only want to hear songs that you’ve rated at four stars or higher. Open Windows Media Player and click on the 'Stream' button. Now click 'More Streaming Options', click on the relevant device and click 'Customise'. Use the check boxes to set what media can be streamed.
9. On the move
One of the truly liberating aspects of turning your PC into a media server is that it means you can access all your media from wherever you have an internet connection. To make this a truly seamless process, you'll need some additional software: Remote Potato is well worth a look as it's reliable and free. Once this is installed and set up on your home PC, you're able to access your shared media files from any computer or mobile with an internet connection – even those outside your home network.
Not only does Media Monkey let you access your media over the wider internet, you can even schedule TV recordings remotely too
10. Finding things
Once you start accessing your files on other devices, you might find things being displayed in unexpected ways. For instance, a number of music albums showing up with the thoroughly unhelpful title 'unknown album'. This is easily fixed by changing the metadata attached to each file – there are plenty of free software programs that will do all the work for you. Try Media Monkey – the standard version will organise your media collection for free.
Organising and naming all your stuff is no fun. Get Media Monkey to do it all for you instead – for free