How do I set up a media server to share photos with phones and tablets?

Noriko’s family has a mix of different laptops, phones and tablets and she’d like to set up a system to share media around the house.

I would like to have all my music, video and pictures on one large, central hard drive, and then wirelessly access/play back this media from a variety of devices. I would also like the central hard drive to receive downloads and back up to another hard drive on a nightly schedule without me needing to do anything.

We have two MacBooks and a Ubuntu laptop, two Android phones, two Android tablets and an iPad. This may change as, for example, I might replace one of the MacBooks with a Windows 7 or Windows 8 laptop, so I want a non-proprietary set up that won’t force me into buying one OS or hardware for years to come. If there is a good solution that doesn’t support the Ubuntu laptop, I could live with that, as it’s my oldest PC.

I’m somewhat computer literate, but by no means an expert, and the husband and others who will also use this are less so. Noriko There are a lot of different combinations of hardware and software that will do what you want. Look at some of the free programs and pick whichever you think will best meet your needs.

The basic idea is simple. You start with a server, which will have a processor, memory, operating system, and one or more large hard drives to store all your media files. The server runs whichever media streaming software you choose. Finally, each of your devices – the clients in your client/server system – runs a separate program to display whatever the server sends its way.

All the components could be developed by a single company, which is basically what Apple did with Airplay. (There are non-Apple devices that support Airplay but they are licensed by Apple.) Alternatively, all the components could work to common standards, usually UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) and DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance). The standards should mean that all the bits work together correctly, but they don’t always. Still, if you want a non-proprietary solution, almost everyone except Apple supports DLNA.

Picking a server

Your server could be a PC or a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device, and will be on all the time. Intel-based PCs are usually more powerful and more versatile, and include graphics cards and HDMI ports, but they may be bigger, noisier and more expensive. NAS boxes often have slower ARM processors and either two or four empty drive bays, but they often come with media server software, because streaming is a common requirement.

If you already had a PC running (say) Ubuntu or Microsoft Windows 7, you could use that as your media server. Because you don’t, it’s worth considering a PC instead of a NAS. This includes “home theatre PCs” that people typically plug directly into their main TV set, and use to stream media to other devices. PCs can transcode files, stream movies from services such as Netflix -- in principle, they can do anything you can do with a Roku or Apple TV-type device -- download things from the net and perform other tasks.

Transcoding is important if you use small devices such as smartphones. For example, if you have a full high-definition movie on the server, it may have to be transcoded to a smaller size or even a different format to suit the client display. A low-power server or NAS may stutter when doing that, especially if it’s serving several streams at once.

For more information about NAS boxes, please see my earlier answer onWhich NAS should I buy to store files? I usually recommend Synology and QNAP, even though they are not the cheapest. For media serving, QNAP may have the edge.

Media centre software

There are lots of programs that will make your PC or NAS work as a media server. Almost all run on PCs, some run on NAS servers, and a few also run on games consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox 360 and/or Sony PlayStation 3. At the moment, Plex seems to be the most highly regarded. The main alternatives include XBMC, Universal Media Server,PS3 Media Server, and Serviio. All of these run on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X.

Wikipedia has a useful List UPnP AV media servers and clients, and a somewhat confusing comparison table of UPnP AV media servers. You may find that UMS’s simpler table is better for your purposes, bearing in mind that it’s promoting Universal Media Server.

If you take the PC route with Microsoft, Windows 7 already has a DNLA/UPnP media server built in. Microsoft explained its development, and has a guide to setting it up. Nonetheless, lots of Windows 7 users install Plex, XBMC and other programs instead of using Windows Media Player. (Microsoft dropped the Windows Media Center from Windows 8, though it’s still sold as part of the Windows 8.1 Pro Pack upgrade.)

Use one of your laptops to have a look at Plex, XBMC or UMS and anything else you fancy to see which you prefer. Plex is a proprietary program whereas XBMC and Universal Media Server are free/open source (GPL) software.

You will have a smaller choice of software if you choose a NAS. Synology DiskStations support DNLA/UPnP as standard and many of its NAS servers can run Plex. QNAP’s NAS boxes also include Twonky Media Server and can run Plex, XBMC and the BubbleUPnP “music cloud” app, among others. It offers Qfile mobile apps for Apple’s iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8.

Streaming clients

Any player that supports UPnP should be able to play streams from your media server, and that includes the widely supported, open source VLCmedia player.

There are two ways to approach client programs: either you could hunt down the best UPnP app for each of your devices, or you could use the same software on each device. That’s where Plex may have an advantage. It has mobile apps for Android, iOS and Windows, Plex Home Theatre for Windows, and apps for Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Google TV, and Samsung Smart TVs. There isn’t an app for Ubuntu, but the server version of Plex includes the Plex Web App, which includes a player. I assume you can use this as a client for a Plex server running on a different machine -- please post a correction below if I’m wrong!

Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t have two or more UPnP client programs on each device. Sometimes you may need to find a different program to handle a particular need, such as displaying subtitles.

Other matters

Whether you decide on a PC or a NAS, it should take at least two 3TB drives. If you don’t need 6TB, you could leave one bay empty or use it to back up the other drive. Alternatively, you could use one or more external 3TB USB hard drive(s) to take back-ups, which is what I do withFreeFileSync. Keep the second drive in a different place and only plug it in once a week to back up your back-up.

A PC running Ubuntu or Windows will obviously be able to download and save or stream files from the net. If buying a NAS, check that it will be able to do what you need. They can all do back-ups and almost all of them can stream media, but some may not be able to handle certain downloads or streaming services.

Plex has a Quick-Start: Step by Step guide to setting up a media server for the first time. Even if you don’t like Plex, the text and short video will give you a good idea of what you need to do.

The guardian.com


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