Media Servers – Where Are We Now, Where Are We Going? Highlights
Now that computer parts have become inexpensive commodities and residential Internet service is now fast enough to stream high-def video, it’s possible for even the not-so-wealthy to add a media server to their AV system. Whether you build it yourself or buy a plug-and-play solution; the extra convenience and ease-of-use of today’s server products has become a “How did I ever watch movies before I had this?” proposition. Let’s take a look at what’s out there now and what might be coming down the road.
Media Servers – Where Are We Now, Where Are We Going? Highlight Summary
- Media servers make it possible to store thousands of CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs on an inexpensive drive array no bigger than a shoebox.
- Software products like AnyDVD allow you to legally rip media you already own into more convenient formats to be viewed at home or on the road.
- A server with a good user interface can change the way you watch movies and listen to music.
- It’s now possible to build your own server using inexpensive off-the-shelf parts and a little elbow grease.
Introduction to Media Servers – Where Are We Now, Where Are We Going?
I remember a conversation I had with a musician colleague about four years ago where I asked if he was planning to buy a Blu-ray player for his home theater. His answer sparked a friendly debate between us. He asserted that physical media was on the way out and that before long; we’d simply stream all that high-def content straight from the Internet.
Well it’s 2014 and I think it’s safe to say physical media is not dead just yet. But we have come a ways toward eliminating the need for stacks of discs. I’m talking of course about the media server.
It’s fantastic that we no longer have to deal with things like magnetic tape or vinyl records. Well, some prefer to spin the platter and records are definitely enjoying a renaissance but… There’s nothing quite as convenient as the optical disc. Or is there? The side effect of turning our music and video into a digital format is that we now have another way to deliver it to our eyes and ears, stream it right to the source.
There are two major ways to do this, and we’ll discuss both here today – servers and streamers.
A server in its simplest form is nothing more than a digital storage locker. Your content is copied to some type of hard disk or solid state drive. Or it can come in the form of plug in components like thumb drives or SD cards. The point is your content exists locally; as in it occupies the same space as the rest of your system. It becomes a replacement for optical discs so you don’t have to devote square footage to the storage (or display) of hundreds or thousands of little boxes. The whole idea is to save physical space and eliminate the need to put a disc in your player every time you want to watch or listen to something.
A streamer on the other hand is a conduit to content that is stored somewhere else. Thanks to ever-increasing Internet speeds, it is now possible to stream music and high-definition video into your home with quality approaching that of physical media. This method takes up even less space because you don’t need that hard disk or transport component. You simply select your content and the great & wonderful Internet delivers it to you.
We’ll look at examples of both kinds of devices today along with a few tips on how to create your own media server with commonly available hardware and software. If you’re wondering about the legal issues involved, I’ll cover that too. First up though, we need to cover a little terminology that once understood, will help you choose a product that fits your needs.
Glossary Of Popular Terms
Most AV enthusiasts have little trouble deciphering the specifications of an audio component. Things like watts or frequency response are universally understood. When you’re trying to figure out if a media server product is right for you however, the alphabet soup can get pretty murky. Here is a little glossary that should help clear up the broth.
AirPlay is something that’s being added to more and more network-capable devices, and it’s the one of the reasons I’ve stuck with Apple Lossless and iTunes for my digital media library. I recently reviewed NAD’s VISO 1 AP Music System and found its AirPlay functionality to be a super-easy way to stream my iTunes content. All you have to do is connect an AirPlay-compatible device to your WiFi network, make sure iTunes is running on your computer, and voila, you can access your entire library using an iOS device. In my case, I simply select the VISO as my AirPlay source and then call up the tracks with the iPhone’s music app. And I can do the very same thing with my AppleTV.
Lots of AV receivers and other portable audio boxes include AirPlay. There is probably no cheaper way to create a server than to use AirPlay along with the computer you already have. Just add an AppleTV to your system and that entire library becomes accessible.
Bluetooth began as a way for headsets and cellphones to connect wirelessly using a low-current radio signal. When cellphones became smartphones, people wanted to be able to stream their music using the same method. Since we’re already wearing that headset everywhere, why not listen to music when we’re not gabbing? Bluetooth has now migrated to the infotainment systems in automobiles. It can be used to stream the music on your phone or portable player directly to your car’s audio system. The aforementioned VISO 1 AP I reviewed will accept music via Bluetooth as well.
There are two downsides to using Bluetooth; the first being that it’s a compressed format. If you’re already listening to a compressed file; and if your music was purchased from iTunes, you certainly are; Bluetooth will not do the audio quality any favors. The second issue is its limited range. Remember it was designed for personal headsets, not streaming audio around your house. The source and player have to be within 10 meters of each other to avoid dropouts.
Codec, short for coder-decoder, refers to the way content is actually digitized for storage on a particular type of media, optical disc, hard disk, thumb drive, etc. No matter what type is used, it nearly always involves some form of compression. There are audio codecs like MP3, AAC, WAV, FLAC, and many more. Codecs like FLAC and WAV don’t use any compression. They encode an audio stream bit-for-bit so it is identical to the original. Video codecs like MPEG-4 AVC or VC-1 always employ compression because of the sheer amount of information contained in a video stream. Yes, even though Blu-ray supports the highest bitrate of any portable video storage medium, it’s still a compressed format. The audio streams are uncompressed but the video always is to some degree.
When looking at server products, the codecs you’ll most need for audio are DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD. If they are included in the feature list, you can be sure all the lesser codecs are too. For video, you’ll want MP4-AVC and VC-1 which are the two most commonly seen on Blu-ray discs. There are also a large number of computer formats like QuickTime, AVI, and WMV. If you’re main goal is to rip Blu-rays and DVDs, you won’t need to worry too much about these. For Internet-sourced content however, you will need them.
DLNA stands for Digital Living Network Alliance. It’s an organization of companies, led by Sony, who have worked together to create a standard by which content can be accessed and shared by all compliant products. There are nearly 20,000 components certified DLNA-compliant and all of them can access and play a specific set of video and audio file formats and codecs. If you buy a DLNA device, it is guaranteed to work properly with any other DLNA product.
The most notable exception in the DLNA list of supporting companies is Apple. There are third-party solutions that will let you play DLNA content through iTunes and iOS devices but they lack any kind of support from Apple. We’ll talk more in depth about iTunes and Apple’s take on media servers but the bottom line is DLNA and Apple are not always friendly when it comes to interoperability.
File Format – File formats and codecs go more or less hand-in-hand. When you’re checking out the specs for a particular media server or streamer, the file format compatibility list is the most important consideration. Unless you haven’t committed to any particular formats yet, you’ll need to be sure that slick new box will actually play your media.
I’ll use myself as an example. I have a large collection of CDs which I’ve ripped to Apple Lossless format. Why did I do this? So I could play songs on my iPod. The only lossless format available to iPod users is Apple Lossless. Yes, FLAC is compatible with more devices (the F in FLAC stands for free). But FLAC won’t work on an iPod; never has, never will. Now that I’m faced with either re-ripping a couple hundred CDs or using Apple-friendly products, I’ve chosen the latter.
HDMI or High Definition Multimedia Interface is familiar, sometimes painfully so, to all AV enthusiasts. I’m including it here more as a “where is it now” info-byte rather than to rehash old information. The current version is 2.0 and was released on September 4th of 2013. That means very few products currently include it. The big added feature is support for extended resolutions and transmission rates of up to 18 Gigabits-per-second. With 4K displays starting to penetrate the market, the old 1.4a spec can’t handle 2160p at refresh rates over 30 Hz. This is OK for films mastered at 24p but 60p video can only be passed at a bit depth of 4:2:0 which is a significant reduction in color resolution from the full RGB signal that comes from many Blu-ray players. Other additions include support for up to 32 discrete audio channels, sampling rates as high as 1536 kHZ, dual video streams, support for the 21:9 cinemascope aspect ratio, dynamic synchronization of audio and video, and extensions to the HDMI CEC control standard.
If you buy an Ultra HD TV today with HDMI 1.4, don’t fret. HDMI 2.0 sources are few and far between. And 2160p/60 content is probably years away from being sold on Amazon. 4K movies are only coming from servers or exotic boxes like the Redray player. They’re being delivered at 24p which still works over HDMI 1.4. If you simply must have HDMI 2.0, I recommend a little patience.
NAS or Network Attached Storage is a term most commonly applied to a multiple hard disk array that is connected via a local area network (LAN) rather than a traditional data interface like eSATA or USB. The storage device becomes a network component with its own IP address and can therefore be shared by multiple clients like your laptop, streaming device, desktop computer, and/or any boxes in your AV system like a network-enabled receiver or Blu-ray player. This approach to storage allows tremendous flexibility because it can be any size and you can easily add storage as your media collection grows. And NAS components are relatively inexpensive.
We’ll continue our discussion of media servers now by talking about some actual products.
Mainstream Products You Can Buy Right Now
Hopefully the background information I’ve laid down has made this subject a little more clear. Now let’s take a look at some actual products. Several of them have been reviewed here at Secrets.
How many of you have dreamed of ripping your entire DVD and Blu-ray library to a slim box like the one pictured above? We can do the same thing with audio CDs right? Why not movies too? Well you can easily and conveniently with a Kaleidescape Movie Server. We just reviewed one of their new Cinema One boxes a few months ago. If you want the absolute coolest way to watch movies in your home, there is nothing better. The catch? It starts at $4000.
Yeah, I know, they used to be $17,000 so this is major breakthrough right? I got to play with one of these at CEDIA last year and I must say after a few minutes, I stopped thinking about the price because it was so much fun to use. The big draw here is the superb interface and the fact that once stored, your movies play without any pesky FBI warnings or ads beforehand. You can do all sorts of amazing things like store bookmarks that skip to specific points in a film. Can you think of a better way to demo your home theater?
Besides that rather large price tag there are a few other things you should know. First off is that movies take up a lot of room on a hard disk. The Cinema One comes with 4 terabytes of storage which is enough for around 100 Blu-rays or 600 DVDs. My library is around the 500-mark, Blu-rays that is. I’d need $20,000 worth of these things just to store what I own today.
The second obstacle is a legal one. In order to avoid running afoul of Hollywood, Kaleidescape requires that the actual disc be present when playing a movie. You can slip it into the slot on the front or you can add one of Kaleidescape’s carousel changers for an additional $5500. Alternately, Kaleidescape will sell you a digital copy of your film for $6. Let’s see, my collection would cost me $3000 to store on top of the $4000 I spent on the Cinema One.
Don’t get me wrong, Kaleidescape makes a fantastic product with the best user interface in the business. But it’s price is out of reach for the typical enthusiast.
There are cheaper alternatives to the $5000 Olive 6HD but none will appeal to audiophiles quite like this one. I understand many enthusiasts have created servers on their laptops and they simply run them through a high-quality DAC but I’m talking about turnkey products here. An Olive music server, once loaded with music, becomes a typical audio component that can be run through a DAC or connected directly to your preamp.
Like the Kaleidescape, this is a luxury component. It’s meant to operate at a high level of quality with minimal fuss. Once populated with content, it’s a breeze to call up whatever you want to listen to from your smartphone, tablet, or the nifty built-in touchscreen.
There are other products like Olive or Kaleidescape but for those of us on a more modest budget, there are solutions that can work just as well if you’re willing to accept a few compromises. I’m talking about pure streamers.
Even though this article has the term server in the title, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about streaming devices. This is the category that is growing at an explosive rate with dozens of “me too” products appearing almost weekly. There are a few major players here worth discussing.
This unassuming box is a little larger than a hockey puck and its remote is equally petite. The whole thing will easily fit in your hand but it packs a ton of functionality into that diminutive package. I reviewed the Apple TV back in 2011. That was the second-gen product and all that’s been added to it since then is support for Bluetooth and 1080p.
The first-gen Apple TV had an internal hard disk but now it has only 8 gigs of RAM to buffer streams as they download. Aside from all the usual services like Netflix, it will access all your iTunes content through Home Sharing. You can use it to stream music or video so anything you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store can be played on your TV and/or audio system. It also acts as an AirPlay device so you can play music on it without turning on your display by using the music app on your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad.
I’ve always seen the Apple TV as a poor-man’s media server because it’s only 99 bucks. It unifies all online services into a single interface, so Netflix looks like iTunes and shares all the same search and organizational functions. If you don’t mind ripping your music to Apple Lossless format and restricting your video downloads to the iTunes Store, this streamer makes an excellent addition to the rack. I’ve used mine almost every day for the last three years.
Roku first appeared in 2008 as a Netflix streaming box. Now in its third generation it is just as hardware-capable as Apple TV and offers several services that Apple doesn’t. If you’re just looking for Netflix, many devices support it but if you also want 50 premium feeds plus over 100 free ones, look no further.
There are currently three different models available including the stick version shown above. This one plugs into any HDMI port and costs a mere 50 bucks. The top of the line box is $100 and has a wireless headphone feature where you can plug your earbuds or cans right into the remote.
The one thing that might sway you back to the Apple TV is its ability to stream locally-stored iTunes libraries. Roku can only stream content from its built-in Internet channels. Still, if you’re looking to cut the cable/satellite cord, Roku delivers a whole lot of content for very little money.
Not to be outdone, Google has come out with its own streaming stick for a very low $35. It works similarly to Roku but integrates with your computer, smartphones, and tablets to provide seamless browsing and access to Internet content. Users who were burned by their first attempt at streaming, Google TV, will be pleasantly surprised to see that there is no blocked content this time! If you want to play locally stored content, you can after installing an app on your PC. It’s not as fully integrated as Apple TV and iTunes but it does take that step beyond Roku by providing basic server functions.
As you can imagine, there are many more products I could talk about here. I tried to hit the major ones. For now though, I’ll move on to some information for those who would like to build their own movie server.
Build Your Own Server? It’s Easier Than You Might Think
If you would like to have the experience of an Olive or Kaleidescape server without spending the price of a used Honda Civic, there are ways to build your own component and have a decent interface to access your media library. I’m talking about a Home Theater PC.
OK, that term is a little dated because first, it can be a Mac Mini or a Linux box or some other non-Windows machine, and second, there’s a connotation to the term “Home Theater PC” that conjures up visions of hapless entertainment-seekers sitting in frustration while their expensive power-hungry computer tower reboots/freezes/slows-to-a-crawl/goes-out-for-a-smoke; all while whining away with its six high-speed cooling fans turning your noise floor into something akin to a New York subway station at rush hour.
With modern current-sipping components and quietly-cooled cases, today’s homebrew media servers are far superior to even the commercially-built products of just a few years ago. And you don’t even have to have the computer in your living room or theater any more. Here are the three major components you’ll need to build your own home media server.
- A PC or Mac computer with plenty of storage. This is where NAS can really help. There isn’t really any size limit which is good because you’ll need to allocate 30-50 GB per Blu-ray or 5-9 GB per DVD.
- A fast home network. WiFi is great and 802.11n is quick but nothing will beat a properly-installed hardwired connection. You can buy 1000 feet of Cat6 cable and all the tools required to run your own wiring for around $250.
- A component to receive and display the content. Or you can hook the computer right up to your TV since most computers now have an HDMI output.
About that last step; remember DLNA from the Glossary page? A lot of TVs, AV receivers, and Blu-ray players are DLNA-compliant which means they can access the content on your server and send it along to your display with ease. Will the interface be as slick as Kaleidescape’s? No, probably not even close. But it won’t cost $4000 either.
So that’s a very simplified rundown of what you need to create a media server in your home but there is still one burning question – how do you rip your DVD and Blu-ray collection so you can store it on that shiny new NAS?
Thanks to various legal issues which I’ll talk about on the next page, the software choices available to rip DVDs and Blu-rays are fairly limited. But one product stands out from a lot of others that might be more at home in a hacker’s basement. It’s called AnyDVD.
AnyDVD has been around for some time both in standard- and high-def versions. Its main function is to remove the copy protection from CDs, DVDs, HD-DVDs, and Blu-ray discs so they can be copied to a computer’s hard disk. It also removes the region coding from Blu-ray discs.
AnyDVD functions as a driver layer between your discs and your computer’s hard drive. When you insert a Blu-ray or other optical disc, it can create an exact image or you can go into the advanced options and remove the ads, trailers, and warnings that precede the main feature. You can even strip out the foreign-language sound tracks and bonus features to save space.
AnyDVD and its accompanying utilities come from a company called SlySoft which is based in the West Indies. The current price for an AnyDVD bundle which includes everything you need to rip Blu-rays and other optical formats is 59.25 Euros or around $80 at current exchange rates.
So the only choice left is what to use as a bridge between your server and your display. It boils down to what file formats you’ve decided to use. Before we descend into a chicken-and-egg discussion, here’s my best advice. Find the component with the best interface and rip your media to formats supported by that device.
After reviewing a couple of bridge components (Apple TV and Nixeus Fusion), and working hands-on with many others, I’ve come the conclusion that it’s the software, not the hardware, that sets products apart. Granted, something like the Apple TV, which has the best interface out there, is not going to be suitable for playing ripped files from a computer server unless you have a way to work with its limited file format capabilities.
Like I said, this is a very simplified rundown of what you need to create a media server in your home. The hardware and technology are out there but it will require a little trial and error to create a system that works for you.
The Legal Issues
We’ve established that a media server is a great way to store the contents of thousands of optical discs on a hard disk array the size of a shoebox. It’s also great to be able to flip through everything on your TV screen while sitting on the couch rather than looking through endless shelves full of discs in colorful boxes. And who doesn’t want to rid themselves of the trailers, warnings, and advertisements that increase the loading times of every DVD and Blu-ray?
Unfortunately, Hollywood has a few concerns with everything we’ve talked about so far. While they’re happy to sell you discs all day long, they want to control everything you do with that disc. In my opinion, if they had their way, the movie studios would be collecting a fee every time you watch that disc.
Here is one big tip that will prevent you from breaking copyright laws outright – only rip media you already own. Products like AnyDVD do make it possible to copy rental discs, or your friends’ discs for that matter. But it should not be used as a cheap way to bulk up your movie library. Try to think about how much you’d spend to see a movie at the theater. There’s the cost of tickets, gas to get to the 50-Plex, $15 for popcorn and bubbly sugar-filled beverages, and maybe even parking fees. Suddenly, $19.95 to buy the same title online and have it delivered to your door so you can watch it on a likely superior AV system in your living room doesn’t seem so bad. And you can watch it again as many times as you like!
Ok, I’m off my piracy soapbox. If you’ve spent any time researching movie servers you’ve likely come across news about the various lawsuits brought against companies like SlySoft and Kaleidescape. The debate revolves around the End-User License Agreement (EULA). While this term is more often associated with software, it applies to media too because it is essentially, software.
When you buy a piece of software, you own it right? Wrong. The only thing you actually own in the eyes of the law is the physical media; the disc and the packaging. The contents of the disc, the “software”, remain the property of the movie studio. As such, the use of the software is not completely under your control. Therefore any actions that remove copy protection or re-engineer the content are in violation of the EULA. And copying even an image file from a Blu-ray to a computer hard drive constitutes re-engineering.
Here’s a great example. When Kaleidescape first made their DVD server products, they were sued immediately because there was no requirement for the disc to actually be present when playing back content. They stayed ahead of Hollywood for a time actually winning in court until adding Blu-ray capability to their servers. That was the lawsuit they lost and now you have a couple of additional hurdles to clear when using a Kaleidescape server. You must either put the disc physically in the unit, or a connected jukebox, or purchase a digital copy of the film from their online store. That’s right – in addition to the 20 or 30 bucks you paid for the Blu-ray, you also have to fork over $6 to Kaleidescape to actually access it from your server if you want to truly put that disc in permanent storage.
You’ll hear the phrase “personal use” a lot in news stories and the legal-speak surrounding copyright laws. That is the mantra to follow when navigating the troubled waters of what you can and can’t do with media you’ve purchased. If you plan to buy or build a movie server, great; just make sure you pay for all the content you plan to add.
Summary – What You Can Do Right Now, and Where Are We Headed?
Hopefully that last page didn’t frighten you away from the idea of a media server. There is nothing like the convenience of playing back content from a server and leaving your optical discs packed away in the attic. Even though I can’t possibly afford a Kaleidescape, I want one! Their interface is very addictive and once I tried it, I could see that it was a whole new way to enjoy movies and TV shows.
Of course, millions of people are imitating that experience right now and for very little money by using streaming devices. If you have a fast Internet connection, and can live with reduced sound and image quality, you can browse through almost endless choices thanks to services like Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes.
The technology available right now is fairly diverse. We have high-end products that only need to be hooked-up and filled with content like Kaleidescape and Olive. If you want to build your own server, there are plenty of choices there too. It’ll require a good deal more work but with patience, you can come close to replicating the experience and convenience of the expensive stuff.
Then there are the streamers. While not really servers, they provide access to vast amounts of content for relatively little money. For $99 and $8 a month, you can get a Roku or Apple TV and likely never reach the end of Netfix’s vast library of titles. Their quality is constantly improving and later this year, they’ve even promised 4K streaming! Don’t get too excited about that. With a maximum bitrate of 15 Mbps, it won’t even match Blu-ray quality. But it’s a start.
What’s down the road? I can only speculate but it seems to me that with ever-climbing Internet speeds and a general exodus away from traditional cable and satellite broadcast TV, streaming is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s living room. While I’m not ready to say physical media is on the way out, I think Hollywood would like it to be.
On the positive side, prices for DVD and Blu-ray titles have stabilized at a reasonable level. You can buy a DVD for far less than a night at the cinema and even a Blu-ray is cheaper when more than two people watch the film. Given that, it makes sense to move up to a server. For a moderate investment of time and funds, you can build your own box and put those discs away. If you want a plug-and-play solution, be prepared to spend quite a bit more.
I imagine most of you reading this already have a sizable disc collection and you’ve added streaming capabilities to your AV system with something like Apple TV or Roku. If you’re ready to take the next step to even greater convenience, a media server deserves your serious consideration.