Media Streaming over Wi-Fi

24 March 2007 No Comment

Streaming media over Wi-Fi

Here’s the scenario: you have your tunes and films on your PC, and you’d like to listen to them on your Hi-Fi, home cinema system, or watch them on your HD-TV. Simple – just stream them from your PC to the gadget of your choice using your Wi-Fi connection. No wires, no unsightly cabling, and your media can be streamed all across your house.

Of course, things are never that easy, and there are a variety of different ways you can achieve this:

  • Dedicated media streamer/receiver
  • HD-TV or Hi-Fi with Wi-Fi
  • Media Streaming Set-Top Box
  • Media Center PC

Dedicated media streamer/receiver

This is a box of varying complexity that you plug into your Hi-Fi, HD-TV, and/or home cinema set-up with real wires. Once connected, it’ll connect to your PC wirelessly and stream your media on demand. This enables your usually-ugly PC to be in another room away from your classy-looking home-cinema set-up, and ensures you get crystal quality sound and vision (depending on the quality of your Hi-Fi and HD-TV of course).

Some media streamers are simple affairs, acting almost like basic Wi-Fi/HDMI adaptors, converting the data coming over Wi-Fi from your PC (i.e. your tunes or video) into the signals needed for your HD-TV. Others are more complex, offering Personal Video Recorder (PVR) functionality (e.g. save your media onto the streamer’s internal hard-drive), their own DVD players, or even complete gaming systems (both the XBox 360 and Playstation 3 will stream your PC’s media in this way, effectively making them media streamers in their own right).

Some even offer the ability to download torrent files directly from the Internet without you having to switch on your PC, or even stream YouTube video clips directly from YouTube and onto your HD-TV (again without your PC being involved).

Of course, how usable these media streamers are will depend on the remote control and user interface of the device. You should also check out what media formats are supported. The most popular Music formats include Microsoft’s WMA, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, and WAV (PCM), while video format codecs to look out for include Microsoft’s WMV, DivX (and it’s open source equivalent, Xvid), MPEG, Real Network’s RealVideo, and Apple’s QuickTime. If your media streamer doesn’t understand the format in which your media is encoded, it won’t be able to stream your media, and you’ll be left with an expensive and rather unfunctional ornament!

HD-TV or Hi-Fi with Wi-Fi

Some newer HD-TVs and Hi-Fis are now shipping with Wi-Fi receivers built in, enabling you to stream media from your PC wirelessly without buying a separate media streamer. Samsung’s HP-T5894W HD-TV, for example, has Wi-Fi built-in, and will stream video from your PC out fo the box, while the Philips Streamium range of Hi-Fi will stream your tunes from your PC and play them all around the house.

This is an increasingly-popular trend, as more and more of a PC’s core functionality (large storage, processing power and networking) is finding its way into our home entertainment systems.

The benefits of these types of system are the ease with which you can stream your media, the fact that you don’t need yet another ugly set top box (i.e. the media streamer) in between your PC and HD-TV or Hi-Fi, and the sheer coolness of having an HD-TV set with its own Wi-Fi receiver built in!

The downside, apart form cost, is that you’re reliant on that device for streaming only one particular type of media. A Wi-Fi HD-TV, for example, can’t stream music to your Hi-Fi, and vice-versa with a Wi-Fi Hi-Fi. Equally, if you buy a new HD-TV or Hi-Fi, you’ll need to ensure it too comes with Wi-Fi, else you’ll have to forego your media streaming capabilities.

Streaming Set-Top box

Last, but by no means least, comes the streaming Set-Top-Box (STB). These combine the features of a traditional STB (either Freeview, cable or satellite receivers, or maybe PVR features as well) with a Wi-Fi connection for media streaming. The idea behind these boxes is that you can stream your media without having to have two STBs.

Media Center PC

Finally, some newer PCs are designed as complete home entertainment systems in their own right, rather than office machines. Such Media Center PCs or Home Theatre PCs (HTPC), as they’re known, feature inputs and outputs for directly connecting to your Hi-Fi and HD-TV, as well as software for controlling the media they store. As such, they’re designed to plug directly into your HD-TV and Hi-Fi, or in some cases are actually built-into an HD-TV, and so don’t require Wi-Fi to stream your media. These PCs are the ultimate in home entertainment/PC integration, and could represent the future for all TVs.

The media controlling software that comes with these Media Center PCs is either a dedicated application, such as the great-sounding TwonkyMedia, or more usually Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center or Vista, both of which feature full media control software, providing you with the ability to organize, manage and play your tunes and videos.

These systems tend to be expensive, though, and although they look good, being designed to fit in with your existing home entertainment system (think Hi-Fi separates), they’re not always so great if you want to expand or upgrade them.

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