Entertainment at home is an ever-evolving field. From VHS, to DVD and Blu-ray, the medium always changes. With a media player, you don't need to worry about a physical medium. Instead, you can easily appreciate the beauty and convenience of streaming video and music into your living room. Services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora and Hulu Plus bring instant entertainment to your whole family without the hassle of maintaining a physical library of content.
The best media players don't simply stream entertainment into your home – they also allow you to organize and access your own media library using the same interface. You can watch home movies, listen to music and view photos from a compatible computer, smartphone, eReader or other device.
Many digital media servers, such as the Sony PlayStation, have internal storage so you can download and save content onto the unit's hard drive to access anytime you want. The PlayStation also allows for hard drive expansion, so you'll never run out of space.
Home media servers function as the hub of your digital entertainment world, giving you the ability to pull up a piece of entertainment in seconds from various digital sources. Want to catch up on your favorite show? Want to rent the latest blockbuster movie? Most home media servers give you the capability to do that quickly.
Many media streamers come with user-friendly interfaces or a remote that has a QWERTY keypad, which makes finding the content you're looking for quick and easy. You don't want to waste time or energy fighting non-user-friendly software, so it's an important consideration.
You can also use these multi-functional media devices for video sharing from YouTube, streaming music from Pandora and Spotify or sharing photos from your family vacation via Flickr and Facebook on your HDTV. For more information and details about these and other devices, check out our other articles on home media servers.
Best Internet Content Options
Look for a device that can access videos, music and photos through websites such as YouTube, Pandora, Netflix, Flickr and others. You will have access to a wide array of online content through each device's main menu and additional apps are often available through online stores.
However, not every home media player supports every online service. Make sure the services you prefer are compatible with the server you have in mind. With the help of a home media server, online content can look and sound fantastic on your home entertainment center.
The maximum benefits of the Apple TV will be reserved for people who own other Apple devices, but anyone can benefit from owning this quality home media server. With great video and sound quality, an easy-to-navigate user interface and access to the iTunes Store, it's hard to go wrong.
Best Personal Media Playing Options
Several media players let you play back home movies, music and photos you already have stored on your computer. Some allow you to mirror your content from a smartphone or tablet and play it on your TV. Others can connect to USB drives and access content. You will want to select the device that best meets your needs when it comes to accessing your personal files.
Generally, the more options you have, the better. Sometimes the quickest way to watch something is to pull out your smartphone and mirror it on your TV. Other times, you may need to connect to your computer's storage to access your favorite, but obscure, movie.
Setting up a proper home media server can be difficult, but these devices make it easier. Each comes with its own media server software, meaning you don't have to get very technical to get everything running. Usually, you connect the media server to your computer, set it to your media library and let it go from there. However, devices vary, so you will want to ask the retailer or check the instructions about how you set the device to access your files.
The Xbox is a capable gaming console and home media server. It provides great TV integration but, like the PlayStation, has taken a step back in terms of playing local media. It is equipped to be the control center of your living room entertainment center by integrating live TV, internet content, and DVD and Blu-ray media. It can't, however, play CDs or music from a USB stick or MP3 player.
Most Entertainment Access Options
The best home media servers allow you to purchase or rent movies or TV shows. If the media player is attached to a dedicated online shop, it's generally very easy to purchase digital entertainment to play through your home server. Some of these devices also have access to music you can purchase. You can stream this content or download it to the server's hard drive.
Some media players serve more than one purpose. For example, consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox are primarily gaming devices, but they are also excellent media players. You can set them up to be the hub of your home's entertainment system. These consoles come with all the internal storage you need to download and save content to consoles' hard drives.
The Roku is a capable home media server for watching movies from your Netflix queue. Despite the fact it isn't equipped out of the box to directly play back your personal media (movies, music and photos), it has considerable strengths. The Roku is a great home media server for streaming Netflix and other internet content.
Home Media Servers: What Else to Look For
Most home media players allow you to access movies on Netflix, music on Pandora or view videos on YouTube. Additionally, many allow you to rent movies or television episodes through dedicated online stores such as the Apple Store, Google Play or the PlayStation Store. Some can also be networked with your personal computer to play your personal digital media through your home entertainment center.
Some media players are better suited for specific tasks than others. If you're mostly interested in streaming online content, look for a player with a vast selection of apps. However, if you already own a large digital media library, you'd be well served by a home media server that can access content from your computer's hard drive.
The best home media server will be different for everybody, because everyone's preferences vary. There's a wide variety of products to choose from. However, there are some general features and issues to look for, explained in depth below.
Video & Sound Quality
It is important to know what kind of video and sound quality the player can support. At the very least, the player should support standard definition (SD) quality, although that's quickly becoming unbearable in our high definition (HD)-centric world. HD compatibility is important if you plan to play content on an HDTV.
Look for a resolution of 720p or 1080p, depending on what your TV supports. Most units now support 1080p, but 720p is excellent video quality. 4K resolution is gaining traction and should also be a consideration.
Audio should be stereo surround sound and have a high bit rate. After all, audio often comprise a large part of any movie or TV show. And you'll want to hear your song playlists at the highest-possible fidelity. As media player technology advances, the quality of the streaming will continue to improve, and you'll want a device that supports the best video and sound quality available.
Help & Support
Setting up your home media streamer is generally quite simple, but if there's a problem, or if you have questions about ways to get the most out of the device you've chosen, the type of tech support available to you is important. Look for manufacturers that offer multiple support options, including phone and email support, live chat, user forums, FAQs or a knowledgebase, and a user manual.
Once a home media server is connected to your entertainment center, you can access a whole new dimension of home entertainment. Imagine streaming the latest movies right to your television, accessing photos from last summer's beach vacation on your HDTV or listening to your own music playlists through a surround sound system. With a home media server, your possibilities are nearly endless.
Don't need a full media player? You can still access online movies and music through simple streaming devices like the Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV Stick. There's not much to these devices – a power port and an HDMI connection. Just plug one into an HDMI port on your TV, and you're most of the way there to digitally streaming Netflix to your TV.
Initial setup of these devices is easy. Just connect them to your home's Wi-Fi. Then connect your smartphone, tablet or computer to the streaming device, pick the content you want to experience, and it will play on your TV. Pretty slick.
There is a host of streaming sticks to choose from, including one from Roku, but there are others. All of them are relatively inexpensive, providing you with a low-cost entry into digital streaming. These are a solution if you don't have a smart TV but still want access to Netflix, Hulu or other streaming services on your big screen.
Some of these streaming devices have access to online stores, allowing you to rent or buy entertainment. But a few of them are very simple and only act as a way to connect your smarter devices to your TV.
Once a home media server is connected to your entertainment center, you can access a whole new dimension of home entertainment. Be sure to read each of the featured products in our buying guide to help you find the home media server best suited for your purposes and needs.