Need two computers to stream

Everything you need for a streaming server

Hermann Apfelböck

Fritzbox, NAS or a desktop PC? Choosing a media center is not easy at all. Not only the right hardware has to be considered, but also the right software. And there are a number of alternatives to both choices.

EnlargeBoth platform and software must be considered for a streaming server. We present the best combinations.

The following article shows the most important options for an inexpensive streaming server in the home network. The respective advantages and disadvantages have their say. There are also at least fundamental instructions for setting up the alternative in question.

Hardware 1: Fritzbox as a media server

Younger Fritzbox routers built in 2007 and later can act as data servers and UPnP streaming servers. There are only two steps necessary to do this:

1. You need an external USB hard drive that you connect to the Fritzbox's USB port.

The internal memory of newer Fritzboxes can in principle also be used, but is much too small and extremely slow on top of that.

2. After connecting the disk, activate the server via the configuration interface with the option "Home network> Media server> Media server active" and "Apply". This is then a UPnP server. The option "Home network> Storage (NAS)" is suitable as a data server.

The disk can already contain the media as long as it is formatted with NTFS or FAT32 (Windows) or Ext2 (Linux). The hard drive can also be fed later via the network from any Windows or Linux computer, if the "Storage (NAS)" option has also been activated. Then the Fritzbox appears as "FRITZ-NAS" in the network list. As a streaming server, the Fritzbox has two major advantages: The server hardware is already there, and the router, due to its main function, is a device that is practically always active.

EnlargePractical router extension: With a hard drive connected to the USB port, the Fritzbox becomes a UPnP media server or NAS file server in no time at all.

Hardware 2: NAS device as media server

All NAS devices (Network Attached Storage) show an option “UPnP AV Server” in their configuration interface. No more is required than activating the option and specifying the path of the media files.

Whether this offer actually keeps what it promises, however, depends on the software, the CPU and the memory of the devices, which differ considerably in terms of price and quality.

In the case of small home NAS, you may only be able to select a single source folder, the media of which the server is to deliver later. A real technical problem is reading large amounts of data into the database: Here, inexpensive devices that often only contain 128 or 256 MB of memory are either absolutely overwhelmed or creating the database takes an unreasonably long time. If the amount of data is manageable or the NAS is well equipped, NAS devices reliably deliver the media with UPnP-typical categorization. The server is recognized just as reliably by all clients. Media are in good hands on a NAS in every respect: The energy-saving NAS storage devices typically run permanently, so the media are always available. In addition, the Gigabit Ethernet of a NAS promises smooth film playback even if several clients use each other at the same time.

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Hardware 3: Windows and Linux PCs as media servers

Since there is all media server software for Windows, most of them also for Linux, there is nothing technically wrong with using a PC as a UPnP server. In addition, there is typically good hardware equipment that can withstand extensive media collections and promises optimal data throughput. In accordance with its server role, the PC should then run continuously: This is an aspect that speaks against the PC. In continuous operation, the power consumption of a PC is five to twenty times higher than that of the other hardware alternatives mentioned.

The actually exemplary energy options of Windows with fine adjustments especially for multimedia releases cannot compensate for this if the software used does not play along. Therefore, depending on the software, two unsatisfactory states are to be expected: The server software prevents the energy-saving mode, or the media data cannot be accessed because the PC does not wake up from the energy-saving mode.

EnlargeThe "UPnP AV-Server" service is easy to activate, but small home devices with large media collections may be overwhelmed.

Hardware 4: Board PC as media server

A streaming server on the Raspberry Pi board computer or one of its successors is attractive because the trio of “board PC + Linux system + media software” results in an inexpensive, silent and energy-saving server. In addition, this combination is extremely variable, because every player in this trio can be exchanged for various alternatives. If you cannot go the easiest way via the Fritzbox (> "Hardware 1"), this solution is objectively the best choice. But it requires a bit of tinkering with the initial setup and a certain Linux knowledge in the long term.