How to Choose and Use a Digital Media Center
Cut the clutter of scattered discs with a handy digital media center
Sure, some people keep their music and movie collections neatly shelved and alphabetized by artist. But most of us have piles of random discs everywhere—a stack on the nightstand, some in the kids' rooms, under the seats in the car. And that's just CDs and DVDs. How about the mess of music files and family photos scattered around your computer's hard drive?
The high-tech solution to this problem is something called a digital media center. By storing all your entertainment files on a central "brain," a digital media center can distribute music, movies, and pictures to TVs and audio equipment throughout your house. That means never again finding your favorite Rolling Stones CD in use as a coaster, or popping Casablanca into the player and getting Caddyshack instead.
What's more, most of these systems let everyone in the house access content at the same time. So you can be listening to music in your office while the kids watch Curious George in the basement and your wife shows a vacation slide show to friends in the family room, all at the touch of a remote-control button.
Hiding the Hardware
The heart of any digital distribution system is the server, where your music and movies are stored. Sleek and compact, these units—essentially giant hard drives—can be tucked out of sight in a closet or basement. Some servers get connected to your home computer, where they detect entertainment files, pluck them out, then catalog and store them. Others come with built-in "media readers," which let you load CDs and DVDs directly.
The only visible component is the digital player, which looks like a small cable box and connects to your television. With a click of the remote, you can display on-screen menus that show you every item in your collection, sorted by title, artist, genre, or just about any other way you choose. "It's incredibly convenient and easy," says Josh Goldman, CEO of a California software company, who recently installed such a system in his house. "It suits our lifestyle, which has become basically an on-demand lifestyle."
If you already have the wiring for a home network, using one of these systems can be as easy as taking it out of the box and plugging it in. If not, you'll need to run cables to the rooms that will be connected or hire a professional installer. Most manufacturers don't recommend wireless systems because current technologies aren't very good at sending large video files over the airwaves—yet.
Three Basic Options
Right now, there are three main types of media centers on the market, each with its own way of storing and distributing entertainment.
Stand-alone computer system
This system does double duty as your home computer and media-distribution hub. Just plug a video cable from the back of the computer into the back of your TV or audio-video components, and you're ready to practice being a couch potato. In addition to stored movies and music, special media-distribution software lets you watch and download exclusive content from the Internet, as well as pause and record live television broadcasts, just like TiVo. For movie fanatics on a budget, these systems—available on computers from more than 100 manufacturers, including Gateway, Dell, and Sony—are the most affordable choice, starting at about $600, though their laundry list of capabilities can make them a challenge for all but the most techno-savvy to master.
This type of system comes with a server, digital player, and remote control, but uses your existing home computer as the "media reader" for transferring files. Once connected to your computer, the server grabs digital video, music, and picture files, then copies, organizes, and stores them. That gives you the option of deleting them from your hard drive to free up disk space. The system, which costs about $3,000 for the server and three players, can support up to eight players running at once and has a creative feature that allows you to make a digital-picture slide show set to your favorite music.
This comes complete with everything you need: a server, a media reader, and a digital player. Pop a CD into the reader, and in 8 minutes the contents are loaded; a feature-film DVD takes about 20 minutes (the system can hold up to 825 movies and play on as many as 25 screens at once). You'll have to invest some time on the front end getting your collection loaded, but once you do, you'll never have to fumble with a CD case again—and think of all the extra room you'll have on your bookshelves. Easiest to use, this system is also the most expensive, at about $22,000 for a basic setup. At present, it does not store or display digital pictures.
With all their entertainment options, digital media centers come with one unexpected side benefit: They just might encourage you to make room in your life for things other than digital movies and music. "You don't need to have giant media racks in your family room anymore," says Goldman. "That gives us more space for books and art."