So you have your media safely stored on your Windows Home Server and you are now ready to start enjoying it right? Well...maybe. Things are not always as easy as they should be. For starters, there are many variables when you want to play back your media depending on what formats you have, as well as what device you are playing them on. In this article, I will try and cover several playback devices and talk about their supported formats in hopes it will help to guide you in making the right decisions for your needs. I will discuss Windows Media Center, Network players (such as the popcorn hour, HDX1000, WD live), as well as some of the mobile devices (iPhone/iTouch/iPad). We will discuss hardware requirements, software requirements, as well as any guidelines in making it the best experience. I will only talk about formats that are natively supported and not add-on utilities that display and enhance the experience as you can decide whether or not you want to use them and they do not change what you can ultimately play.
There is an abundance of information on networking on the internet, as well as on this site so I will not go into "how" but rather some recommendations based on my own experiences and opinions.
Wireless Networking – Photos, Standard Definition movies, Music, and general file access. Will not stream uncompressed HD content (20 Mbit/sec or higher). Usually cannot handle multiple simultaneous streams of any content. I would recommend using 5 Gighz devices for movie streaming.
Power line Networking - Photos, Standard Definition movies, Music, and general file access. Will typically not stream uncompressed HD content (20 Mbit/sec or higher). Usually cannot handle too many simultaneous streams. Dependant on house wiring and the condition of the wiring. Most installations I have tried for movie streaming have been problematic.
Hardwire Cat 5/5e (10/100) – Ideal for HD, SD, photos playback. Works well for uncompressed HD but usually only on one stream at a time. Not recommended for large file copies such as uncompressed HD due to bandwidth performance.
Hardwire Cat 5e/6 (1 gigabit) – Any content. Can handle 2-3 HD streams simultaneously (depending of bit rate and your equipment) in addition to some SD content. Ideal for handling blu ray playback especially if streaming to multiple locations. Ideal for direct copying to your WHS.
Windows Media Center (Standard Definition Content)
Let's say that you have one or two computers, a Windows Home Server, and want to stream standard DVD's to Windows Media Center PC. WMC natively will support many different formats and does an excellent job reading the native folder structure found on DVD's perfectly (Video_TS\*.VOB). Effectively all you have to do is get your content using your favorite cloning software to a WHS Share folder and make sure that the folder is set up in the library of your Windows Media Center and you are good to go. Using the "list view" in WMC, you should now be able to see all the movies you added in as well as being able to play your content without any additional hardware or software. This method should provide full menu and chapter support as well as all the available sound tracks and subtitles assuming they are contained.
Hardware: Any PC windows suitable for running windows 7
Software: No additional software required.
Recommended Formats: DVD Folder structure (VOB Files, native format)
Windows Media Center (HD content)
Things get a little more interesting when trying to play HD content as it is not directly supported by Windows Media Center. One of the best ways I have found to playback all HD content is to use TMT 3 (Total Media Theatre 3). It supports virtually every kind of HD video including the AVCHD format from your HD camcorder. The only container type it will not support at this time is MKV so you would require a third party add-in or codec pack to make this work. My luck and experiences with third party codecs have not been great so I highly recommend "not" using them. It is better to stick to mainstream software for overall better compatibility. TMT 3 is a very solid product and integrates well into Windows Media Center. Once you have copied your content to a share folder in WHS (such as \server\HD Content) and added it to WMC, you should be able to playback your HD content of your choice (except of course MKV) much the same way you did with standard DVD's. Displaying your movie titles in Media Center will be seamless and will co-exist with standard DVD, home movies, and other content which makes it easier to view when everything is located in on one screen.
Hardware: Any Windows PC suitable for running windows 7, HDTV/Monitor, and Hardware accelerated video card such as the Intel integrated HD, nVidia, or ATI card. For lossless audio, only the Asus HDAV, the 57xx ATI cards, and the Intel H55 chipsets are supported.
Software: Total Media Theatre 3 recommended.
Recommended Formats: BD Folder structure (native format).
Popcorn hour (A-110, A-200)/HDX-1000/WD Live
Using network media players brings in a new dimension of both flexibility as well as complications. Specifically, these devices can stream most every format you can think of but they do not do them all equally well. For example, you can play MKV files but some devices may hang during navigation depending on the original format. This is mainly when the original is HD as some are encoded using VC-1 and some in H.264. VC-1 encoded files tend to hang on certain devices such as the Popcorn A-200 and have more issues in playback then do H.264 encoded files. They also do a great job playing .MT2S and .TS files but you lose chapter support on many of the devices. In addition, your content will have to be a single file format as the folder approach only works in some of the units but most do not work well using the native folder structure of DVD and BD, making it more challenging to have coexistence with WMC. Because of this, it becomes very difficult using network players sharing the same content with WMC. Windows Media Center is very comfortable working with DVD/BD folder structures, most network players prefer single file formats such as ISO and MKV. ISO support can be added to WMC however it is at times problematic as it requires third party add-ins.
Hardware: Network Player such as Popcorn Hour, HDX-1000, etc.
Software: No additional software required.
Recommended Formats: ISO, MKV, TS, MT2S, WMV
Let's throw in more variables and say that you want to stream your content to your iTouch/iPhone/iPad or other mobile device. These devices do a great job in video playback once you get the content to them. Of course you can use various software to covert to the .MP4 format and copy them to the device but as space is limited, the real power comes from being able to stream either SD or HD content to your devices over the air either on 3G or Wi-Fi. There are a number of ways to do this but two of the more popular ways I have tried are ORB and Air Video. ORB requires that you create an account and connect to their server to stream the video. In essence, you stream from your PC to their server and back to any mobile device. It works reasonably well and it allows you to connect with almost any device including a laptop. It crudely works with folder support (video_ts) but cannot handle any HD content. "StreamToMe" and "Air Video" are both iPhone/iPad applications that work extremely well in streaming directly from a local PC that is connected to your server to your portable device. The PC/MAC is used for real-time transcoding and basically pulls content from your server (or other location) and streams it across your broadband connection. If it is a MP4 format it will stream natively without the need to convert the format or if it is for example, an MKV, it will transcode the format real time as it streams it to you. I have tested the transcoding on both a SD DVD as well as a BD (40gig) uncompressed MKV file and it all worked perfectly. The quality is based on your bandwidth but when I was connected to Wi-Fi, the quality of the HD playback on my iPad was amazing. The down side is it does not support the folder structure of DVD (video_ts) or the Blu-Ray folder structure so you have to put your files in an MKV or WM* format in order to use them. This forces you in most cases to have two copies of your content if you want to stream them to your portable device. Both Air Video and StreamToMe are very similar in features, however I found Air Video to be more robust and more configurable.
Hardware: Any Windows 7 Compatible PC. A dual core system is recommended due to the real time transcoding.
Software: Air Video App and Server or StreamToMe app and server.
Recommended Formats: MKV, WMV, AVI
It must be obvious by now that things are not ideal. It is very challenging to just pick one format and have it work effectively on everything. As I stated earlier there are some choices to make and that the video streaming world is not entirely perfect. Many times it may even require two versions of your content to do it effectively and cover all your devices. There are ways in which you can for example use MKV and play across all these devices, however as you get to HD content things get pretty ugly with the use of codecs as well as inconsistency in movie navigation. I am not saying it cannot be done, only that you should expect compatibility problems if you have to resort to using third party codecs. This is by no means a comprehensive list options you have and I have only touched the surface of the variables. I have tried to stick to the use of only mainstream software and native support. The moral here is that you should plan what devices you are going to use not because of their compatibility with different file formats, but rather their compatibility to each other. Some thought up front might save much in the way of work as well as aggravation. For example, it may not make sense to add a network player if you already have one or two HTPC's as the price of something like a Acer Revo which is not much more than many network players and will save a much aggravation especially if all your content is folder structure. Although everyone is different, for me I end up with a dual approach. I use DVD/HD folder structure for use with only HTPC which replaced my network players, and create MKV formats in a different folder for streaming to my iPhone/iPad. This is certainly a separate step and not ideal, however it works very well and the results are outstanding. As a side note, if your movie content is in folder structure format, it is very quick to make an MKV from it and can be done directly from the folder. In closing do your homework, avoid mixing too many devices, and think out your strategy as sometimes saving a little money on hardware upfront can result in much aggravation.