by Adam Turner
Rather than leave your precious photos, music, movies and home videos scattered across all your devices, a media server offers a simple way to keep all your important media files in one place and access them from practically anywhere.
The good news is that you’ll find a DLNA media server built into Windows 10. It’s simple to switch on, after which you can browse your library from any just about any device connected to the same network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable.
To enabled Windows 10’s built-in media centre, press the Windows key to call up the search bar, type “Control Panel” and click on it to launch. In the Control Panel, click ‘Network and Internet’, followed by ‘Network Sharing Centre’. Now choose ‘Change advanced sharing settings’ on the left and then click the dropdown arrow alongside ‘All Networks’.
Window 10’s Advanced sharing settings
To enable DLNA, click ‘Choose media streaming options’ and then ‘Turn on media streaming’. As the warning says, it’s something you only want to do on your own private network, not public Wi-Fi.
Now you’ve the option to change the name of your media server, plus you’re presented with a list of devices already connected to your network, which might include smart TVs and wireless speakers. These are the devices that work with Windows’ ‘Cast to Device’ feature, but your media library is actually accessible to a much broader range of devices via DLNA.
Window 10’s Media streaming options
By default, the DLNA server shares files in your Music, Pictures and Videos folders – automatically finding new files as you add them. You can add other folders by opening Windows Media Player, clicking ‘Organise’ and choosing ‘Manage libraries’. Now select the type of content you want to add and then add folders – which might reside on this computer or on a USB or network drive.
Adding another music folder to Windows Media Player’s library
With your DLNA server up and running, the next step is to install a DLNA-compatible media player on your preferred playback devices.
Launch Windows Media Player on another PC connected to the same network and on the left, under ‘Other Libraries’, you’ll see available DLNA servers on your network. Click on a server – such as DiskStation in our example – and you’re given a choice of exploring Music, Video, Pictures, Recorded TV and Playlists.
Thankfully this content is automatically catalogued, so you can search by Album, Artist and other options to help you find what you’re looking for. The same goes with your Photo and Video library, for example you can search by date, genre, keyword or rating. Alternatively you can browse through your library’s various sub-folders, which is handy if you’re looking for content from a specific trip.
Using Windows Media Player to access music on DiskStation media server
Beyond Windows Media Player there’s a wide range of DLNA media players. Try apps like VLC and Kodi on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS. You’ll also find DLNA media players apps for a wide range of internet-enabled home entertainment gear like Blu-ray players, Personal Video Recorders, streaming boxes, games consoles and smart TVs. Many even have a media player built in.
Using VLC on an iPad to access video on Windows 10 media server
Nor are you limited to Windows’s built-in media server features. You’ll find a range of media server apps like Plex and TwonkyMedia for Windows, Mac and Linux. Meanwhile, many Network Attached Storage drives can act as a DLNA server, as can some broadband modems.
The DLNA media server settings on a Synology DiskStation Network Attached Storage drive
While DLNA is designed to be a universal standard, unfortunately compatibility can be a bit hit and miss between devices. If DLNA gives you the runaround then consider stepping up to the more reliable Plex Media Server.
The first step is to install the free Plex Media Server software <www.plex.tv>, which is available for Windows, Mac and Linux along with tiny computing devices like the Raspberry Pi and NVIDIA Shield TV. It’s also possible to run Plex on some Network Attached Storage drives from the likes of Western Digital, Netgear, Synology and QNAP.
As part of the set-up process you need to tell Plex Media Server where you store your photo, music and video files. When you add photos there’s the option to automatically scan and tag them using machine learning so they’re easier to search.
Along with your computer, USB drive or network drive, Plex can also access your media files stored in the cloud. While the basic Plex features are free, you need a Plex Pass subscription to access some advanced features like cloud storage.
Accessing Plex Media Server via a browser to add folders to the media library
Next you need the Plex player app on your playback devices. It’s available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS, plus you’ll find it in the app library on most games consoles, media players and smart TVs.
One benefit of using Plex is that the Plex server ensures it sends the correct audio and video formats to each device running the Plex app, so you’re far less likely to run into compatibility and codec issues. Plex even remembers where you’re up to when watching video, so you can switch from your television to your tablet and pick up watching where you left off.
Plex video playback on an iPad
As a backup you can also enable Plex’s DLNA features, so it can share video with devices that won’t run the Plex app. Click on the ‘Settings’ icon at the top right of the Plex browser interface, then scroll down on the left and select ‘DLNA’. Remember, you lose a few advanced features and experience might be less reliable because you’re at the mercy of DLNA’s quirks.
Enabling Plex Media Server’s DLNA settings via a browser
Another benefit of Plex is that it’s easy to link multiple Plex servers to your account and switch between them, on your local network or across the internet. This means when you’re on the road you can stream from your local server or your home Plex server, but of course now you’re at the mercy of your download speeds as well as your home broadband upload speeds.
The final benefit of using Plex is that you can download your favourite music and video to your computers and handheld devices, or save images to your smartphone’s photo gallery, so they’re always available even when you can’t connect to the server.