PCs and home-entertainment devices offer lots of options for sharing content with other devices. Find out how they work
These days, plenty of new TV sets, mobile phones, and even Blu-ray DVD players can share videos, photos and music around the home. In the adverts it looks pretty slick and easy to do. But though all the companies use different names for these tools, they all use the same underlying technology - and you don’t necessarily have to stick with one brand of equipment in order to continue enjoying these sharing tools.
That technology is called DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), and it’s supported by most of the big consumer electronics companies, as well as mobile phones and other home-networking devices. DLNA isn’t a guarantee that everything works with everything else but, in this article, we’re going to explain what it is and what to look out for to make sure you can watch or listen to what you want, anywhere in your home.
Almost everyone in the UK receives TV digitally now, whether by cable, satellite or Freeview over a traditional aerial. Many of us have played video clips on a computer too, whether from Youtube, footage captured with a video camera or mobile phone, or perhaps a film downloaded from the internet. We’re used to digital photos, and music that comes as a digital file - and home networks now abound.
So, why be stuck in the bedroom with a PC, when there’s a big screen in the living room? All that’s needed is a way to get the files from the computer to your TV screen - and that is what DLNA is all about. The Digital Living Network Alliance specifies some basic capabilities and provides a set of tests that enable devices to find each other on a network and stream information between them.
Some devices store music and videos so that they can send it to others, some are designed to play the files while others manage the connected devices.
In practice, what that means is that if there’s a DLNA server on a home network, and a DLNA player, then music, videos and photos can be sent from one to the other. So if the server is a PC in the bedroom, and the player is built in to your TV set, or a box that’s plugged into it, then anyone in the living room can watch or listen to things from the bedroom PC, via the home network.
That’s the ideal - but as with so much in the world of computers and networks, sometimes the reality doesn’t live up to the expectations.
What’s in a name?
One of the first hurdles is making sure that devices actually support DLNA. There’s a ‘DLNA certified’ logo that should appear on products that are compatible, but it doesn’t always. Sometimes, manufacturers come up with their own name, and that’s the one that appears on screen, or in marketing materials. For example, Samsung calls its system ‘Allshare’. Similarly, while recent versions of Windows Media Player can send music and video to other devices via the ‘Play to’ option, you won’t see any mention of DLNA in the setup screens.
And, just to make things a little more complicated, there are some gadgets - especially cheaper media players designed to plug into a TV set - that just describe themselves as ‘UPnP media players’. UPnP stands for Universal Plug and Play and it is one of the technologies that DLNA is built upon. Some cheap devices use the technology, but keep costs down by not joining the DLNA organisation, or submitting their equipment to be tested.
Ultimately, though, to stand the best chance of having everything work, it’s best to make sure that it supports DLNA, and ideally has the ‘DLNA certified’ logo on the box or label. In addition, the DLNA website has a database of products.
There’s a lot more to DLNA than just a PC with files on and a device to play them back on the TV. There are loads of different devices that are compatible, including mobile phones, cameras, PC software, entertainment systems, games consoles and set-top boxes; there’s even software that you can add to a PC. Some of those are obvious but others less so. So what do they offer and how might you use them? Let’s assume there’s a TV set that either has DLNA built in, or is connected to a media player that is DLNA-compatible. A visitor wants to show their photos but it’s cramped looking at their phone’s screen. If the phone can connect to the home network, using Wifi, DLNA can be used to display the pictures on the TV, without cables or a memory card.
And, depending on the devices, the same phone could be used to browse the pictures stored on a PC on the network, and tell the PC to display them on the TV set - effectively using the phone as the remote control.
Many Nas units also have DLNA built in, which makes them a great place to store photos and music files, so that, even if all the computers are turned off, TVs, phones and tablets can access whatever they like.
Mix and match
So, DLNA’s a brilliant invention then? Well, yes and no. Although it can do all the things we’ve mentioned, it’s sadly far from trouble-free. That’s because although the ‘DLNA certified’ logo ensures that two different devices will be able to ‘see’ each other when they’re connected to the same network, that doesn’t guarantee that one will be able to play back anything stored on the other, because the original versions of the DLNA standard barely touch on sharing.
So while there might be no problem with playing videos and music files on a PC, accessing them from a TV via DLNA can often result in error messages such as ‘Unsupported file format’ or even in a seemingly blank folder, rather than the expected list of files. Some equipment is very limited indeed; the first generation of Panasonic TVs to include DLNA could not play music at all, and worked only with the DivX video format, while many Sony devices will play only MPEG2 video.
Protect and survive
DLNA promises more in the future, with an enhancement called Protected Streaming. It’s designed to allow ‘premium content’, which could be recordings from high-definition TV channels, Blu-ray or pay-per-view movies, to be sent around a home network, without any risk of illegal copying. So a film could be recorded on a set-top box in the living room and watched in high definition on the bedroom TV.
In fact, some manufacturers already allow this - there are digital TV recorders from Panasonic and Humax that can do it - but, for the time being, they work only with TVs and other set-top boxes from the same brand. DLNA Protected Streaming should allow different brands to be mixed and matched and, according to the DLNA, Protected Streaming-compatible devices should have none of the problems with supported formats that have caused problems for users in the past.
The good news is that, when it comes to DLNA servers - whether a PC or a Nas, they don’t really care about the sort of files they’re storing. Typically you just put them in a folder, and they’ll be made available to any DLNA players, which will then choose which ones they display in their list - if a file doesn’t show up on a player, it’s probably not compatible. Sometimes, though, players do show a file, but then fail to play it - which is one of the more frustrating aspects of DLNA.
One useful trick that can help is called ‘transcoding’, where the DLNA server is able to translate files from one format to another, as they’re being played. It’s most useful with audio, and some Nas systems, including the Synology range, are able to do it. However, devices tend not to be able to transcode video, so people with lots of video files on their computers really need to check the formats supported by TVs and media players - especially the former.
If you’re in the market for a new TV and want one that supports DLNA, in our tests we’ve found that sets from Samsung and LG tend to have the best support for files played over a home network. Equally good are dedicated media players such as the WD TV Live box, which costs £90 and plugs into the TV via an HDMI connector.
DLNA with your PC
With those warnings out of the way, let’s look at using DLNA with a computer. Windows Media Player (WMP) 11 and 12 support DLNA, so it’s easy to send music and video from the PC to a TV.
Start WMP, click the Stream menu and choose ‘Turn on media streaming’ from the menu, and click the button to confirm. If that option doesn’t appear, choose the ‘More streaming options’ or ‘Streaming Settings’ option, as it’s already been turned on. On the next screen, give the PC name, which will appear in the list of servers on DLNA devices and, after a short pause, those other devices should appear in a list, as long as they’re turned on. Next to each is an option to Allow or Block, and the simplest thing to do is to click Allow All, though you can also set individual options, including allowing only parental-rated content to be shown on some devices.
Once the settings have been changed, find an item, such as a video clip, in WMP, right-click and choose ‘Play to’ then select a device. Some TVs - including those from Samsung - will display a pop-up on screen asking for permission to display the video; confirm with the TV’s remote control, and the file starts to play. It works just the same with audio and photos, too.
By choosing the DLNA option on the TV, it’s possible to browse the files that are being shared from the PC, and do everything with the remote control. On some TVs, these DLNA-driven options will be found in the ‘Apps’ or ‘Smart TV’ menus, while on others it might appear in the list of inputs, after all the HDMI connections. Usually the list of PCs and other servers will appear, and selecting each one will show the folders available, typically split between Audio, Video and Photos. Browse through them with the remote control, sit back and enjoy the big-screen experience.
DLNA today and tomorrow
Look at DLNA as a starting point - it’s important to find out what types of files devices support, especially when planning to buy a new TV that can be used to access content from a PC. Sharing between devices may work flawlessly but don’t be surprised if you meet hurdles.
As Protected Streaming becomes more widespread, DLNA connections should become easier and more reliable. But one thing that’s unlikely to change soon is the diverse branding used by the companies to describe DLNA, so check the details before handing over cash.
Apple and DLNA
There’s one very obvious exception to the widespread support for DLNA - Apple. Although Apple makes much of the ability to stream video and music from iTunes, and using the Apple TV device, it doesn’t use DLNA. If you want to play from an iPod Touch or iPhone to a home audio system, you’ll need one that supports Apple’s Airplay system.
When it comes to sharing content on your home network, Apple wants you to use iTunes - and to buy content from the iTunes Store - but some Nas devices can share music with iTunes. Look for ‘iTunes server’ in the description or the more technical name, ‘mt-daapd’.
However, there’s no denying that Airplay and iTunes are much slicker than the add-on apps.
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