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What Is a Network Media Player?

Enjoy Your Computers' Photo, Movie and Music Libraries on Your Home Theater

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WD TV Live Streaming Media Player - Photo of Front View with Included Accessories

WD TV Live Streaming Media Player - Photo of Front View with Included Accessories

Photo (c) Robert Silva - Licensed to About.com

As the idea of sharing media from your computer to your home theater becomes mainstream, many people still don't know how to make it happen.  Many have still not heard of a "network media player."  To make matters more confusing manufacturers may give this device different names like "media streamer", "digital media player," "digital media adapter," "media player" or "media extender".

TVs and home theater components with added capabilities to find your media and play it, add more confusion.  These home theater devices may simply be called a "networked TV" or "networked audio/video receiver."  

While it is convenient to store your photos, music and movies on your computer, it is not always the most enjoyable experience to share them while crowding around a monitor.  When it comes to home entertainment, we usually prefer to be kicking back on a sofa, in front of a big screen, to watch movies or share photos as we listen to music on big full-range speakers.  A network media player one solution to make all this possible.

To understand what is a network media player, let’s break it down

Network -- You (or your internet provider) probably set up a “home network ” to enable all of the computers in your home to share one internet connection.  That same network makes it possible to share files and media that are stored on one connected computer, viewing them on other computers, your TV or even your smart phone.

Media – This is the term commonly used to refer to movies, videos, TV shows, photos and music files.  Certain network media players may play only one type of media. There are media devices like the Squeezebox by Logitech that play only music. 

It is important to note that photos, videos and music can be saved in different file types or “formats.” When choosing a network media player, you will want to make sure that it can play the types of files you have stored on your computers.

Player – While the definition of a “player” may be obvious to you, it is an important distinction for this kind of device.  The first function of a player is to connect to your computers or other devices and to play the media it finds. You can then watch what it is playing on a media renderer-- your TV screen and/or listen on your home-theater audio/video receiver.  Like a DVD or Blu-ray Disc “player,” it only plays the disc and we actually watch it on our TV screen.

Many network media players also can download or stream movies, music and photos from the internet.  You no longer need to browse the web on your computer to enjoy videos from popular websites like YouTube or Netflix; to hear music from Pandora, last.fm or Rhapsody; or to see photos from Picasa and Flickr. Many network media players connect to these sites by simply clicking on an icon.

Stand-Alone Network Media Players, or TVs and Components with Built-in Network Media Players

A number of manufacturers make network media players—Roku box, Seagate, Western Digital, D-Link’s Boxee Box, Popcorn Hour—that are stand-alone devices. Their sole function is to stream music, movies and photos from other sources to be played on your TV and audio/video receiver and speakers.  

These set-top boxes connect to your home network, either wirelessly or by using an Ethernet cable.  They are often small, about the size of a thick paperback novel.

Compare these network media-player devices with other home-theater components that have the ability to stream media from your computers and network or from online.

The network media-player function can be easily built into a TV or other entertainment component.  Among the devices that can connect directly to computers and home networks are networked Blu-ray Disc players, audio/video receivers, TiVo and other Digital Video Recorders, and video-game consoles like the Playstation3 and Xbox360.  Most of these devices connect through an Ethernet connection or an optional external wireless accessory.

A network media player makes it pretty easy to share your media on your home theater. Whether you choose a dedicated-network media-player device, or a TV or home-theater component to enjoy your media, be sure you have what you need to set up your home network and network media player.  

Related Video
How to Share Media Files With Windows Media Player
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