To ensure that the DMS has enough power to perform these many tasks taking time to step back and reviewing everything the unit will be doing is an important aspect before purchasing.

Digital Media Servers - The Basics

Harris Coltrain | 2partsfusion

Digital Media Servers
Evaluating Your Options
Harris Coltrain VP -2partsfusion

To ensure that the DMS has enough power to perform these many tasks, taking time to step back and reviewing everything the unit will be doing is an important aspect before purchasing.

The year of the "Digital Media Server" is upon us. With the new connected home beginning to take shape Media Servers are looking to play a more important role within the digital ecosystem. As improved hardware and software designed for digital media continue to emerge, these systems are finally beginning to find their place within the mainstream. Tradeshows, magazines and websites all over the Internet are featuring dozens of vendors providing a variety of media systems that have different esthetics, software features and capabilities. These technologies are not intended to be confusing, but making an informed decision and choosing a digital media server that will meet your unique needs can be difficult, especially if you don't know what to look for.

In this article we will be focusing on the basics.

Aesthetics and Styling

In the past, many Digital Media Servers were stored in closets or mounted on racks somewhere in a basement. More importantly, where these were not was in the living room. These systems are no longer relegated to a rack mount, but in many cases headlined as a primary component in a high-end home theater or entertainment center. Being featured front and center means a Digital Media Server should be a device that looks, sounds, and acts like a traditional component in your entertainment center and also integrates in an intuitive way. To fit into this environment seamlessly, a DMS should feature:

A.) Living room form factor chassis, not just another beige PC-like tower.
B.) Generally black or silver in color to match home theater and audio equipment.
C.) Optionally - Feature a VFD or LCD to display relevant information.

With any form factor there is a wide variety to choose from with varying features and options remember this is meant as a general guide.

Stable and Reliable

Many a consumer has expressed concern over using Digital Media Servers due to the fact most are based on technology that in the past has been considered unreliable. People expect these solutions to work and work well, and although problems can occur in any entertainment system, a digital media server needs to operate reliably on a daily basis without crashes or glitches. As not all Media Servers are created equal it is prudent to take the time to evaluate the components, both hardware and software, to ensure you are receiving a quality product. Over the years, many of the problems that these systems faced have been worked out, and although issues still arise, Digital Media Servers are more reliable than ever, when the software and hardware components are assembled around proven technology.


Most people need more storage than they think. Consider this: an hour of recorded over the air HDTV is roughly 8.7 GB, and stored DVD's can average anywhere from 4-9GB, not to mention MP3 libraries, home videos and MPEG2 recorded television. Storage space has fast become a valuable commodity and a family's digital media can rapidly consume even a seemingly ample size such as 300GB..

A Digital Media Server should ship with a substantial amount of initial storage, with the option to add more, either by adding additional internal drives or connectors such as Firewire (1394) or USB for connecting external storage enclosures or Network Attached Storage. You will thank yourself a year from now.

Performance and Power

Digital Media Servers are designed to perform many tasks and functions simultaneously. These can include watching and recording television, high-definition playback, audio and video distribution, and home automation just to name a few. As the multimedia and system requirements increase the more resources are required. To ensure that the DMS has enough power to perform these many tasks taking time to step back and reviewing everything the unit will be doing is an important aspect before purchasing.

A DMS that is being employed for simply watching and recording analog television and DVD playback does not require nearly the same amount of resources that a DMS that is being utilized for HDTV gaming, connectivity with media extenders, and analog and HD recording with a RAID array does. So to cover all your bases make sure that a Media Server can properly serve these applications or the experience will become less than desirable. Issues such as stuttering television playback, skips in music and non-responsive programs all add up to poor overall experience which no one wants. Therefore, identify the primary reasons for purchasing the DMS and then make sure that it is equipped with components that will be able to deliver. General items to focus on would be the processor, memory, and a graphics card that can handle your requirements not only now but as new technologies are introduced in the future.

Heat and Noise Levels

A Media Server should stay both cool and quiet. These are two aspects that are clearly important features for many reasons.

Extended periods of high levels of heat can not only damage a server, but other components in the same location and can decrease the life of internal components such as hard drives, graphics cards etc. Pay attention to the CPU temperatures which when idle should run at or below 50-55 degrees Celsius and overall system temperatures below 50. Digital Media Servers are designed to be on 24 hours a day and as usage increases, heat issues can become especially problematic in places such as unventilated equipment racks and cabinets whether used for home theater or otherwise. Make sure that the DMS has proper ventilation and if in a cabinet you may need to use an additional fan for air circulation.

Raise your hand if you want to hear the noisy computer while watching your favorite DVD or listening to music? No one?

For DMS servers featured in the living room noise levels can be very important and have been a sticking point for more than one person. These units should maintain a generally low noise level; this is especially important if the media server is placed in a high-end home theater environment rather then an equipment closet. Therefore, look for passively cooled components, a low number of large fans, and specialized fans for CPU cooling. Don't be afraid to ask the vendor what they do to deliver for an overall low dB level.

Hopefully this article has provided you with some useful information for getting started a Digital Media Server.

Stay tuned for more!!

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