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Home Server DLNA options

DLNA options

What's DLNA anyway ?

No doubt you have large collections of digital photo's, music tracks and even movies that exist only on your computers hard disk(s). No doubt you would like to see/play these on your home cinema / main TV screen, and whilst many modern TV's have a USB socket (so you can plug in a stick with your favourite images / music), when it comes to movies you will be lucky to get more than one onto the average (affordable) USB stick

DLNA allows you to 'publish' your image / music / movie files over your home network direct to your DVD player / TV using special 'DLNA Server' software running on your computer. All you have to do is 'point' the DLNA Server at the 'root' folder of the media files you want to 'share' and it does the rest (note that this is not Widows 'sharing' - no 'shared folder' symbol appears on your computer). You can then use your TV / DVD player's remote control to select the file you wish to play

If you use HDMI cables to connect your DVD player, TV & Home Cinema (surround sound system) together, it is only necessary for one device (eg your Blu-Ray DVD player) to be connected to your computer network - it can then be used to 'pick up' the media and 'stream' it to the other devices using HDMI

What are the main restrictions of DLNA ?

DLNA 'technology' is still very much in it's infancy. Worse, the 'menu' choices and 'folder' browsing is all about 'how you (are allowed to) select' - this very counter-intuitive (unless you are 'used to' media center approaches).

Typically you go into your players 'setup' menu and start by selecting your DLNA Server (yes, even if there is only one ...). Control over the player is then handed to the 'DLNA Server' software which typically operates in a 'single tasking' DOS like mode = i.e. is incapable of doing more than one thing at once, will ignore any use of the remote control when it's 'busy' and will crash at the drop of a hat :-(

Things that cause DLNA to crash include using the remote control 'too quickly' and pressing a button for a function that is 'not supported' at that time (like 'pause' or 'fast forward'). When the server software on the PC crashes, the DVD player typically 'locks up' (and the only way to 'recover' is to remove it's power cable).

Most DLNA Servers will start by insisting you choose a Music, Video or Image 'mode' = after this you can 'browse' a folder 'tree' but the Server will then only be showing you items that 'match' the chosen 'mode' (even if other files exist in the same location). Since the 'mode choice' Icons are shown as FOLDERS, this can be very confusing for the average computer user.

Typically, after selecting a mode, you will be shown a series of 'ghost' folders (Titles, Movies, Series, Folders, Last Viewed, Last Added, Genres, Actors, Directors, Producers) all of which are 'generated' by the DLNA Server software 'on the fly' and 'populated' with data from your actual media files (for example, if your .mp3 music has 'tags', these are used, otherwise your DLNA Server may go 'on-line' to the Internet to fetch details). In this context 'on the fly' means 'at the crawl' :-)

The more folders and the more files you have, the longer it takes the server to 'populate' them. Some servers populate the folders 'in advance' - and whilst 'on the fly' takes longer, the 'in advance' software will 'remember' files that no longer exist (so when you try to select & play them, it's 'lock-up' time again).

One of the 'ghost folders' (typically called 'Folders') will be a 'keyhole' view into your actual Windows directory structure, however you will still only be shown those files that match your chosen 'mode' !

This is very confusing, since it's quite possible to choose 'Music', then 'Folders' and then navigate to your REAL 'Movies archive' folder only to be told 'No files exist' !

What's the GUI like ?

The DLNA 'specification' was plainly designed for use by children (& Americans), since, in an effort to avoid 'confusing' the user, only 5 items are shown 'on screen' at any one time, in alphabetical order, with 'page down' required to see the next set of 5.

This joke of a GUI makes it almost impossible to select from a music library of hundreds of albums / thousands of tracks = so, to avoid spending your life listening to ABBA or ALBANINI all the time, you may have little choice but to create a multiple folder 'tree' structure with no more than 5 'branches' at each level ...

On 'drilling down' my folder '5 leaf per branch' tree in 'keyhole' style, looking for a track I wanted to play, I discovered my DLNA player will 'stop' when it finds a folder that's 'empty' i.e. one that does not contain any material for that 'mode'.

This means I could not reach any folder below an 'empty' one. Further, my player randomly 'looses connection' with the DLNA server when I try to ('Return') 'back up' the folder 'tree', thus forcing me to start again at the 'Choose Server' level. This suggests that, for some Server software, even the most basic functions still need to be 'debugged' :-(

Finally, many Servers are happy to 'trans-code' media files (indeed, one is so insane that it insists on trans-coding everything). This is great until you realise that if your music collection contains both .wav and .mp3 versions of the same track, and the server supports both formats, then it will show them both !

Since you are restricted to 'alphabetical mode' viewing the already limited choice of 5 tracks per screen is reduced to 2.5 :-( )

How does the 'modes' function work in practice ?

Badly :-)

What are the limitations of Movie Mode ?

A1. Well, your Blu-Ray DVD player may be able to cope with full 1080p HD movies but when it comes to DLNA the speed is limited by the network connection.

Decent quality** HD movie requires in excess of 10mbs - and whilst this may be only 10% of the capacity of a 100mbs wired Ethernet it is way beyond the capabilities of most of the poorly written Java based DLNA Server software that's available today

** Real Blu-ray NH movies are 'streamed' at up to 40mbs. When building MS PhotoStory 3 'slide shows' for HD, I recommend you export at 20mbs minimum

If the DLNA Server software is unable** to cope with the data rates required your movie, it will stutter and hiccup as it tries & fails to keep up (although some software, such as PlayOn, intended for use only with low resolution movies from the web (iPlayer, 4OD) is deliberately limited to low data rates)

**If any sort of 'trans-coding' is required, the computers CPU may well be the limiting factor - however Serviio failed to deliver 'known good' .mpg (& .mp4) movies without 'stuttering', whilst TVersity coped with the same .mpg file just fine

What are the limitations of Image/Photo mode ?

Images that are not 1080 pixels high will be 'resized' for display on your (HD) TV. Java based Server software (such as Serviio) is likely to be slow at such conversion.

If your DLNA Server offers the player a 'slide show' option (most do, although some (Serviio) only offered it at the folder level and not when I'm viewing the folder contents), you might think it would also allow you to select some music to play during the show = think again -:-)

As mentioned already, DLNA Server software is still at the 'DOS level' of functionality with a 'single tasking' capability

During 'slide show', my player displays a very annoying 'blue bar' saying 'Reading ...'. Also, between images, it imposes random 'slide transition' effects (which do not appear if you manually step through the images) and insists on showing the 'control' options as an overlay on top of the images (unless you press 'return'**). Since the 'blue bar' and menu overlay are player functions, rather than a server functions, your's may not suffer from this

** On my player, if you make the mistake of pressing 'Exit' instead of 'Return' (to close the menu overlay etc.) the Server connection will be dropped and you will be taken back to the 'choose a DLNA Server' screen = yes, even when only one server exists on my network, I am still presented with this choice :-)

If you think 'Exit' means you can take back 'local' control (without pulling the power plug) when the DLNA Server software crashes, think again ...

What are the limitations of Music mode ?

Music (mp3's) play OK, although my player is unable to play** .wav files, your player may differ. The number of selectable items 'on screen' is limited to 5. This means my hundreds of folders containing thousands of music tracks can only be 'browsed' in alphabetical order via the 5 line display 'keyhole' view which means it takes almost as long to find the track as it does to play it :-)

**Many DLNA Servers are clever enough to 'trans-code' from .wav to .mp3 but are too 'dumb' to realise that the .wav and .mp3 of the same name are the same track ! So if your original .wav and .mp3 are in the same 'folder chain' your DLNA Server is likely to show the same track twice.

It also seems that DLNA is incapable of supporting any sort of 'pre-selection' of another track whilst playing the first, although it seems most will automatically play the next track 'down' the alphabetical ordered list in the same folder until it reaches the end .. at which point it stops. It does not continue to the next folder and does not play any other tracks in the same folder 'above' the one I started with

Presumably in recognition of this limit, many DLNA Servers show the player a (ghost) folder called 'Random', which is OK** so long as you don't store pop & classical music in the same 'tree' structure on your computer :-). I have not found any sort of 'repeat' or loop' option (it's possible these exist, just that I've not found it yet).

**If you have more that a few dozen tracks, DON'T be tempted to 'open' the Random folder on a Server that creates folder contents 'on-the-fly' :-)

On my player, when playing musics, pressing the remote control 'fast forward' (or fast reverse) key results in either 'Function not supported' or lock-up. Pressing the '>>]' (go to end) key typically results in the server moving onto the next track, however, do this too quickly and it will crash.

What DLNA Server packages have you used ?

First be warned that all DLNA / UPnP will be 'infected' with DRM. It is advisable to pre-set all your music / photo's / movies to 'Read Only' before you decide to 'share' them with your home media system . For a script that will 'parse' your folders setting files to Read-Only see my Data preservation pages.

Second, AVOID all 'Trial' type software = this can NEVER be totally un-installed and the last thing you want is any traces of 'package X' mixing it up on your system whilst you try to get 'package Y' working. In my investigations I used a number of different computers and 'uninstall' and rebooted between tests but did not totally reformat. So it's quite possible that some problems I encountered are caused by 'earlier' packages failing to uninstall completely.

Open Source = LxiMediaCenter

For some insane reason this software always insists on trans-coding your video, even if it's in a perfectly correct / compatible format to start with. This means no HD unless your Server is equipped with a high speed Quad Core CPU (and you like using your server to keep your house warm).

Avoid it = it's a total waste of time unless you want to show off your over-clocked 8-core 'big iron' server Hardware.

Low cost = TVmobili.

Despite the "A Free DLNA Media Server .." headline on it's web page, this server is only free for the first 30 days, after which a 10Gb monthly usage limit applies (about 1 HD movie) unless you pay the £20 (one-off) fee.

In order to impose the limit, this app. 'phones home', and (of course) can't be completely un-installed. As of Nov 11 2011, this server is not even 'seen' by my (low cost) Panasonic Viera Blu-Ray DVD player ("DLNA server not found") which suggests something fundamentally wrong with it (since my Viera player is able to 'see' all the other Servers listed here, even if some treat it as a 'PS3' or show it as a 'Sony Blu-Ray player').

After the 10Gb per month restriction cuts in, this server should still be perfectly usable if you stick to music & images.

Never worked at all for me, you may have better luck.

Freeware = Serviio.

This is written in Java and will run on any computer (PC, Mac, Linux) that has Java v6 (or later) installed. You need to be aware that, as a Java application, this can be VERY SLOW at 'indexing' (i.e. creating the 'ghost folder' contents) and (worse) it 'remembers' folder contents even if you move or delete files (or, indeed, whole folders).

It has a 'profile' setting for Panasonic Viera and works 'fine' (except for the usual crashes when you press the remote control keys at the 'wrong' time) for music and images. The most often crash occurred when I 'Stopped' playing one track & tried to navigate back 'up' the list to choose another music track.

All standard 4:3 and 16:9, .mpg and .mp4, movies 'stuttered', making this server unusable for movies (this is undoubtedly due to Serviio because other software is able to serve the same .mpg movies perfectly well).

In common with most DLNA servers, when it 'locks up' you have to pull the power cable on the player and reboot the computer to recover.

Serviio 'works' OK for music & images, but for movies it's just too slow. It may be worth looking into further since the 'forums' suggest the speed problems can be overcome.

Freeware 'for PS3' = PS3 Media-Server.

Also written in Java.

This Server calls a 'player' a 'renderer' and sees my Panasonic Viera DVD as a 'Sony Blu-Ray' :-). There are two main disadvantages = first the Server 'shuts down' when the player powers-down & sometimes fails to restart (you have to manually click 'restart server' at your computer before the player will 'recognise' the server after powering up again), and second, some movie files cause the server to 'lock-up' in 'starting playback, please wait' (and whilst the server can be simply restarted, the only way to 'unlock' the player is to pull out the power cable) - this would seem to occur only when the server decides it has to 'trans-code' a movie.

Unlike all the other servers, you are not forced to choose a 'mode' and it does not show dozens of 'Ghost' folders. Instead it shows the real Windows directories. Further, it serves most** .mpg movies perfectly OK, but although it displays .mp4 movie titles on the player list OK, when you try to play them, after a short delay showing 'starting', it gives up with an 'unable to play' report. This appears to be because it's trying to trans-code (when I forced it to send the .mp4 without trans-coding, the player locks up & requires a power cycle to recover).

**Occasionally PS3 Media-Server locks-up & crashes the player when a (known good) .mpg movie is chosen that it decides needs 'trans-coding', so I suspect a CODEC problem caused by something 'left behind' by a previous server.

A better choice than Serviio, but still no HD.

Free basic, charged for 'Pro' = TVersity.

The installer tries very hard to install it's own 'search tool-bar' (after you deselect the 'install' tick box, a pop-up asks you to confirm you don't want it by selecting 'Yes'). Also wants to change your 'home page'. Toward the end of the install it asks if you want to 'subscribe to web connect' and asks for your You-Tube user name (hopefully no-one reading this would be silly enough to hand over any such details).

Despite it's 'in your face marketing' approach (the control app. opens to show a screen full of on-line subscription feeds), this Server actually works fine with .mpg files. There is no setting for Viera, however treating it as a PS3 worked just fine. Unfortunately, although I know my DVD player can cope with .mp4 HD video (Serviio sent mp4's in 'jitter' mode) and TVersity was able to 'see' the file OK, no .mp4 file appears on the DVD player 'select' menu.

Trying to 'cheat' by changing the file extension from .mp4 to .mpg allows the player to 'see' the file, however attempting to play it then results in the usual lock-up & power cable removal.

Unlike Serviio, the TVersity 'control panel' on your Server will show you the 'folder view' that your player will see. This is extremely useful because it let's you check the media files have been 'added' to the 'library' OK.

Life is too short to work around other peoples bugs (especially if they are 'Pro' features), so I suggest you avoid TVersity (especially if you want HD).

Usable after trial expires = PlayOn Premium (i.e. 'PlayOn Lite')

This is an Internet 'live feed' uPnP Server supplied as a 14 day Trial that reverts to a restricted functionality 'Playon Lite' version after the trial period expires. The 'Lite' version will only serve "My Media" files that are located on your own computer.

It seems that whilst PlayOn will accept .mp4 video files, it is limited to serving a max. 4 mbs data rate (perhaps due to it's Internet streaming focus ?) and this means it will never support HD, and, in fact, reports say the best you can expect is '480p' (which is NTSC) and not even PAL standard definition (576p) which means that even 'normal' res. movies are going to 'stutter' occasionally.

Avoid = effectively unusable (until the data rate limit is removed).

Microsoft = Windows Media Player 11.

This is usual 'pact with the devil'. Material added to Media Players 'Library' can be shared with a DLNA player.

WMP11 does not attempt to 'share' Internet 'feeds' with your media player which some may find a disadvantage. Far worse, however, WMP does not include support for .mp4 at all (it won't even play the files 'locally'), and whilst various 'plug-ins' exist that claim to offer such support, I have been unable to get it to play .mp4's, full stop.

Windows Media Player is also infected with DRM. Avoid it for this reason, if no other.

Which would you recommend (what's the best of the bad bunch) ?

A1. For music and photo's, Serviio (despite it's tendency to offer tracks that no longer exist and crash when you press the 'wrong' button on the remote control).

A2. For (.mpg) movies, PS3 Media-Server (simply because it's menu structure is a lot less confusing than any of the others).

How do you play (.mp4) HD movies ?

I don't. So far, I can only play them on my TV by using my computer (with VLC) and linking my Graphics card to the back of my TV with a HDMI cable.

Conclusion ?

DLNA 'shows promise', however the joke GUI (restrictive 5 selection 'window'), lack of 'multi-tasking (no capability to select the 'next' track whilst playing the current or play a music track at the same time as a photo slideshow) and all the crashes and 'power plug removal lock-ups' makes it virtually unusable

You are currently far better off using a real computer ('media center') and linking the output of it's graphics card to your TV with a video cable. To see my efforts in this direction, visit my 'Building a home media system with Windows XP' page

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