Vudu, Amazon's Video on Demand, and Netflix's instant-streaming service--what do they all have in common? They're Internet-based video-streaming services, and they also charge a fee. But, what if you already own an extensive DVD or Blu-ray collection and don't want to "rebuy" them, but want the benefits of streaming, i.e. accessibility, potentially better picture quality, and physical ownership of your movie collection? In this post we'll compare those pay services versus a do-it-yourself streaming media solution.
To go DIY, first you will have to invest in a media-streaming device and the software. Fortunately, if you own a PS3 or a television like the Pioneer PDP-5020FD, you're already half-way there. These devices (and many others) are DLNA-certified, an interoperable standard for sharing audio, video, and photos among such devices. We've covered the ins and outs of DLNA-certification for devices before, and there are other specifications available, including Windows Rally, that are used by Windows Media Extenders such as the Linksys DMA2100 and Xbox 360, but DLNA devices are still the most widely used and most flexible specification to stream content from your computer to a certified device.
Secondly, you have to consider what software to use to get your videos off your computer and onto your HDTV. Here at CNET, we've tested DLNA-certified devices using TVersity, TwonkyMedia, and Windows Media Player 11. Why these three? TVersity, while it can be a memory hog, allows a user to stream Web-content as well as their own personal collection of videos and audio--and it's free. TwonkyMedia will set you back $40, but it's lean and the fastest DLNA server we've tested. And finally, we chose Windows Media Player, since it's built into Windows Vista and is available as a free download for XP. We're considering adding PlayOn to our toolkit. It can stream content from YouTube, Hulu, and now from Netflix, but it costs $30 and currently only supports Web-based content.
Thirdly, you'll have to rip those DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. This isn't exactly legal, and there are some companies trying to change the old paradigm. We're not going to explain to you how to do it--search Google for a number of solutions--but as long as you own the original copy, view it only in the personal comfort of your home, and don't distribute it to the world, you should be fine.
Let's break down the advantages and disadvantages of why you should consider the DIY approach for setting up your own streaming service to view your entire DVD or Blu-ray collection from the couch in your living room.
1. No DRM. Apple, Amazon.com, and others don't want you to copy your content and give it out to the world. This makes sense. But DRM can also be too restrictive: Apple and Amazon also do not want you to transfer that video or MP3 to another device, and view it whenever and however you like--that is, unless you own an iPod, Apple TV, TiVo, or view your movies on your tiny 19-inch computer screen. A copy of a Blu-ray or DVD is just that-- a copy without restrictions. You own it, can view it whenever and wherever you want, including compatible portable devices, and avoid running into any nasty DRM issues, such as an inability to play content you paid for.
2. Picture quality. Since videos are streamed from your computer over your home network instead of the Internet, they can offer better video quality, even HD quality. Internet-based services like Netflix, on the other hand, base their picture quality on the quality and speed of your Internet connection. If you have a connection below 3 Mbps, don't expect a pristine picture, and even the fastest connections only allow near DVD-quality video. Yes, some services allow you to download, rather than stream, HD content, such as Vudu, but with a slow connection that can be limiting. And now with Comcast enforcing a bandwidth cap, heavy movie watchers who use services like Vudu could be at a disadvantage.
3. YouTube and other free online videos. We've covered Panasonic's Viera Cast before--a high-end option to view YouTube videos on your television without a separate box. It's a clean and easy solution, but it's costly and not as flexible as a DLNA server like TVersity can be. Along with your large video collection, it's also possible with a DLNA setup to populate your content list with your favorite YouTube videos, videocasts, or podcasts and access them directly from your remote--anything from Diggnation to ABC's World News to CNET's own Buzz Out Loud. Not all of these free video sources are available on typical streaming services.
1. Setup and troubleshooting is for geeks. It takes a lot of CPU horsepower to read, process, and transcode that 4GB worth of video into a 700MB DivX file, and for many it's just not worth the time. Videos also take up a lot of space, and while hard drive capacity is pretty cheap, there's still the quality of the video to consider. An average DVD movie is about 4GB, which can be compressed to around 700MB for a DivX file. But if you go HD, expect your hard drive to swallow gigabytes of space for compressed video--that can add up if you have a large collection. And in a DLNA setup a lot can go wrong, but support is typically handled by you: the computer, the home network, and the device. Unless you don't mind tinkering with your computer, it might be best to avoid the DIY approach.
2. The tech-challenged-family factor. You can hear the complaints: Why is the computer always turned on? How am I going to clean around this spaghetti mess of wires? Why can't I get this to work? Sometimes it's best to forgo the DIY approach and go with a paid service if your family cannot get along with your media-streaming setup--you'll avoid the dirty looks.
3. Cost. The Netflix Player by Roku can be had for $100. Unless you have a souped-up computer with terabytes of space, expect to spend a lot more on a computer that can match the performance, selection of content, and processing power to compete with fee-based services. And if you don't have an extensive DVD library, the price skyrockets in comparison to the near endless selection that Netflix offers for a monthly fee.
These are just some of the advantages and disadvantages of using a DLNA-certified system for your home theater. It's important to note that we didn't go into all the technical limitations, as that would have extended this list to be twice as long. But if we missed anything important, let us know in the comments below. In the meantime, we'll be covering DLNA software in the future, highlighting three that we think stand out among the myriad of packages out there, and giving a hands-on look at their features and capabilities.