You've been a digital pack rat, collecting music, photo, and video files over the years. Now, you want to access your media from the comfort of your living-room couch, so you can view it on the wide-screen HDTV at the center of your home theater. Whether you want to kick back and relax to the strains of Stravinsky, or relive your vacation through photos and videos, the media-centric storage devices we've found will help you get files off the drive and onto your TV or stereo.
Most of the units we spotlight here are network-attached storage (NAS) boxes with features that make them especially media-friendly. Two are hard drives onto which you load media via USB and then attach to your TV as you would a DVD player or DVR (a little like the Popcorn Hour A-110).
Over the Network
The most elegant way to share audio, photo, and video files between your PC and your television is to use the NAS together with what's generally referred to as a Digital Media Adapter (DMA, also referred to as Digital Media Receiver). The DMA connects to your TV via HDMI, composite, or component video outputs; and it connects to your network via ethernet or wireless. Once on the network, it can stream media from your network hard drive--assuming the NAS box has a UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) media server embedded (most do). Many network storage boxes, including three models reviewed here, are certified by the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA)--an extra layer of certainty that your networked devices will talk to one another. (You can also use a video game console connected to your television, such as the Sony PlayStation 3 or the Microsoft Xbox 360, to stream the media from a NAS to your TV.)
To complete the circuit, you'll need a router, preferably one equipped with wireless N (currently the fastest wireless technology available) and wired gigabit ethernet (common to all but one of the networkable boxes we tried). In our hands-on tests, gigabit ethernet provided a smoother playback experience with high-definition content.
Standard 10/100 ethernet and wireless N both provided a suitable streaming experience for music and photos. However, in our testing with 720p and 1080p video through two different 10/100 routers, we often experienced long delays before the video playback commenced; sometimes, we experienced stuttering once the playback began.
In contrast, 480p video generally played smoothly. When we switched to a wired gigabit connection, playback was smooth as could be, and we experienced virtually no playback delays.
Before you start shopping for the extra equipment you need to use a NAS with your TV, double-check to make sure the devices you're considering are DMAs, not Windows Media Extenders. With a DMA, you don't need a PC to act as your intermediary between your content and your TV. Windows Media Extenders are literally an extension of your PC, letting you stream content from your PC by displaying and controlling Windows Vista Media Center through your television.
Alas, while DMAs provide clients that stream media from PCs, many Windows Media Extenders won't communicate with UPnP servers on a NAS box or with your PC--which is why we recommend that you go with a straight-up DMA.
NAS boxes with UPnP media servers, such as the models highlighted here, also offer other media-centric features like an iTunes server; simply store your songs on the drive, and the iTunes server will create a shared iTunes library that shows up automatically under the Shared heading of the iTunes navigation panel on your PC-or via your DMA. This little trick saves you the hassle of adding songs to every iteration of iTunes on your network. (For more on NAS units, see our latest Top 10 Network-Attached Storage Devices chart.)
A few hard drives make it easier to access your media from your TV without using a network as a conduit. The advantage of this approach is that you don't have to hassle with wireless connections or string network cables throughout your home.
Not included here but worth noting is LaCie's slickly designed LaCinema Black Max. This box, not yet shipping at the time of this writing, can record video to its 1TB hard disk and output directly to your television.
Already have a hard drive that you want to hook up to your TV? Seagate's FreeAgent Home Theater dock and Western Digital's WD TV each work with any drive, connect directly to your television and simplify finding and displaying audio, video, and pictures stored on any hard drive.
Here are links to reviews of all the drives we tested for this roundup, in order of their rating.
Network-Attached Storage Drives:
Stand-Alone Media Drives (not rated):