Connected Home Best Practices
December 1, 2011 2 Comments
Last update: February 17, 2013
This article has had almost 300,000 views! Thanks for reading it.
Back in 2009, there wasn’t much information around to help people set up a home network for multimedia, so I wrote an article called Connected Home Best Practices. This is an updated version of that article.
Connected Home Benefits
Before I get into any details, I thought I’d mention some of the benefits you might experience if you follow my guidelines below.
- Watch all of your of your movies on any TV in the house without inserting a disc into a DVD player
- Access your entire music collection of CDs and downloaded music from your receiver, computer, tablet or smartphone. You can even play different music in every room if you want
- View any photo you’ve ever taken on any TV in your house or any mobile device
- Drag and drop photos from Flickr, Facebook, Photobucket or Picasa Web onto a device to view them
- Access your media 24/7 without turning on a computer
- Copy media from your computers to mobile devices with needing a cable
- Access all of your media from a game console
- Have media automatically copied from your mobile device to your backup drive when you enter your home
These are just a few of the things which are possible with a multimedia network and connected devices.
Step 1 – Preparing Your Media
This first step is to collect all of your media assets. If you haven’t scanned your analog photos and digitized your home movies, you should consider doing that first. If you have DVD movies, you might want to consider converting those to digital files as well. There is already a lot of info on the Internet about this, so I’m not covering it here. Here are some important things to consider as you prepare your media to be shared.
- As you create your digital media library, try to use formats which are supported by the devices you plan to use. If you’re using AirPlay devices like Apple TV, you should use the following: AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF and WAV audio; JPEG, GIF and TIFF images; H.264, MPEG-4 and Motion JPEG video (up to 720p). More info. If you’re using DLNA-certified devices you should try to stick with MP3 or LPCM audio; JPEG photos; and MPEG-2, MPEG4, WMV9 video. More info.
- Avoid buying copy-protected media when the same content exists in a legal, unprotected form. Unprotected media is superior because any device can play it and you’ll never have to worry about losing your licenses.
- When ripping audio CDs, choose high-bit rate MP3 or linear audio (WAV) over FLAC or Apple Lossless (ALAC), because not every device can play these formats. If you insist on lossless audio make sure all of your devices can play the format you plan to use.
- It’s essential that all of your music files have accurate ID3 tags. Your media server uses these tags to create its navigation trees. If any of your music files are missing artist, genre or album tags, those artists/genres/albums won’t appear in the navigation tree. You can still access that media from the song list, but it’s more time consuming. Tip: Software like Tag & Rename, can convert filenames into ID3 tags.
- Avoid editing metadata using iTunes or Windows Media Player unless you’re sure the changes you make are stored in your media as a standard tag format. Older versions of iTunes and Windows Media Player stored changes in the local database, so they would be lost when a file was moved. It’s better to use specialized software like Media Monkey, which enters metadata directly into an ID3 or EXIF tag, so it can be imported by software on any Mac or PC.
- Create separate folders for each artist in your music library. Each artist folder should contain separate folders for each album. Each album folder should contain a JPEG file for the album cover. Normally this file is named “folder.jpg”. Your media server will use this file as album art. You can also embed album art in each music file as an ID3 tag, but doing this with file formats like WAV can cause problems with some media players.
- It’s a good idea to create separate folders for each year in your My Photos folder. Inside each year folder, you should have subfolders for different photo albums.
- You may want to also use software like Windows Live Photo Gallery to add tags or descriptions to your photos.
- And last but not least, make sure to perform regular backups of your media. After you do all this work, you won’t want to lose it.
Step 2 – Selecting a Media Server
- If you want to access your media without a computer on, you’ll want to get a network-attached storage device (NAS). Make sure your NAS has an embedded media server. Beware of older or inexpensive NAS devices. Some of these have memory limitations or slow CPUs have problems with large media collections.
- Do not encrypt the data on your NAS (at the partition or at a file level). The performance hit which occurs when you do this is massive and the drop in transfer rates is likely to cause problems streaming video.
- Avoid using software like Microsoft’s Windows Media Player or Apple’s iTunes to share your media files. Premium media servers like TwonkyServer (and others) are faster and more reliable. They also support more devices and file formats. [Disclosure: I work for the company that makes Twonky software]
- Make sure the virus scanner on your computer or NAS is not a CPU hog. Poorly designed virus scanners can cause skipping problems during playback.
- Avoid running software firewalls like ZoneAlarm (unless you know how to configure them so they don’t cause problems). Make sure your software firewall isn’t blocking any of the ports it needs to function. Check the manufacturers’ site to obtain this info.
- Avoid storing media on a network share. It’s better to share content from a hard drive in the same device where the media server resides. Network shares increase the traffic on your network and can be unreliable.
- Don’t nest your media deeply under many levels of folders. Doing so, can slow down media scanning and increase the size of your media database.
- Be careful which folder you select as your watched folder. Do not select a folder your Operating System constantly updates, like a Temp folder, bit-torrent download folder, or the Windows System folder. A watched folder with lots of changes can slow down your media server.
Step 3 – Choosing a Connected Media Player
There is no single media player that’s good at everything. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Here are some suggestions which will help you to choose the right media player for your needs:
- Consider buying products which have been DLNA-certified because they normally undergo a higher level of testing than other connected devices. You can search for DLNA-certified products here.
- Not all DLNA-certified devices can be externally controlled. Make sure your media player can accept media which is pushed from your computer or mobile device. Many devices only can pull media using their remote controls. You can find a list of devices that meet this requirement here.
- If you’re having problems with a device, check to see if a newer firmware update addresses those problems. Keep in mind installing new firmware can create problems, so you should only do so if you know it will fix a problem you’re experiencing, or you can revert to a previous version if needed.
- Before using a game console as a media player, you should be aware of their limitations:
- You cannot beam media from your PC or mobile device to a Sony PS3 or Nintendo Wii. The Xbox 360 can accept pushed media, but only when it’s in Media Center Extender mode.
- Game consoles do not support as many formats as other digital media players.
- The Xbox 360 does not display all of the items in the Twonky navigation tree. As a result, you won’t see things like By Folder, Artist Index, Artist Album, Genre Index, Genre/Artist.
- Most game consoles, connected TVs and Blu-ray players can only play a limited number of media formats. Because of this, you’re often better off purchasing a low-cost connected media player, like a WD TV, which supports a wider range of formats.
- Make sure your digital media player can automatically scale photos so they appear full-screen. Not all connected media players and TVs can do this.
- The best digital media players, like the PS3, have nice transitions in-between photos and let you play music in the background while you are watching a slideshow. Xbox 360 has a nice zoom transition effect on photos. At this time, there are no media players other than Apple TV, which can display a continuous slideshow of photos pushed from a computer or mobile device. In most cases, a black or blue screen appears in-between each photo. If you experience this problem, use the remote which came with your device and select a folder of images to view. If you do this, you should see nice transitions between every photo.
- Don’t assume all media players can stream 1080p videos. Some can only play 720p, or have stuttering problems when they play 1080p.
- Don’t assume your connected TV will be able to play all popular media formats. Most DLNA-certified TVs can only play MPEG-2, AVCHD and a few other formats. Don’t expect 3GP, QuickTime, DivX, MKV or YouTube videos to play on these devices. If you want to play YouTube videos, you’ll need a Samsung TV, Sony TV (2011 or later), Xbox 360 or a WD TV Live.
- Should be able to play all popular music formats (e.g. MP3, FLAC, AAC/M4A, ALAC, WMA and Ogg Vorbis).
- If you don’t have a connected receiver you should connect a media player your stereo receiver.
- Don’t assume that all media players can accept music playlists that are beamed from computers or mobile devices. Some only allow one song to be sent at a time.
- Don’t assume all connected devices can have their volume changed externally. Most stereo receivers disable this feature.
- Look for media players which can be grouped so you can have the same music playing in different rooms of your home. Examples: Linn multi-room music systems, Philips Streamium players, Sonos ZonePlayers, etc.
- If you have a great stereo system, make sure your media player has an optical output or good audio converters (e.g. Linn products, Sonos Zone Players).
- Should work with DLNA-certified devices and AirPlay-certified devices like Apple TV.
- A good controller should be available for Android and iOS mobile devices as well as Mac and PCs.
- A good mobile controller should be able to automatically hand off it’s playlists to an always-on device like a NAS. That way playback will not stop when the mobile device leaves the network or goes into power standby.
- Connect your media players using a wired connection when you have a choice. Wired networks capable of much higher throughput. Cat 6 Ethernet is up to 5 times faster than 802.11n wireless and less likely to have stuttering problems when streaming HD video. 802.11g Wi-Fi is fine for streaming music and photos, but can be problematic for HD video. The data-rate required for DVD-quality video is 9.8Mbps, while Blu-ray is around 40Mbps. Although it seems like a 54Mbps wireless router should be able to handle this amount of data, in reality, it probably can’t. Wired connections also don’t “drop” or have range problems like wireless connections do.
- Don’t back up your computer while you’re trying to stream HD video. This can cause videos to buffer.
- Don’t connect any of your PCs or devices to the “Internet” or “Uplink” ports on your router or switch.
- If you want to stream HD video over the Internet, check your Internet connection speed using sites like this. Most HD Internet movie streaming sites recommend a download speed of at least 3.0 Mbps.
- Use Cat 5e or Cat 6 network patch cords and cabling. They cost about the same as regular cable and could be a little faster.
- Dual-band Wi-Fi routers like the Linksys N600, N750, N900 over AC1750 are better for multimedia streaming because they support the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The 5GHz band is much less prone to interference. Use the 5GHz band if your devices support it and range is not a problem.
- If you have problems with wireless devices on your network, consider power-line networking alternatives like HomePlug Powerline AV adapters. If you go this route, make sure your adapter is HomePlug AV-compatible so you can mix and match devices from other companies. According a recent article in Maximum PC, last-generation Homeplug AV 200 adapters were supposed to be capable of speeds of up to 200Mb/s. Even though they only got real world speeds were 60-70Mb/s, that’s enough for a single HD stream. Newer devices support the IEEE 1903 standard which is capable of theoretical speeds up to 500Mbps and real world speeds up to 100Mbps. These speeds are even faster than you can get over standard Ethernet wiring, so you should be able to stream multiple HD movies at once in your home using multiple adapters. Consider the TP-Link AV-500 TL-PA511KIT or eNetgear Nano 500 XAVB5101 adapters. Those are two of the best affordable adapters available today.
- Another good wireless alternative is Ethernet over coax MoCA adapters like these. Both of these are much more reliable than wireless routers. They are also capable of higher data rates. However, HomePlug is not without problems, it sometimes has issues with split-phase wiring and surge protectors. When using HomePlug, avoid using an AC power strip and plug the unit directly into the wall.
- If your wireless devices are having trouble seeing your media server running on your LAN, check your router to make sure that multicast is enabled.
- To increase performance, you should try to use wireless channels which do not overlap with your neighbors. If you have an Android device, you should download the “Wi-Fi analyzer” app by FARPROC. It shows which channel has the best signal strength.
- Try to place your wireless router in a location where it is as close to your media players as possible. Every time the signal has to pass through a wall it drops in strength. 5GHz wireless loses more signal than 2.4GHz when going through walls.
- Be aware that cordless phones, baby monitors, wireless security cameras and microwave ovens can all interfere with 2.4GHz wireless networks.
- Having devices connected to both wired and wireless networks at the same time can cause problems. If you can’t see your media server or some media players on your network, this could be the cause.
- Use DHCP because it makes setup easier. Don’t use fancy network setups with multiple subnets and hubs. Doing so can introduce latencies that cause problems with UPnP data.
- If you want to be able to stream multiple HD videos at once, make sure there are no 10Mbps routers or switches on your LAN. Use Gigabit Ethernet switches instead.
- Some routers and switches work better than others for media streaming. Problems with media playback stopping or stuttering often go away when a new router or switch is used.
- Changing router settings can also sometimes improve media streaming performance. Before changing any router setting, make sure to write down the old setting, in case you need to go back to it. If you have a busy network, collisions can occur that reduce your throughput. Lowering the fragmentation threshold can improve performance by reducing re-transmissions. Try setting the fragmentation threshold to 1,000 bytes and see if that improves media streaming. Be aware that using smaller packet adds extra overhead, so you shouldn’t set this value too low. Setting the threshold to the largest value (2,346 bytes) effectively disables fragmentation. Do not change this setting if you are not having media streaming problems. Another parameter that some users experiment with is the UPnP Advertisement Period. Some claim lowering this parameter can cause devices to appear faster on the network.
- If your router has a setting to enable or disable UPnP, it’s important you understand what this setting does.
- “UPnP AV” is a streaming protocol that allows UPnP software to discover and communicate with other UPnP devices. If this is disabled, you may not be able to discover media servers or media players/renderers on your network. This should be enabled for proper operation.
- “UPnP IGD” (Internet Gateway Device protocol) allows software to automatic configure port forwarding for remote access. This setting does not have to be enabled to browse or stream media. In some countries this setting is disabled by default because it can make it easier for hackers to punch a hole in your router’s firewall and gain access to your network. Keep this disabled, unless you need to allow remote access and do not know how to configure this manually. If the router lists UPnP without more details it probably refers to UPnP IGD. Check its manual to make sure.
What to look for in a connected photo and video player
What to look for in a connected music player
What to look for in a media controller
Not all home networks are ready to stream high-definition video. Here are some suggestions which will make your home network multimedia-ready.
Wired Network Tips
Wireless Network Tips
The Final Word
If you’ve made it this far, you know what you need to optimize your home network for multimedia streaming. I hope you find some of this information to be useful. If you have any additional suggestions, please leave them in the Comments section.
Thanks to Christian Gran, Jim Pfeifer, Angela Scheller, Cindy Vivoli, Ken Clapp and pcfe for also contributing to this article.
Copyright 2009-2013 Rick Schwartz. All rights reserved. Linking to this article is encouraged.
Follow me on Twitter @mostlytech1