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Serve Up Your Video Files to Your DLNA-Compliant TV

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I don't watch much broadcast TV directly (I hate commercials), but I do have an extensive library of video files (movies and TV episodes) on my PC's hard disk.  When I got my new Toshiba HDTV, the first thing I did was hook up the "PC Interface" as I'd done with my old TV (see my previous article).  A VGA or DVI cable connects the video and a simple audio cable with supplied adapter hooks up the sound (s-video connection is not usually supported these days).  The drawbacks:  The PC must be located physically near the TV and you probably won't be able to start or pause playback without getting up from your easy chair.

But I'd bought a "smart TV" (Toshiba 55SL417U) that provides a wireless connection to my home network and surely there must be a way to play my video files directly to the TV...  There are, in fact, several options.

Here are three ways to play your video files on your DLNA-compliant TV

...listed in the order in which I tried them (in reverse order of preference).

Prerequisite:
First, connect your TV to your network.  Just plug in the Ethernet cable or use the TV's Network menu to connect to your home wireless network (you'll need to enter a password -- assuming that your wireless network is secured -- I hope for your sake that it is).  The wireless has the downside of lower bit rate (11 Mbit/s) and I found that to be an occasional problem -- slow menus, and some video "stuttering" and playback interruptions.  I ended up using a wired (100 Mbit/s) connection.

3. Use Windows Media Player

I googled and found this guide: Making Your PC a DLNA Certified Media Server  And although some steps don't line up (the article may be correct for Windows Medial Player 11 but not exactly right for WMP 12), it is not too hard to stumble around and enable video sharing and put your video files in the right place (or add the existing folders to a Win 7 Library -- I always wondered what those were for).  The end result is that your TV's "Media Player" menu now lists one or more DLNA Servers (for some reason, my TV shows two servers on the same PC).   And you can browse through folders to locate video files and start playback using the remote control.

Tip: Make sure that your TV is turned on when doing the WMP setup on the PC.

Upside:
You already have WMP on your computer.  It's free.

Downside:
This option seemed overly complex.  Everything must be just right on both ends, and you go back and forth between Windows security issues and media sharing options.  Some setup options don't show up (on either end) in some cases. Even with everything working as  advertised,  I could not get the Pause and Fast Forward buttons on the TV remote to work -- only Play and Stop.   It is possible that I just did not try hard enough, but that's because I abandoned this approach after educating myself with a bit more Googling.

2. Use DLNA Server Software

There are a number of commercial products that turn your computer into a DLNA compliant server device.  An excellent list of them is here:

     Comparison of UPnP AV media servers

Some TVs even come with Media Server software and/or the maker provides a download.  If that is an option for you, I recommend that you use the manufacture's supplied software.

One program that gets good reviews (and the one I tried),  is Mezzmo.  I found Mezzmo pretty easy to use.  But there is a trick that I had to figure out for myself (the program's online help..., well, didn't.  And even the Mezzmo User Forums did not provide the (easy) solution.  The problem was that I would start playback, and the "info" button would (oddly) show that the clip was only a few minutes long.  Then, sure enough a few minutes into playback, the TV's Media Player would stop and throw me back into the menu.   If I started again, then I might make it though the entire 45 minutes of the show.

What was happening is that Mezzmo has an advanced feature called transcoding.  It converts the source media into the perfect 1920x1080 output for the HD TV.  Then it serves the data, frame-by-frame, to the TV.  This conversion process takes time and a lot of CPU power.  The end result was that even with a 2.6 GHz QuadCore AMD box, it could not transcode fast enough to keep up with real-time output at that high bit-rate format (FWIW, the display was great when it worked...) On the forums, they talked about the "upcoming" feature of allowing the user to "pre-transcode" to avoid this problem.  But the "next version" had been mentioned in posts that were two years old!  

Anyway, the trick I found was... simply turn off the transcoding feature.  The video files that I get -- mostly current-season TV dramas -- are already encoded in a format that is perfectly viable for my HDTV screen.  A common format is 624x352, which looks perfectly fine when the TV automatically enlarges it for the 1920x1080 output.  My collection of video files includes some archival shows, such as Wooster and Jeeves that were encoded using older, sometimes incompatible, formats.  But I found a workaround for that (discussed below).

Upside:
Great user interface.  Easy setup.  Free trial, then low cost to purchase.  Correctly receives and responds to the remote control's Pause and Fast Forward commands relayed from the TV to the PC.

Downside:
Some problems with the transcoding.  Not free.

1. Using a NAS with a Built-In DLNA Server

At some point, no matter how much disk storage you have on your PC, the "Space used" bar goes red and you need to start deleting files or buy a new disk.  When I started looking for a new 1TB drive, I noticed that some were file serving appliances,  NAS (Network Attached Storage).  Just plug it into the network and you instantly have a new user who is sharing his drive to the network.  

So a NAS looked more attractive than adding a new internal drive or another USB drive to my main PC (the USB-connected MyBook I have works great, but it, too, is filling up).  Then I noticed that many, even most, of these NAS devices proclaim that they are DLNA Certified.  That means that they (effectively) include software like Mezzmo that handles the video serving and responds to commands relayed from the remote control.

I bought a 1TB Verbatim MediaShare from Amazon for well under $100.   It takes a few seconds to boot up (I understand that it runs some form of Linux).  I plugged it into the network and it immediately showed up as \\MediaShare in Windows Explorer.  It shows up as MediaShare on the TV's Media Player menu.  I dragged some video files from my (old) video server box into the "FamilyLibrary/FamilyVideo" folder and they immediately appeared on the TV's media menu, and I could play them without hassle.  

I eventually moved everything from several scattered hard disk archives onto the MediaShare drive.  I turned off my old WinXP video server box and retired it to the attic.

Tip:  You don't want the TV to have to display a huge menu of all of your video files.  For faster startup, I set up a hierarchy of folders, with the shows I'm currently watching in folders near the top, and old movies (e.g., definitive Marilyn Monroe set) buried a few folders down.

The Verbatim drive has lots of other cool features, including access via the Internet.  For instance, you can log in and view your videos and photos from remote devices (smart phones, etc.).  Make a login for your other videophile pals and you can share each other's libraries.

Upside:
Does video serving transparently.  Adds a respectable 1000 GB of storage to your network (most movies are about 1 GB, and all seven years of Star Trek: Voyager take up about 60 GB) so you won't run out of space for a while.  Great for storing backup data from your working PCs.  Probably faster access than a USB drive.  Uses a lot less power than a dedicated server box (about 10% as much).  Easy, secure access from all PCs on your home network for maintaining or manipulating your video and photo library (e.g., deleting episodes you have watched, culling photos, etc.)

Downside:
Not free.  No automatic transcoding options.

Video Format Conversion

As I found with Mezzmo, my TV does not always recognize all video formats.  I occasionally see a "No compatible files found" message.  My workaround for that is this:  Get a program named WinFF.

It is a GUI front-end for FFMPG, the Open Source video conversion utility.  It can recognize nearly any video input format -- almost like magic.  Note: The popular VLC Media Player uses the same FFMPEG magic).   When my TV balks at playing a video (that's rare, but it can happen) I trot out WinFF and convert the file to the "preset" values for WideScreen.  This runs the CPU up to 100% and it takes some time to finish, but this has never failed for me.  I convert one episode, then leave the computer to grind through the rest as I watch the first.

0. Another Option on Some TVs: Use that USB port.

My Toshiba HDTV has a USB port on the back, as do most modern TVs.  If you copy a video file onto a thumb drive (or larger USB drive) and plug it into the TV, the TV immediately scans the drive for files and presents a menu.  Select and play.  In other words, this really is a "Smart TV" -- it includes a filesystem handler and provides an internal Media Server as well as the built in Media Player.

That feature could be useful for toting around photo albums on a key chain and it is a convenient way for friends to bring their own videos when they drop by.  And it works without a connection to the network.  But it's not likely to be the main way for you to access your video collection -- just an option that's available and reliable.

Conclusion

My Toshiba television has lots of ways to access Internet video (Yahoo Widgets and Net TV to view YouTube videos, etc.), but I wanted to be able to watch the video files that I already have on my PC's hard disk.  I tried several options, but ended up solving two problems at one throw -- the NAS "Home Media Server" acts as a plug-and-play DLNA-compliant video server, while also providing plenty of extra storage for my video library.

One final note:
If your TV is not DLNA-compliant, all is not lost.  Many of the newer video peripherals have a built-in DLNA Media Player.  Many DVD and Blu-Ray players, and some DVRs provide this feature.  Another common option is to use your DLNA-complaint gaming console, such as XBox 360 or PS3, to act as the video player and feed the stream to your TV.

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Author:DanRollins
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by:lherrou
Interesting article! It got my YES vote above.

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by:Padn1
I use PS3 Media Server for my Samsung Smart TV, works great.
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