After I bought my iPad, I realized I don’t really use my laptop as much anymore. This means that I really use my desktop a lot a less! Unfortunately my desktop, which has some decent specs, is in sleep mode most of the time. I thought this was a little sad and a waste of money, so I decided to do some research and figure out some way to utilize it.
Previously, I wrote about how you can install Windows 8 on an older PC to revitalize it and that’s something that I did with my desktop. Also, I previously had written about how to automate your computer when you’re not using it to perform certain tasks. In addition to accomplishing these two tasks, I wanted the desktop to be even more useful!
After a few days of testing and playing around with software, I can now happily stream music and videos to any web browser or to my smartphone while not being at home! Since my desktop has some extra hard drives, I even turned it into a NAS also using some free software. Now I can FTP into my server to download/upload files and I can even use it for Time Machine backups for my Mac. Sweet! So here’s a list of programs you can use to convert your boring old PC into something a little more useful.
I bought a Synology DS411+II and even though I’m very happy with it, I realized I can pretty much do everything I want by just installing open-source software onto my desktop! One of the coolest programs out there that I had always heard about, but never used until now, was FreeNAS. It’s basically exactly what its name says: a free NAS OS for your PC, Mac or Linux box.
It’s a very capable and powerful OS that also supports additional features via plugins. I was amazed at what I was able to do with this software. Note that if you use FreeNAS on a computer, you really can’t use that computer for anything else. Some of the other programs I mention below run inside Windows. FreeNAS is it’s own OS and manages all the hard drives installed on the computer, etc.
Another thing to note that FreeNAS is that it’s really useful if you have a desktop with several hard drives and a at least 4 GB of RAM. The hard drives don’t have to be super fast or giant in size, but the whole point of using FreeNAS is to store files and then to either stream those files or utilize them in some other way.
To get your started on your way, check out these FreeNAS guide articles from Lifehacker and Engadget. They walk you through all the steps to setup the NAS and how to setup all the extra functionality like streaming, downloading and more.
One of the best ways to convert a computer into a media center. XBMC is an open-source project that can pretty much play all of the popular audio and video formats. It can even play direct DVD and Blu-ray rips, which is really nice. You can stream any of your media around your house or across the Internet. You can also control the whole gig with a remote control and enjoy a ton of additional features with their large set of add-ons.
XBMC is absolutely awesome, but you get the max benefit if you have a small desktop. I have two desktop, one a giant Dell and another one is a smaller newer HP desktop. I decided to use the HP desktop and connect it to my HDTV at home running XBMC. It works great, but I realized I could not have done it unless I had that smaller desktop. If you have an older desktop that is fairly large, then you might want to try one of the other program mentioned below.
PS3 Media Server
PS3 Media Server is a client application you install onto your PC like XBMC, but unlike XBMC, you access all the content via streaming. XBMC can stream too, but it’s mostly meant to be connected to your TV since it has a software front-end. PS3 Media Center was originally designed to stream media to just the PS3, but it now supports a whole lot of devices including the xBox 360, Sony Bravia TVs, Android devices, Samsung TVs, Boxee box and even XMBC Media Center.
PS3 Media Server also has quite a few plugins so you can add extra content and channels to your streaming options. It’s quite popular amongst home-streaming junkies and that’s why I listed it here.
TVersity is another good choice for media streaming. It used to be free, but now it seems you have to buy a license. You can get one for $4 or pay $20 for the Pro license. The Pro version basically lets you subscribe to premium online content like Hulu, NFL, CNN, etc. If you have your own videos and you just want them streamed around the house, then the standard license for $4 is worth it.
What’s neat about the Pro version is that you can stream Internet video streams from TVersity to an Xbox 360. This used to be more useful because you could subscribe to CNN, for example, through TVersity and watch it on the TV that your Xbox 360 is connected to. However, Xbox has added a lot of content recently and you can pretty much watch whatever you want using the built-in apps. Still, TVersity is great for streaming videos to other devices.
For audiophiles with huge music collections, Subsonic is the best way to stream your music all over the place! Subsonic can automatically resample songs that are streaming over the Internet to a bitrate that will prevent songs from skipping or stop playing. What’s awesome about Subsonic is that they have apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone 7, Roku and lots more. Also, in addition to streaming music, it can stream video as well. However, this program is best suited for music streaming.
VLC Media Player
Not only does VLC Media Player play just about any music or video file you can throw at it, but it also lets you stream music and videos locally over the network or over the Internet! I really never knew this even though I’ve been using the program for 5 years now! Check out the How-to-Geek’s guide to setting up streaming using VLC. It’s not anything fancy, but it gets the job done and since most people already have it installed, it might be worth checking out.
Orb has been around for a long time and their products are pretty cool. Orb Caster is a personal media server that not only lets you stream your videos and music, but also can stream live TV if you have a TV tuner card installed on your PC. They also have a Orb Live, which includes apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices so that you can stream anything from Orb Caster to your mobile device, including live TV. You can basically use Orb as a SlingBox in some respects.
So these are 7 awesome programs that you can use to convert an idle PC into a streaming media server that you can then use to access your music and videos anywhere in the world. It will take a weekend to figure out which program you want to use and to setup everything, but it’s definitely worth the time. Enjoy!