If you’ve got desktop PCs and laptops in several rooms around the house, your music, photos and video could probably benefit from better organisation. Even if you know what machine a particular file is stored on, accessing it from another PC will involve copying it over or setting up filesharing options.
A simpler approach is to store all your media in a central repository, which is available to any system on your home network. Any one of your machines can be used for this purpose, but you may prefer to set up a dedicated home media server. This is unlikely to be accidentally switched off, and with only one use it won’t be slowed down by other tasks or junk files and programs that accumulate over time.
Dedicated media servers are available from around £100, rising to £1,000-plus. But if your budget is tight, and you have an old PC that’s doing nothing but gathering dust, we also explain how you can put it to good use by creating your own media server. This method will cost you only your time - although an old PC will probably be less energy-efficient than today’s hardware. If you’re going to be running a media server all day, every day, the hit on your energy bill could soon mount up.
We’ve used a Windows XP machine, although you could use an even older PC - provided that it’s powerful enough. If you’ve got a redundant Vista or Windows 7 machine, even better.
Our example uses a Windows-only network. If all PCs are running Windows 7, HomeGroup will automatically let you share files between them.
Step 1. Your old PC is probably full of unused data and applications, which consume valuable disk space and could be slowing performance. Uninstall any programs you don’t need and delete unwanted data. If it’s still running slow, consider reinstalling Windows as a last resort.
Step 2. Also consider giving the machine a physical spring clean. If it’s been gathering dust for a year or two, it’s probably rather grubby. A build-up of dirt can prevent proper ventilation and cause the PC to overheat. Use a handheld vacuum cleaner on the grilles, and a can of compressed air on the internal fan.
Step 3. A really old PC will have a meagre hard-drive capacity. If you’ve got a large digital video library, an upgrade may be in order. Check whether your PC uses an IDE (ATA) or SATA interface before proceeding. You’ll find step-by-step instructions on performing the upgrade here.
Step 4. Since Windows 7 creates one automatically, you should have a HomeGroup set up for your current network. You’ll need to add your server to the network. Link it to your router using a wired connection. Configure the PC so it can be accessed by other PCs on the network.
Step 5. Any portable devices that you connect to the home network and use to access music, photos and video will be protected against potential damage caused by a power cut; your media server will not. Consider purchasing an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to safeguard the server. Prices start at around £40.
Step 6. We explain later on how to copy over files; for now, though, you need only check that the server is working properly. Select the folders in which you’ll store your media and ensure they’re configured for sharing. Place a sample file in each folder, then check you can access them from each networked PC.
Step 7. Now it’s time to begin copying files from each PC to the server. You can do so via the network, although it will be quicker to use an external hard drive. We used a super-fast Seagate USB 3.0 drive, but it’s unlikely to be compatible with most older PCs.
Step 8. Copy the media from each PC to the hard drive, and then to the server. We used RichCopy rather than Windows Explorer to drag-and-drop files. Select ‘Copy always’ to continue even if one file fails to transfer or a duplicate is spotted. This will enable you to go off and get something else done.
Step 9. If you want to access your media from Windows Media Player, you’ll need to include your server’s media folders in its library on each networked PC. Click Library and choose ‘Manage libraries’. For each media folder you should click Add in the dialog box and navigate to the relevant folder on your server.
Step 10. Your media server will now be up and running, but you’ve not finished just yet. Since all your media is now stored on one machine, a hard-drive failure would result in the loss of your entire library. Back up all your photos, video and music to a series of DVDs or an external hard drive.