Many of us are guilty of clogging up our PCs with digital media files, whether movies, music or photographs. A far better solution is an external storage drive, which offers a secure location for your media and, if attached to a system on your home network, lets you stream content between devices. You won't be tied to your PC to watch movies, and you'll be able to listen to internet radio from any room in the house.
Optimise your home network for media streaming
But before you begin transferring all your photos and video to an external hard drive, consider what else is in your network. Streaming media will eat into a huge chunk of your bandwidth, which will slow down the network for other activities.
If you're considering streaming music and photos around your home, you'll need to do a stock-take of the hardware you own. While an 802.11g Wi-Fi network will let you push MP3 audio files and modest-sized photos around your home, its bandwidth isn't sufficient for streaming video.
If your goal is to download TV programmes from BBC iPlayer (or a similar service) and then view the content on the TV in your living room, you'll need to create a more solid network.
Optimise your wireless network
First things first: there's no point in attempting to stream music and videos across your network unless your hardware is geared up to do so.
Over the years, we've tested many an internet radio and digital media adaptor that claims to deliver rock-solid playback. In most cases, these devices left us frustrated. Wireless 802.11a networks just don't have the bandwidth to effectively stream media; music will stutter and photos may not load.
It's better news if you've got an 802.11g wireless setup. You should be able to stream standard-resolution video and photos and achieve consistent audio playback without suffering too much lag due to buffering. Note, however, that performance will drop sharply if several family members are all trying to use this same setup at once.
A wireless network will run at the speed of the slowest element, so get rid of any legacy wireless 802.11a/b hardware. Remember to site your router for optimal performance too, bearing in mind physical obstructions such as walls. A network that runs over more than one floor is best sited low down on the upper or middle floor.
If you're lucky enough to have a laptop with a draft-n adaptor, it's worth upgrading your Wi-Fi setup to match. Check out our buying advice and reviews for the best 802.11n models.
Consider a hybrid network that uses a combination of Wi-Fi and HomePlug or powerline technology. This creates a network using your home's electrical sockets and provides a more consistent bandwidth, since the electrical current doesn't fluctuate as much. We look at setting up a powerline network opposite.
If you've got a mixture of Wi-Fi kit, use older access points for basic tasks and directly connect more demanding products such as a NAS drive or media-streaming device to a HomePlug or wireless 802.11g network. Your kids can carry on instant-messaging their friends while you stream episodes of ‘Torchwood' from BBC iPlayer to your flatscreen TV.