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.

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.

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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.

802.11a Wi-Fi networks lack the bandwidth to effectively stream digital media

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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.

More instructions for achieving a solid Wi-Fi setup can be found here.

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.

Set up a powerline network

Stream media from a NAS drive

Many of us are guilty of clogging up our PCs with digital media. A better solution is an external storage drive, which offers a secure location for your media and, if attached to your home network, lets you stream content between devices.

Set up a powerline network

Streaming media across your home network will eat up huge chunks of your bandwidth and slow down other activities. For most setups, a better, more dependable option is a wired HomePlug or powerline network. This uses your home's electrical sockets to pass an internet connection from room to room. You can then leave your Wi-Fi network free for other activities.

If you can plug in a power cord and an ethernet cable, you can set up a powerline network. When choosing hardware, be aware that devices vary in data transfer speeds - 85MB per second (MBps) or 200MBps versions are available - so be sure to compare like for like. You'll need to plug your adaptor directly into a wall socket. Don't use filtered power strips or surge protectors because they can interfere with the network connection.

Powerline networks carry a web connection around the house via electrical sockets

Next, run an ethernet cable from the HomePlug to a free LAN port on your Wi-Fi router. Plug a second HomePlug adaptor into a wall socket in any room where you want access to this wired network. After a few seconds, the devices will recognise each other and connect.

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You can now connect any device that has an ethernet port to your network. In the living room, for example, you can hook up your games console, digital video recorder, Blu-ray player, Windows Media Extender, media streaming box and laptop. The beauty of such a setup is that you can also connect it to a Wi-Fi access point to bring coverage to what was previously a dead spot.

As with a Wi-Fi network, you may need to change the default settings to prevent neighbours operating on the same electrical circuit and hopping on to your network. You can change the default encryption password on all the kits simply by pressing buttons on each adaptor.

Another benefit of this setup is its flexibility. You can move the adaptors from one electrical socket to another without them losing their settings. And power outages shouldn't wreak long-term havoc either - as soon as the power's back on, your HomePlug devices should reappear on the network.

The down side of this is that you may encounter poor performance due to bad circuitry. In my 100-year-old house, older electrical outlets had severe interference problems, but on my newer circuits the adaptors worked perfectly. If you're unsure of your circuitry, buy from a vendor that has a good returns policy.

Optimise your wireless network

Stream media from a NAS drive

Many of us are guilty of clogging up our PCs with digital media. A better solution is an external storage drive, which offers a secure location for your media and, if attached to your home network, lets you stream content between devices.

Stream media from a NAS drive

To stream music from your NAS drive, you'll first need to allow the content to be shared. Open Windows Media Player and select Media Sharing from the Library drop-down menu. Tick the box next to ‘Share my media'. This is the only way you'll be able to access media stored on the drive from other devices connected to the network.

Next, you'll be presented with a list of networked devices. Select those that you're happy to share content with. You can then use the Customise option to specify different media types or folders than can be shared with other devices on the network.

Enable media sharing in Windows Media Player

Most NAS drives let you access your files over the internet, so you can stream your media from anywhere that has a web connection. Some devices use FTP for this purpose, while others rely on a proprietary web service. Some devices offer both options.

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You'll need to log into the online service before it can connect to your NAS drive. Check your manual for drive-specific instructions. If your NAS drive uses an FTP server, however, you'll have to set this up yourself.

As you'll be accessing your external hard drive from a browser, you'll need to know its IP address. Go to Control Panel, Network Connections and jot down the Default Gateway on the Current Connection tab. This is the IP address for your Wi-Fi router; enter it into a browser's address bar to access its web interface.

Next, visit the router configuration page and look for a table that contains the IP addresses of attached devices. Locate your NAS device and select the option that reserves the IP address shown beside it for that device. Doing so means you won't need to follow this process every time you wish to stream media across your home.

In a new browser window, enter the NAS drive's IP address into the address bar and enable the FTP server. Every drive is different, so it's best to refer to your manual for device-specific instructions. As a guide, our Buffalo LinkStation let us configure the FTP server under the Network tab.

Next, set up port forwarding on your router's configuration page. Select FTP forwarding and enter the NAS drive's IP address. This means that whenever a PC tries to make an FTP connection with the router's IP address, the router will automatically send it straight to the external hard drive.

When you're away from your home network and want to stream the media stored on the NAS device, you simply need to create a new network location. Go to Start, My Network Places and choose ‘Add a network place', ‘Choose another network location'. Enter the IP address of your home network and follow the wizard.

You'll now be able to access media content stored on your NAS drive from any web-connected PC.

Optimise your wireless network

Set up a powerline network