If you're anything like me, you've built an impressive media empire inside your PC. You've compiled album after album of sweet jams. You've got reams of cherished photos from all your adventures, and your video collection spans everything from smartphone gag reels to family movies to high-resolution videos ripped from your DVD collection.
Problem is, they are all trapped in your PC. What if you want to watch one of your videos on the big, beautiful HDTV in your living room, or listen to your complete music collection on a storage-strapped smartphone?
The solution is simple: Turn your PC into a media slinger, a machine that can stream your music, movies, and photos wherever you want them to go. It's easier than you might think, though the tricky part is deciding just which server solution you want to use--and how much you want to spend.
Pick the right PC for the job
The first step is to make sure your computer is up to the task. Server software can place a heavy load on your PC, especially when it first indexes your media library--but also when it's actively streaming. What's more, you'll need to leave your PC running 24/7 if you want your media library to be available around the clock.
Indeed, many users elect to repurpose an older system as a dedicated media server: one that can sit quietly out of the way in a closet or basement until called upon to sling. If you can afford to devote an entire PC to media slinging, it won't matter as much whether it's a screaming powerhouse of a system, because it can devote all its resources to server duty.
The software we're going to explore today won't place a huge demand on your PC, but to be on the safe side, you should probably use a PC that's running Windows 7 or later, with at least 4GB of RAM, and a discrete video card to ensure smooth rendering while you're streaming movies. Optimizing Windows 8 to run on an older machine is probably the best way to go, but there are also a few decent free tweaks you can make to improve performance on Windows 7.
Choose the software that meets your needs
To start slinging, you'll need some reliable media server software. This will dictate not only what media you can share, but where you can share it.
For example, Pogoplug PC is a fairly straightforward Windows utility that makes your media available on your mobile devices, other PCs, and pretty much anything with a Web browser. Just choose the folders you want to share, and then sign into your account via one of Pogoplug's free companion apps (available for Android and iOS) or any browser. From there you can open an individual photo, watch a slideshow, stream a video, or listen to music.
You're not limited to media, either. The software can "stream" files as well, handy if you need mobile access to, say, some Microsoft Office documents while you're traveling for work. There's an integrated preview feature that supports Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDF, and other popular formats.
Pogoplug also allows you to share items with friends and family members, generating links others can use to view your content. Plus, you can download files if you're working at another PC and need to pop into your home server for some documents or music.
The full version of Pogoplug PC will cost you $29.95. The price includes 5GB of cloud storage that you can use to store items you want to access even if your computer is offline.
If you want the added option of streaming your media to your TV, consider PlayOn. This media-streaming service turns your PC into something akin to a Roku box, giving you access to channels such as ABC, Food Network, Hulu, Netflix, and TBS. But it can also stream your personal media libraries (though not your documents, sadly).
What's more, PlayOn works with a huge range of devices, including most game consoles, smartphones, tablets, and set-top boxes (including Google TV and Roku). It also supports DLNA, a relatively new media-streaming standard designed to make home streaming simpler. Plenty of new smart HDTVs, Blu-ray players, and the like support DLNA streaming, so chances are you probably have a DLNA-certified device in your home. If you want to see your media on your HDTV, PlayOn's probably got you covered.
The service and software cost $39.99 per year (though you can often find it on sale for less--it's currently $24.99 as part of a spring sale). However, if you mostly want to stream your own library and don't care about the premium channels, PlayOn Lite lets you do just that (and only that) for free.
Finally, there's Plex, a streaming media solution that PCWorld's Alex Castle said would make you forget Netflix and Hulu. That's because it's more powerful than either Pogoplug PC or PlayOn, with features like automatically downloading metadata for each item in your library, and on-the-fly transcoding: If a particular video or music file isn't directly compatible with the device you're viewing it on, Plex will transcode it to a format that is compatible.
Like the aforementioned PlayOn, Plex offers a number of subscription channels, such as CBS, Hulu, and NBC. It even has a browser bookmarklet that you can use to add any Web video to your queue. You also get a unique email address you can use to send links to your queue, which is very handy when someone shows you an awesome video on a smartphone in the middle of a party. Just borrow the phone, email yourself the link, and watch it on your HDTV when you get home.
The downside is that Plex is a little obtuse. Setting up and using the service can be a bit confusing, and several of the company's support pages are incomplete. Thankfully, there's a very active user forum you can rely on for technical support.
Furthermore, although the required Plex Media Server software is free (for both Windows and Linux), certain apps and features aren't. For example, if you want to stream your stuff to another PC, you'll need to install the free Plex desktop client on that PC. If you prefer to stream from a Web browser, you will have to pay a $4 monthly subscription to use the Plex browser client. Plex also offers decent apps for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 7, but each of them will cost you $4.99.
Take advantage of your cloud storage
As long as we're talking mobile devices, if you really just want to access all your media from your smartphone or tablet, there's one more option to consider: cloud services.
For example, the apps for both Dropbox and SugarSync let you view your cloud-stored photos, documents, and videos on your phone or tablet. They include rudimentary music players as well, though if you want an even better mobile jukebox experience, it's hard to beat Google Music--currently available for Android only.
In other words, if you're already syncing your media to the cloud, you can probably cut your PC out of the equation and stream everything to an app. Both Dropbox and SugarSync offer free accounts--2GB and 5GB of storage, respectively--but if you want more you'll have to pay for the privilege of streaming your media from someone else's servers. It's not a bad solution, but nothing beats the convenience of setting up your own media-slinging machine that can deliver your files to you anywhere in the world on almost any device you own.