If you own a recent model PC, NAS, smartphone, or tablet, it probably came with bundled DLNA-certified software that will allow any media on it to be recognized by your networked components. If you have an older model, however, you can still turn it into a media server by adding a program like Plex, Twonky, TVersity, or Windows Media Player. Even if a component manufacturer steers you to its branded media-server program--for example, Samsung's AllShare for Windows, you may still be able to use one of these third-party options, but finding which application works best with your component's brand takes some experimentation.
Another area where DLNA gets messy is codecs. The DLNA specification only allows for a few common audio and video formats like Windows Media Audio, MP3, MP4. FLAC, AVI and MKV files, and many others, aren't supported. To make it more complicated, different implementations of DLNA support different codecs. And even supported formats may not work if the container, bitrate, or other details don't comply with the DLNA spec. Some DLNA server software will try to make up for this shortfall by transcoding files from a non-compliant format to a compliant one on the fly, but results vary.
Has DLNA outlived its usefulness?
DLNA was developed more than a decade ago, when tapping into your vein of locally stored media was the only way to stream a movie or photo slideshow from your computer to your TV. Our current bounty of online media-streaming and -sharing sites like Spotify, Netflix, and Flickr have since satisfied DLNA's original intent with a much simpler process. Sony, DLNA's founder, doesn't even support the standard on its PlayStation 4 (though it looks like it might add it in the future).
Still, if you have gigs of media just sitting on a hard drive, it's worth giving DLNA a try. Just be aware of its limitations and be prepared to endure some trial and error before you find the combination of components and server software that works best on your network.
Even if DLNA eventually falls by the wayside, the alliance itself continues to do good work. It's latest initiative--dubbed VidiPath--is designed to enable consumers to stream their pay-TV content over their home networks without needing to additional set-top boxes for each TV. We'll have a story explaining how VidiPath will work in the near future.
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