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What Is DLNA And Why Would I Care?

If you’re at all interested in home entertainment, then DLNA could be your best friend. Here’s what you need to know.

DLNA — the Digital Living Network Alliance, to give it its full title — is technically the name of the organisation that controls the DLNA certification standard, but unless you’re planning on launching a new and exciting networked media player, it’s not the organisation but the standard that you should be interested in.

At its most basic, DLNA is the specification that allows multiple network-aware media devices to “talk” to each other over a network without requiring user intervention. The focus for DLNA to date has been in entertainment media, making it a more specialised certification than the broader UPnP (Universal Plug & Play) protocols that it uses.

Why would I care about DLNA?

The core aim of DLNA is to simplify networking across device types and manufacturers. When it’s working properly, DLNA devices should see each other across a network seamlessly without requiring any kind of user intervention at all; you just plug and, fingers crossed, play.

So what kind of DLNA devices are there?

The DLNA standard breaks down devices according to type.

  • Digital Media Server: Think hard drives, network attached storage, that kind of thing. Where your media lives, but not necessarily where you play it back. It’s feasible for a Digital Media Server to also act as a player as well.
  • Digital Media Player: The other part of the equation; where you play back your media files, whether they’re music, photos or video. A digital media player can be a tablet, smartphone, set top box or television set itself. The player typically grabs content directly from a digital media server.
  • Digital Media Controller: The middle man of the DLNA world, a Digital Media Controller talks to a Digital Media Server in order to push content out to other devices.
  • Digital Media Renderer: The passive part of the DLNA standard. A media renderer technically does the same ultimate task as the player, displaying your media in some way, but the difference here is that a renderer doesn’t do any of the seeking; you’ve got to push media to a renderer from a server via a Digital Media Controller rather than seeking it.

So what can go wrong?

Technically, all sorts of things, but there’s a few common bugbears. File formats are important; not every DLNA product will handle transcoding if you’ve got a file in a format that your player or renderer won’t understand, which can be frustrating. You may also stumble against a DRM block; if you’re trying to play back a digital copy sourced from a Blu-Ray/DVD multi-pack, it’ll have to pass whatever DRM’s been embedded along the way through to your DLNA player.

Network speed also plays a big issue, especially when you’re talking about high definition video. If your network is also being used for low ping gaming and file downloading while you’re trying to watch HD video, you may find things a little on the stuttery side.

Is DLNA the same as Apple’s AirPlay?

Almost — but not quite. The end aim is the same, namely seamless media playback, but Apple uses its own proprietary protocols for AirPlay delivery, and not surprisingly focuses on working within Apple’s tightly controlled ecosystem. Apple has licensed the AirPlay protocols to a number of external manufacturers, most notably for speakers, but it’s not the same thing.

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