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How Digital Media Servers Work

As I said, a digital media server is essentially a purpose-built computer. In fact, some media servers are computers—entertainment PCs, to be specific. Even the media servers that come from consumer electronics companies and look like consumer electronics components have the brains of a computer inside, as well as a computer's hard disk storage.

A typical digital media server or entertainment PC contains a computer processor, random access memory, a CD drive or burner, and at least one hard disk. You also get a variety of inputs and outputs, including (in most instances) one or more digital audio outputs to connect to your home theater system. Some media servers have CD-R/RW drives, which let you burn new CDs from the music stored on the hard disk.

In addition, most media servers have some sort of built-in networking, either wired or wireless, that enables hookup to a broadband Internet connection. Some units even let you connect other auxiliary units, to stream music to multiple rooms in your house.

Media servers that come from consumer electronics companies typically look, act, and feel like other audio components, which is a good thing—they fit right in with the other components in your system. Entertainment PCs, on the other hand, are all over the board. Some do a good job of blending in with other audio components; others look a little too much like traditional PCs for my liking. Look for a unit that's the right size, shape, and color (black or silver, depending). Also look for units that eschew the typical PC-system cooling fan in favor of a more quiet design—you don't want a noisy fan blowing while you're trying to listen to high-fidelity music!

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