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Shopping for a Digital Media Server

The market for digital media servers is relatively new, which means that new models are coming fast and furious. You'll need to shop carefully to find the model that offers exactly those features that meet your needs.

Here's what to look for:

  • How big is the hard drive? More hard disk space means that you can store more CDs and record more television programming; 80GB should be the bare minimum, and you'll want more space sooner rather than later.

  • Can you add extra hard drives—either internally or externally—for more storage?

  • What audio formats does it use? MP3 and WMA are great for cramming a large number of CDs onto a small hard disk, but you'll notice the compromise in audio quality. For best quality, use either a format with lossless compression (such as FLAC) or uncompressed WAV files—which requires up to 600MB per CD.

  • How quiet is the unit? You don't want a noisy PC in your otherwise-quiet home theater system, so look for so-called "silent" designs that forego the traditional cooling fans.

  • What kind of remote control comes with it?

  • How user-friendly is the onscreen interface?

  • How does the unit grab CD information from the Internet—via a dial-up (ugh!), wired (Ethernet), or wireless (802.11b or 802.11g) connection?

  • How do you enter data into the library? In all probability, some of your CDs won't be recognized by the online music database, which means that you'll need to input some information manually. It helps if the unit comes with a keyboard for this purpose—wireless, ideally.

  • Does it play back streaming Internet radio? Not that Internet radio is extremely high fidelity, but there are some interesting music streams that you might want to try.

  • Can you connect auxiliary units to provide music to other rooms in your house?

  • Is it an audio-only device, or can you also use it for video recording?

  • If it has PVR capability, what type of program guide does it use—and is there a monthly subscription fee for the guide?

  • Does it look like it would fit with the rest of your audio components?

Bottom line: Ask yourself whether this unit does everything you'll need it to do—at a cost you're willing to pay.

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