These days, we're all storing more and more digital media on our computers. Whether it's MP3s bought from iTunes, videos downloaded from the Internet or photos taken with your camera, our computers have never been more jam-packed with digital content.
Having these files tucked away on your PC is all well and good but, if you want to show them to friends and family, huddling around a computer screen isn't exactly the best option.
A much better idea is to use your TV to view them. But connecting up a laptop to a telly can be quite fiddly, especially if your computer doesn't have an HDMI port. This is where networked media streamers come in.
Media streamers are small boxes that connect to your TV and then stream the media stored on your computer over either an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi connection to your telly.
Perhaps the most important quality in a media streamer is support for plenty of different file formats. For example, along with formats such as MPEG, AVI and MP4, you're also likely to want your streamer to play DivX and Xivd files. Another format that's becoming especially popular on the Internet for high-definition video is MKV. If you're a fan of foreign movies, double check that the streamer supports the SRT subtitle format, too.
Many media streamers also now have Internet features. Some of the more advanced models support on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer, along with movie-rental options like LoveFilm. Increasingly, streamers are starting to offer support, via built-in mini apps, for social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and several now also let you view picture streams from services like Flickr.
The more advanced the media streamer, the more expensive it's likely to be. But pricier models also tend to offer a slicker user experience. Whereas the interfaces on cheaper streamers are generally little more than file browsers, more expensive models often provide a richer experience, allowing you to browse your movies via thumbnail images of the film artwork, while also providing information about the director and actors, as well as a plot summary.
Before you purchase a media streamer, it's worth bearing in mind that manufacturers are increasingly integrating media-streaming features into their TVs, Blu-ray players and home-cinema kits. If you're thinking of upgrading your TV or Blu-ray player soon, you may not actually need to buy a separate media-streaming device.