As smartphones have advanced over the last few years, their storage capacities have grown by leaps and bounds. All that space means more apps, music, and movies to use while on the go. However, transferring large amounts of media files can be a tedious and time-consuming task, (particularly if you sync over WiFi).
Fortunately, a simple solution exists that allow us to stream our media to phones, tablets and laptops, thus eliminating the need to sync to our various devices. But does the convenience of personal streaming outweigh the limitations inherent to such a solution?
When it comes to my music, I hate having to cope with storage limitations on my iPhone. Even with the 32 GB model, I can’t bring my whole library with me. iTunes Match solves that to a certain extent, but it isn’t a true streaming solution. That’s why I’m a fan of the subscription model of digital music. It doesn’t mean I don’t still buy music that I love, but it does allow me to listen to whatever I want while I’m out of the house without picking and choosing what I want to listen to during a daily sync.
The same concept applies to me when it comes to my ripped movies and TV shows. I don’t want to stick just a couple of them on my phone, (which takes an unbearable amount of time to transfer). I want to have access to all my media, all the time. Netflix, Hulu, and similar services will stream some content to you, but their libraries are far more limited than digital music services.
Streaming Your Content
Here is where ServeToMe comes in. It’s a lightweight app that sits in your menubar, and allows you to stream your movies, music and more to your phone or to another Mac. This means that while you’re waiting for your flight, sitting on the train, or neglecting your duties at work, you can watch whatever you want from your collection without ever having to sync it to your phone or laptop.
Once you install ServeToMe, you choose what you want to stream. I keep all my ripped music, movies and TV shows on an external drive connected to my wireless router. After selecting that volume, I was greeted by a few other options. Perhaps the most important one to consider is the streaming quality. I mostly rip DVDs that have a 480p resolution, so I was fine with using that setting. However, if you want to rip your Blu-Ray collection, you can stream at 720p, (though not 1080p). If you have an old computer or a slow internet connection in your home where your server will be running, you can choose lower quality feeds (320 and 240).
Since ServeToMe is the app that will be doing the transmitting, you will need to have a computer, (either a desktop, laptop, or Mac Mini), which will be running while you are out of the house. You need to install the StreamToMe software on whatever you plan to do the watching/listening.
I began with streaming my music first to my Mac then to my iPhone. For both the audio and video tests, I went to my neighbor’s apartment and connected to his WiFi to make sure everything was transmitting across the Internet and not just my home network.
The ServeToMe software delivers everything very quickly, but is limited by whatever hardware it has to deal with. For me, that meant that I had to wait while my external drive spun up, because I use a drive designed for storage rather than one meant to be a media server. I certainly can’t fault the app for that, but it is worth being aware of. Once it spun up, changing songs was quick, but the delay was still longer than if the songs had been stored locally on the computer.
I was pleased with music streaming, but I didn’t start using ServeToMe for audio – I wanted to stream video. I navigated over to the movie folder, and made a selection. The quality on my Mac was excellent. The audio and video were both equal to what the original file looks like. I sat through a full 90 minutes of a film and did not experience a single hiccup in the stream.
In searching for a solution for my video streaming needs, I was primarily interested in watching these things on my iPhone during a commute. I was very pleased with the streaming experience on my Mac, but wanted to see how everything would go on my phone. The StreamToMe app, which is the aforementioned Mac app necessary to view on your computer whatever it is that ServeToMe is streaming to you, is also available on the App Store for your iPhone and iPad, (it is universal, so it will work for both).
For music, iPhone performance was also very good, though the interface on the mobile app is a bit on the ugly side. Cover art will be displayed, but the navigation isn’t exactly on par with the native Music app. For video, I was very surprised that the quality on 3g was just about as good as it was when I tried it on WiFi. I started off streaming at the normal 480p, then worked my way down. The lower resolutions looked fine, considering that the iPhone’s screen is so small that any pixelation would go mostly unnoticed.
The one place where the app ran into some problems was when I tried jumping around to different points in a movie. The first jump or two was fine but it started to choke when I tried just scrolling to a different place in the movie rather than selecting a specific point.
The main competition to ServeToMe is called AirVideo. If you want a review of AirVideo, well, you just read it. These two apps are just about identical (when it comes to streaming to your mobile device). However, ServeToMe has the advantage of being able to stream from a Mac to another Mac, whereas AirVideo only goes to mobile devices. Additionally, AirVideo cannot stream audio, only video.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this over something like Pogoplug is that you have to leave whatever computer awake that you want to act as the server. If you are not familiar with Pogoplug, essentially what it does is take a drive you have and make it accessible in the cloud. This is nice if you are interested in viewing and editing documents, or doing anything beyond just viewing content. Plus, as I mentioned, you don’t need to leave a computer on all day to stream things to you.
Another potential limitation is that it doesn’t convert video on the fly. That means that if you have some video in a format that the iPhone or iPad doesn’t like, it won’t be able to convert it to a more friendly format (apparently it was just my installation that is buggy with this feature, the app does indeed have this feature). Quite frankly, however, you really should be in the habit of converting your video to a widely used format anyway. If you are planning on ripping DVDs just for viewing on your phone, many programs like Handbrake have presets for encoding just for iPhone, which will save space on your drive by using a smaller resolution.
Perhaps the most important limitation isn’t directly related to the app, but to this solution as a whole: bandwidth. Remember that if you are using this to stream to your phone over 3g that you are eating into that monthly data limit, (and when it comes to video, you’ll see that data disappear quickly). I am lucky enough to be grandfathered into an unlimited plan, but who knows how long that will last? Another bandwidth concern should be your home Internet. Many ISPs have limits on both the download and upload transfers for a household in a month. If they have separate limits for data up and down, you may be surprised by how much some ISPs limit data that is sent up, (which is what any of the stuff you are using ServeToMe for would be considered).
ServeToMe is a free download. The apps you will use to receive content vary. If you are planning on watching your video or listening to your audio on another Mac, you can get StreamToMe for free from the Mac App Store. If you are planning on using it on your iPhone or iPad, it will cost you 3 bucks.
This is the kind of app that just does exactly what it claims to do, and does it very well. It isn’t overly complicated, and what extras it does have are very welcome, (such as allowing you to password protect your drives so no one else can access your content). Performance for both audio and video were excellent, and the ability to choose the quality of the streams gives you the perfect flexibility you might need if you have hardware limitations.
ServeToMe (the server app) and StreamToMe (the stream receiving app) are both free on the Mac, which makes whatever minor interface complaints I had just about irrelevant. The iOS app is $3, but considering that it works so well and is universal makes the price quite reasonable. I have no reservations about recommending this app to anyone who wants to stream their movies, tv shows and music straight to their phone, tablet, or laptop.