Top 10 Windows 7 Features #7: 'Play To' streaming media, courtesy of DLNA

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Perhaps you've noticed this already: Getting media to play in a Windows-based network is a lot like siphoning water from a pond using a hose running uphill. If you can get enough suction, enough momentum going, you can get a decent stream, but there are way too many factors working against you. Foremost among these is the fact that you're at the top of the hill sucking through a hose, rather than at the bottom pushing with a pump.

So home media networking is, at least for most users today, precisely nothing like broadcasting whatsoever. That fact doesn't sit well with very small networked devices like PMPs, digital photo frames, and the new and burgeoning field of portable Wi-Fi radios like Roku's SoundBridge. Devices like these don't want or even need to be "Windows devices;" and what's more, they don't want to be the ones negotiating their way through the network, begging for media to be streamed uphill in their general direction. They want to be plugged in, shown the loot, and told, "Go." Back in 2004, a group of networked device manufacturers -- the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA, and yes, it's another network association) -- coalesced with the idea of promoting a single standard for being told "Go." But up until today, there hasn't been a singular, driving force uniting the standards together, something to look up to and follow the way Web developers followed Internet Explorer.

That changes with the advent of Windows 7. Starting now, Microsoft will be utilizing a way to push its media upstream, if you will, by means of a cohesive "Go" concept around capturing and commandeering media devices called Play To. The DLNA introduced the concept last December, knowing and being driven by Microsoft's intention to use Play To in Win7.

The idea begins simply enough: DLNA-capable wireless and wired devices may be all over your house. Rather than set them up using their own controls, wherever they may be, a router or access point in the home should be able to push the setup information they need to enroll themselves in the network. From there, those devices (which may include a picture frame, an MP3 player, a Zune, an Xbox 360, or conceivably another computer) may serve as destinations for media being pushed from a Windows 7 machine, either through Media Player 12 or Windows Media Center.

Add to this formula the notion that the media that Windows pushes to a DLNA device may come from another DLNA device, such as a Windows Home Server machine or perhaps a DV-R device from Toshiba or Sony (though it would be nice if Slingbox and TiVo were on this list).

And keep in mind here once again, there doesn't need to be a Media Center Extender in this operation (apparently Microsoft's making them anyway, though in an optimum setup, you wouldn't need them). The DLNA-compliant access point has handled the problem of identifying the media playing device and enrolling it in the network, so the device doesn't have to be a slave to whatever Windows machine is sending it a stream.

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In a demonstration video released last December on Microsoft's Channel 10 (see above, Silverlight required), company developer Gabe Frost demonstrated how the DLNA standard would play into a Windows 7-endowed home media network. The new "Play To" command in Win7 enables a user to push content from a PC to a device gathered into the collective DLNA pool. There's no need for shared directories or creating named network shares, which would normally serve as points of location -- the type of tool you'd need if you were trying to hunt down the location of the streaming device from the playing device. "Play To" pushes the content to where you want it to go.

Next: How DLNA may make your HDTV into a Windows 7 "receiver"...

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