The Internet has changed so many lives in so many ways, that I can’t possibly try and summarise it in the opening paragraph of a review. With broadband connections in the UK now offering 512Kbit/sec and above upload bandwidth, this is the same as the bandwidth we had available for downloading not too long ago. This situation opens up a very different aspect to the Internet, as this is a fair amount of bandwidth to play with.
File sharing software has been used for years, even in the dial-up days, so apart from faster speeds – this is nothing new. But with this much bandwidth available, it’s possible to remotely access your computer and stream music, videos and documents at a decent pace.
I moved to IMAP for my email not to long ago, as well as setting up a Linux server with remote VNC access, document access over a web browser and streaming MP3 playback. The MP3 system I use is called Zina, this allows me to view my collection over a web browser and stream it to a music player, such as Winamp and where necessary, transcode on the fly.
I love that I don’t have to worry about throwing documents onto a flash drive, or filling my notebook up with music before I go on a trip. I know that I’ll be able to access everything when I need it – a great weight off my mind! This is something I feel everyone would like to be able to do, but most don’t know that what options are out there, or think that it is reserved solely for large businesses.
Setting up a Linux server is probably the most flexible option. You don’t even necessarily need to have a dedicated machine to do so – if you fancy a challenge check out OpenWRT, which is a Linux distro that will run on a large selection of routers! You might also want to look into VideoLAN.
However, most of you guys (and girls) probably don’t have a clue about doing any of that stuff by yourself and just want to install a program and be done with it. And why not? That is why Winamp Remote, and then Orb caught my attention.
Winamp is still used by a lot of people today, despite its purchase by AOL. However, as a product, I feel like it’s gone downhill since version 2. It has become slower and too many features have been added. It’s simplicity and speed was what made it popular. It’s not particularly good at video playback either – although some people still choose to use it. Upon installation, it is possible to not only exclude video playback, but turn off the advanced skinning system, which is the biggest slow down. I recommend doing so!
Winamp Remote promises to allow you to “get your music anywhere”. Which is exactly what we need. I must stress that this is Beta software, but I didn’t have any issues with it and I believe it to be in the final stages.
Installation was swift and easy, and before I knew it – I was presented with a login screen.
Creating an account was painless and a new icon found its way into my system tray.
Configuring is simple, just tell it the folders where you keep your music!
Advanced configuration, if you can call it that, is pretty basic – just an adjustment of ports, should you be having problems (such as more than one instance of Winamp Remote on a LAN).
If your router supports UPnP, then you shouldn’t have to touch a thing to get it working. However, if you’re a bit of a security freak like myself, then you’ll probably have to do some port forwarding instead. But if all else fails, the data can be passed directly through the servers.
Once setup is complete (which is as simple as the previous page), you can access your music either through a web browser or from inside Winamp.
The interface is very similar to the media library inside Winamp itself. You can either browse by folder (should your music have particularly bad ID3 tags), or you can use the more advanced system based on ID3 information.
I was a little disappointed that Winamp hadn’t integrated the service better though. Winamp already has streaming audio and video built into the interface successfully. However, to access Winamp Remote, it was nothing more than a web browser window inside Winamp.
The interface is dynamic, and I found it a little on the slow side, something that could have been overcome if Winamp just fetched data rather than a web page. However, it is very powerful. You can generate playlists on the fly, and store them online as well as locally. You can also share these playlists with any other person who has a Winamp Remote account. Quite a nifty way of introducing friends to bands without actually breaking the law.
If you login via a web browser, instead of via Winamp, you can choose to use a Flash based music player for listening to music. So in actuality, you don’t even need to have Winamp installed. Strangely, there is also support for streaming to Windows Media Player, RealPlayer and Quicktime.
Every time a new session is started, it not only tests the upload speed of your server (at home) but also the download speed of your client machine. It then adjusts the streams accordingly, so that there is little or no buffering required. This means that, in theory, if your mobile phone can browse the web, it can stream, even with a low connection speed. This is something Vodafone is trialing at the moment.
One issue I discovered, was that even when idle, the software is chewing up a fair amount of memory – nearly 50MB! The name of the software “Orb”, was also a distinct clue as to the origin of Winamp Remote. I very quickly realised that this is nothing more than rebadged, mildly crippled “MyCast” software made by Orb. So I decided to take a look at this as well, to see what else was on offer, and to see if there was any benefit to choosing Winamp Remote over Orb.
Installing Orb was just as simple, and I didn’t even have to register for a new account! The account I registered for Winamp Remote was also valid for MyCast – due to them using the same servers. On installation, I became instantly aware that MyCast offered more features besides streaming audio.
Instead of being welcomed with your selection of music, MyCast has a general start page, where it presents you with a selection of random songs and pictures, favourite videos, a TV programme guide and even the weather report. This is just a taster of what you can do, as it is quite customisable.
Once inside the media library, things look quite similar to Winamp Remote. But instantly, we see that you can also stream videos. I tested this with several different video types and qualities and was really impressed. Just like Winamp Remote, it detected the bandwidth available and encoded it at a bit rate that my Internet connection could handle
It even took a 1080i HD media file, and transcoded it on the fly. Doing this, used 66 per cent of the FX62 CPU we had installed. That’s very impressive indeed.
And of course, if you want to, you can download or upload files directly to and from your “server”.
As it stands, there are no Mac or Linux versions of Orb, which is disappointing and obviously to use this you will have to keep your computer on all the time (or at least when you want to access it). If you have a dynamic IP address, this poses no problem and the only details you have to remember is your MyCast username and password.
If you’re only interested in streaming Audio, Winamp Remote is tailored exactly for that – cutting out all of the stuff you don’t need and making it look and feel as much like using Winamp as possible.
However, Orb is everything that Winamp Remote is and more. Streaming Audio, Video, Documents and even working side by side with a TV tuner. This is truly impressive software with more features than I’ve had a chance to test. The possibilities are endless and not only that, but it’s completely free to use.