With the immense popularity of digital cameras, smartphones, and tablets for taking pictures and capturing video, and the wide availability of affordable digital music and movies, many people have amassed enormous collections of digital media. Much of that media typically finds its way onto a PC or mass-storage device of some sort--and, unfortunately, it can sometimes go unused for ages. Flipping through pictures or videos and relaxing with some good tunes is always appealing, but sitting in front of a PC isn't the ideal way to enjoy such content.

You may be surprised to learn that sharing digital media across different devices and platforms is quite easy. Windows 7 with Windows Media Player has built-in tools and DLNA/UPnP support for easily sharing digital media libraries with compatible devices. And allowing access to the media across a network or the Web requires minimal configuration.

You do have to consider a few prerequisites, though, and get familiar with the different sharing options available within Windows Media Player. First, the PC that is hosting the media library must be connected to a network (for internal sharing) and to the Web (for sharing files across the Internet). You must enable a couple of options in Windows Media Player, as well. And if the host machine connects to the Web from behind a router or firewall, you need to open and forward a few ports to the PC to allow incoming connections.

Getting Started

The very first step to sharing the digital media on your Windows 7 PC is to set up and organize your media libraries in Windows Media Player. If you've already organized your files into your My Music, My Pictures, and My Videos folders, WMP should find them automatically. If you keep your media on a different drive or on a network-attached storage device, however, you should import those files into WMP. To do so, open WMP and switch to Libraries view if necessary. Then click the Organize drop-down menu, select Manage Libraries, and choose Music, Pictures, or Videos. A Library Locations window will open, in which you can add other folders simply by clicking the Add button and browsing to the folders.

This probably goes without saying, but the PC hosting the digital media library must be powered on and connected to a network. Internet access is also necessary for sharing across the Web to another PC. With all of those requirements met, it's time to enable sharing. Launch Windows Media Player (switch to Libraries view if necessary), click the Stream drop-down menu at the top, and select the option Automatically allow devices to play my media. Enabling this option essentially turns the PC into a DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance)-compatible Digital Media Server. The remote systems or devices accessing the files operate as Digital Media Players. Multiple Digital Media Servers can run on a single network, and machines or devices acting as Digital Media Players (as defined by the DLNA device classes) can also host Digital Media Servers.

Next, click the Stream drop-down menu again, and select More streaming options. On the resulting screen you can name the media library. The screen will also show a list of devices on the network that are capable of accessing the library. If you see a particular device in the list that you wish to allow or block, you can configure that option here.

At this point, you're ready to start streaming media across your network to another device. If you'd like to take things a step further and share media across the Web, you have one more option to enable. Select the Allow Internet access to home media option in the Stream drop-down menu in WMP, and the program will prompt you to allow Internet connections and to link an online ID (i.e. a Windows Live account) to the libraries; take care of both steps by following the on-screen prompts. Then, once the account is linked, you can use that same account to link other PCs and access the libraries across the Web.

Accessing a PC remotely from across the Web will likely require some tweaks to a router or firewall, however. We've explained how to open ports before, but you'll need to know exactly which ones to forward for the shares to work properly. To find them, click the Allow Internet access to home media option again in WMP's Stream drop-down menu, and in the subsequent window, click Diagnose connections. The Internet Streaming Diagnostic Tool will open and run some quick tests. At the bottom of the window, click the Port forwarding information link to see a list of the ports that need to be forwarded. Forward those ports to the IP address of the host PC/DMS, and you're ready to go.

On the next page, I'll show you how to stream media to various devices.

Stream Media to Another PC on Your Network

Microsoft made accessing the digital media libraries on systems connected on the same network or in the same homegroup very easy. If you've followed the steps outlined on the previous page to allow devices to play media automatically, the shared libraries will be listed in Windows Media Player's main interface.

If your PCs are all properly connected to the network and your host system is turned on and available, open Windows Media Player and give it a moment to scan the network. In the Library pane on the left, toward the bottom of the list, the host PC's media library should appear under Other Libraries. Click the library, and its Music, Videos, Pictures, Recorded TV, and Playlists will be available.

Stream Media to Another PC Over the Internet

Microsoft made the process of sharing a digital media library across the Web relatively simple too. First, provided that you've followed my earlier instructions, you should see Allow Internet access to home media checked in Windows Media Player's Stream drop-down menu, and you should have an online ID linked to the library.

Essentially you need to follow the same steps on the remote PC as were necessary to enable sharing on the host PC serving the libraries. On the remote system, open Windows Media Player and select the Allow Internet access to home media option. A new window, labeled Internet Home Media Access, will open. Click the Link an online ID button, and link this computer to the same online ID you used to configure the host system/DMS. If the host PC is on and connected to the Web (and if you've opened and forwarded the proper ports to the machine), its media library should show up in the Other Libraries category, just as it would if the computers were connected to same network.

Stream Media to a Game Console

Streaming digital media to a game console, such as an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3, is extremely straightforward, provided that the device is connected to the same network as the host PC/Digital Media Server.

On both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, accessing the digital media stored on a Windows 7 PC is as easy as powering up the console and navigating through its dashboard to the Video, Music, or Photo library. If the DMS and the console are on the same network, the libraries available on the server should be listed, and the files within should be available for playback on the console.

Accessing a Windows 7 machine from an Xbox 360 is quick and easy, and requires nothing more than enabling streaming in WMP. Some users, however, have reported issues with PlayStation 3 consoles' attempts to access PC files if Windows' File and Printer Sharing is disabled. Should you need to turn on File and Printer Sharing in Windows 7, click the Start button; in the Search field, type Advanced Sharing Settings and press Enter. In the control panel window that opens, ensure that Turn on file and printer sharing is checked, and that media streaming is turned on.

As a last resort, PlayStation 3 users can try running a third-party DLNA/UPnP media server, such as Ps3mediaserver, on their PC.

Stream Media to a DLNA-Enabled TV or Set-Top Box

A large number of current-generation HDTV and set-top devices--such as Blu-ray players, for example--are network-attached "smart" devices with DLNA support and built-in digital media playback tools. These devices can access the media stored on a Windows 7 PC just as easily as any other, if you've connected them to the same network and properly enabled the streaming/sharing options on the host PC.

We used both a Samsung HDTV and a Samsung Blu-ray player to access the media stored on a desktop PC. While the process for both was virtually identical in our tests due to the devices' interface similarities, it will be different from device manufacturer to device manufacturer. That said, the same general steps will likely be necessary for any similar DLNA-compatible device.

First we powered up the Samsung Blu-ray player without a disc inserted, which brought up its main interface, where settings and apps are available. We confirmed that the player was connected to the network (in this case wirelessly), and that it had an IP address assigned to it in the network settings menu. We then accessed the Devices menu, at which point the player scanned the network looking for a DLNA Digital Media Server. Afterward it was simply a matter of selecting the PC/DMS from the Devices menu and navigating through the Music, Photos, and Video folders to find the files we wanted to play.

Stream Media to an Android-Based Tablet or Smartphone

Although I focus on Android-based devices here, I should point out that numerous apps for iOS perform similar functions. Windows Phone-based devices also have many of these capabilities, either built in or available via third-party apps. Most of the applications work in a similar manner, however, and are relatively easy to use provided that you've configured the host PC properly.

For the purposes of this article, we tested a handful of Digital Media Players on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Tablet and a Galaxy S II Skyrocket smartphone. Ultimately we ended up using an app called BubbleUPnP; this free DLNA control point and media player/renderer can access photos, music, and video files from a DLNA media server.

To access the media on your PC, download and install BubbleUPnP from the Android market. Once it's installed, enable Wi-Fi on your device, connect to your network, and launch the app. When it opens, tap the Devices tab at the bottom of the main interface. Assuming that your PC is on and connected to the network, and that streaming is enabled in WMP, your PC should show up in the Select Library list in the bottom half of the Devices menu. Select your PC in the list, and tap the Library tab at the bottom; you'll then be able to choose from the Music, Videos, Pictures, and Playlists folders available on the PC. It's that easy.