DLNA is a way for multimedia devices to communicate with each other on a local network. DLNA-compliant devices can stream local video, audio, and picture files to each other over your network. It’s a way for your TV to stream videos from your media server and your smartphone to act as a remote that can play a file from one device on another device. That’s the idea behind DLNA, anyway.
What Is DLNA?
DLNA stands for “Digital Living Network Alliance.” This trade group, created by Sony, certifies networked media devices as “DLNA compliant.” Networked media devices include game consoles, home theater systems, speakers, storage devices, and smartphones. Software can also be DLNA-certified — Windows Media Player can use DLNA to communicate with other networked media devices.
These devices use a standard protocol to talk to each other. Rather than each manufacturer creating a proprietary protocol for streaming media files on a network, DLNA-compliant devices can communicate with each other. You can buy a device from one manufacturer and use it with a device from another manufacturer, even if those two devices were never tested together.
Many devices support DLNA. The PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Xbox One all support DLNA. DLNA support is built into Windows Media Player, XBMC, Plex, and other media center software. DLNA software is available for a wide variety of platforms. You can buy DLNA-enabled network-attached storage (NAS) devices, televisions, speaker systems, and more.
How DLNA Works
DLNA-certified devices use UPnP — Universal Plug and Play — to discover each other on your network and communicate. DLNA divides devices into different classes. For example:
- A digital media server stores content and makes it available on a network. A digital media server might be a DLNA-enabled NAS or a PC running DLNA-certified software like Windows Media Player
- A digital media player can find content offered by a digital media server and play it back. For example, a game console or home theater system could browse a server’s media files and steam them.
- A digital media controller can find content on a digital media server and instruct a digital media player to play the content. For example, you could use a smartphone to instruct a TV to play back DLNA content.
- A digital media printer is a DLNA-enabled device that can print — for example, you could print from a Wi-Fi-enabled digital camera to a printer.
This isn’t a complete list — DLNA also defines other device classes, including different types of handheld devices.
DLNA devices should automatically locate each other on a local network, assuming their DLNA feature is enabled. For example, you could use the Play To option in Windows Media Player to a play a local video file to an Xbox or other game console. Your PC would notice the game console, display it as a possible playback destination, and then tell the game console to start streaming the video when you press play.
DLNA Was Made for 2003
DLNA is a product of its time. It was originally created in 2003 — over ten years ago. The Internet and digital media world was very different back then.
This system was made for a time when you had locally stored media, which you stored on a digital media server — your PC with a big hard drive or a NAS device. You’d then use DLNA to play that local media on other devices. DLNA only works for files you have locally. You can’t use DLNA to control playback of videos from Netflix or Hulu, or music from Spotify or Rdio. You can only use the media you have on your local storage devices.
The DLNA specification defines only a handful of audio and video formats it supports. Common formats like MP3 audio, MP4 video, Windows Media Audio, and Windows Media Video 9 are all included. However, DLNA devices don’t support Windows Media Video 10, the MKV or AVI containers, or FLAC lossless audio. DLNA also defines certain types of “profiles,” so some MP4 files might not be supported depending on their resolution, bitrate, and other details. Device creators can’t add support for these because that would violate the DLNA specification. Not all local media files will work. Some DLNA server software will transcode media on the fly from an unsupported format to a DLNA-compliant one — they have to do this because that’s the only way you could stream such files with DLNA.
DLNA also must involve files. You can’t use DLNA to stream the contents of your screen from one device to another, as you can do with Apple’s AirPlay, Google’s Chromecast, or the finicky Miracast wireless display standard. You can’t play a game on a device and stream the output of your display to another device, give a presentation, or mirror your display for any other reason.
DLNA Is on Its Way Out
DLNA is still offered by a variety of common devices, being built into Windows Media Player, the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and even the Xbox One. There’s a good chance you have DLNA-enabled devices already.
However, DLNA is clearly on its way out. DLNA was founded by Sony, but Sony’s new PlayStation 4 console doesn’t support it. The Xbox One also didn’t support DLNA — until Microsoft added it in an attempt to one-up Sony and please the Xbox users they alienated with the Xbox One’s original design. Apple devices have never supported DLNA without third-party software.
DLNA was built for a world where local media was king, not a world of online video services, music-streaming sites, photo-sharing sites, and a devices with their own screens you might want to share. If you use local media files at home, you can still use DLNA to play media files — at least some of them — across your devices. But DLNA hasn’t evolved to support modern types of media consumption and streaming, and it’s being left behind.