What is a Media Controller?
A media controller is not a device or a physical remote control. You can’t go to the store and buy a media controller. "Media Controller" is a DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) certification. Part of a home network streaming media solution, the media controller finds photos, music and movies on connected media servers, and sends (pushes) the media file to an enabled media player, Smart TV or other streaming device. Typically you’ll find that a media controller is an app on a smartphone, tablet or computer.
Let's say that you want to watch a movie that is saved on a network attached storage (NAS) drive and you have a connected "Smart" TV. You would choose the NAS drive as the source of your media, and choose the Smart TV as the player. Pick the movie you want to watch and it will start playing on your TV. Because you are pushing it to your TV, it will typically appear instantly onscreen regardless of the input you had been watching. Of course, the TV must be turned on at the time you start to play the video.
Where to Find a Media Controller
Media controllers are rarely ever called “media controllers.” Typically, they are called “media streaming” smartphone apps. They may also have more techie names like DLNA apps or UPnP apps. Remote Media, the Twonky app, and MediaHouse for Android are three reliable streaming media apps. These apps find most of the DLNA sources—both media servers (where the media is stored) and media players—on your home network and can play many video file formats (e.g., avi, mp4).
Smartphone apps are not the only media controllers. Windows Media Player can stream from various sources to media players. In the upper right corner of the Windows Media Player window there is an icon that is labeled "push to" when the mouse hovers over it. "Push to" is a clue that the app or program. To play a video or other media from a NAS drive or other PC on your home network, you will need to add that source to your Windows Media Player library.
Media Controllers and Media Renderers
Media controllers find the media on DLNA (or UPnP) Media Servers and pushes it to a DLNA Media Renderer. It cannot push media to a simple media player. "Media Renderer" is another DLNA certification. Media players that are able to be controlled by and accept media from a Media Controller are enabled with media renderer capabilities. Most Smart TVs can be seen by media controllers and can accept pushed video.
In the earlier example, the NAS drive is the Media Server. The Smart TV is the Media Renderer. While more streaming media apps are using plain English—"Play From" and "Play To" in the MediaHouse app—others will still refer to the device where you want to watch the video as the Media Renderer.
Why Use a Media Controller?
A media controller is not a necessary part of your home network. Media players can search for media files on the PCs and NAS drives on your home network, display the files and you can press "play." Media streaming apps often will remember the last source and player you used, and will organize all of your movies, photos, and music into categories. It's a bit faster and you can control it from your phone. If you have a Smart TV, you don't have to change inputs. It's handy, it works, and many of the media controller apps are free.