While Windows Server 2012 Essentials is most obviously an update for Windows Server Essentials 2011, it also includes some features that make it an excellent next server for Windows Home Server fans. One of these is media sharing, which needs to be enabled first and then configured for optimal use.

You’re prompted to set up Essentials 2012’s media server as part of the initial setup tasks in the Dashboard. That said, if you skip over this step, you can enable the media server at any time by visiting Settings, Media from the Dashboard. Just click the On button to enable it.

media-server-on

There are three related settings here to consider.

Video streaming quality. This setting will determine the quality of video streaming from the server over both the local network and, via Remote Web Access Media Player, over the Internet. You can set this to one of four settings—low, medium, high, and best—but note that your server’s ability to effectively stream video at these settings is in fact determined by the performance of the server’s processor. This is unfortunately hard to gauge because—wait for it—Windows Server 2012 doesn’t actually provide a WEI (Windows Experience Index) score anymore. This Microsoft support page has some generally useless information about this issue.

Media library name. By default, your Essentials 2012-based media library will be seen as “Digital Media Library” in connecting clients such as Windows Media Player or the Xbox 360. You can customize this name to something you prefer.

Customize media library. If you click the Customize button, you’ll be presented with a window letting you determine which shared folders can present media to clients that connect to the server. If you select No for any of these folders, those locations will not be available when a media client (again, applications like Windows Media Player or the Xbox 360) connects to the server. (Folders that are disabled in this way still appear when your browse the server’s folder shares via Network Explorer from Windows 7 or 8, however. This is for media sharing purposes only.)

customize

Enabling media sharing accomplishes two things.

First, it makes four new folder shares—Music, Pictures, Recorded TV, and Videos—available to clients that connect over the local network. Previous to adding the media server, Essentials provided shares such as Company, File History Backups, Folder Redirection, and Users. Each of these new shares will be available for normal Network Explorer browsing from Windows 7 and 8 clients even if you elect not to share media from some of these folders, as described above.

Second, it makes media available for sharing using standard DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) technologies. You can “see” these DLNA-compatible media servers in Network Explorer, under the Media Devices group:

network-explorer

To use them, you need a compatible client. For example, in Windows Media Player, these servers and their shared media will appear in the “Other Libraries” area.

media-player

Likewise, you can browse the contents of these media shares from your Xbox 360 and then use the built-in music and video players to play the content you find. To do so, tap the Xbox Guide button on the Xbox 360 controller or remote. Then, from the Xbox Guide interface, navigate right to Media. Here, select either Music Player or Video Player, and then choose the media library from which to connect. On my network, I see two Essentials 2012-based servers, which are listed as MICRO: Home Server and ESS: Digital Media Server in Xbox 360. In each case, the capitalized first name is the machine name and the second name is the name of the media library.

Note: The Essentials 2012 media sharing feature will work with any DLNA-compatible device, not just Microsoft clients.

Media sharing works outside the normal Windows access rights controls. So while you may restrict the access of a shared folder to certain users, and then in more granular ways on a user-by-user basis, media sharing is either on or off. And if it is on, it is globally available for browsing and playback by any compatible client on the network. And that includes devices and PCs that are not part of the domain.