DLNA servers for our Samsung TV on Linux

We have a Samsung Smart TV, I like it. We also have a cable box, a BluRay player (because sometimes we borrow movies at the library and anyone in the family needs to be able to play them with no help from dad), and a Chromecast.  All three HDMI inputs on the TV are used.

Samsung was pretty big on DLNA, a UPnP based protocol for media playback. Now it's not a feature they tout a lot: People want Netflix. Samsung also had very good codec support from the start which reduces the need for transcoding greatly.  They still have the DLNA client builtin in their TVs and the codec support is even better now.  So this solves the in-house streaming problem very neatly without needing a extra box by the TV to do it. The server in the basement ought to be enough when the TV had DLNA.

I understand that DLNA is a bit low featured in 2021: no on screen movie/episode synopsis, not very slick navigation and on screen controls for everything. But it's enough. DLNA is right featured. The Samsung DLNA client has very nice movie navigation and on screen menus for subtitle selection. And I don't particularly want a TV box though it would certainly play all kinds of video with no issues at all and support subs better and have a nice graphical interface. It seems I'm not in tune with the world on this though: DLNA servers seem to be more rare than before.

Since the start around 2010 I've used tvMobili, a closed source but fully functional DLNA server software that just worked with our TV, including on screen subtitles without transcoding. It also just worked with phone based DLNA software. Since my wife is deaf and not all the kids are that steady in english yet subtitles are a required feature. Subtitles are also nice for late night TV viewing with low volume.

Recently the disk the tvMobili software stored its database on went full and the database went corrupt.  I tidied the disk and nuked the database. Unfortunately that reset the software and it gave me it's out of the box experience: "Please create your account at tvMobili to proceed". tvMobili, the company, gave up in 2013. There was no registration service running any more and I could not get past the registration screen. And also I had no backup of that directory since it only contained stuff I could reconstruct anyway. I thought. (I realize I might try to write the registration service and run it locally, but maybe time to try something new?).

So what to do for in-house streaming now then? This is important to me:

  • Subtitles
  • Works with Samsung TV
  • and phones
  • Minimal need for transcoding
  • No cloud required. I don't like to be dependent on the cloud to play my own movies
  • No external box needed - other than the server
  • I will use closed source for a reasonable price ... if it works

The candidates.

  • Plex is a commercial product which I've known of for some years.  It was the first software I tried. I though I might be able to use it paying quite reasonable one time fees since I don't want their internet streaming services, just the in-house streaming functions. They have a app for our TV, for phones and a DLNA service.  Also very slick GUI and very nice meta-data. The GUI features a very nice browser based video player which is handy.
    • Unfortunately right now subtitle support in the TV app is buggy and has been since about October 2020.
    • And the DLNA service less than reliable: the TV rejected files that were never a problem or transcoded by tvMobili. Other files played, with subtitles.
    • Plex is probably cloud dependent.
Also I'm not sure I want to depend on TV-apps since they tend to be retired before we want to retire the TV.

So Plex didn't work that well for me.  I asked around and were told of some open source alternatives:
  • Kodi: It has a slick GUI that many folks run on a Raspberry Pi (or something like that) attached to their TV. I set up the GUI in a Xvnc server, configured, enabled DLNA and tested it on TV and phone. Kodi also has a metadata module which finds stuff about your movies and series on the internet.
    • The DLNA service works perfectly with my phone. Better than tvMobili.
    • All the files I tested play on the TV, but there are two issues:
      • Directory listings may be truncated and lack titles on the icons
      • Subs have to be TEXT in matroska files to work on the TV. SRT files does not work, nor does MOV_TEXT in mp4 files. There is a fairly simple and lossless way to mux the subs into matroska files using ffmpeg so this is manageable.
  • Universal Media Server - UMS: It specializes in DLNA playback only and their website features TV manufacturers' icons. A colleague used it in the past with great success with his Samsung TV. It has a web based player too.
    • Unfortunately it does not play all videos on our TV
    • But when it does subs of all kinds are shown
    • Did not test on phone
  • Jellyfin: It has a nice web GUI with a very polished out of the box experience.  It supports multiple users that don't share libraries.  It has all the usual support for metadata. It plays all the files I've tested, and supports subs.  On the TV and on the phone.  There is some issue on the TV with going automatically to the next episode. Which I can live with.  There is no TV app - not a problem.  There is no GUI for running on a TV-attached computer - not a problem.
  • Emby: The origin of jellyfin. Formerly open source, now closed source, and I found that Jellyfin works very nicely so I did not test.
To summarize:
  • Plex is pretty and slick but didn't work very well.
  • Kodi is a bit of a drag, to me, for the need to have a display. But it is very functional. The thing with directory listings on the I can probably fix myself: There is no issue with the directory listings on my phone, so something makes the TVs parsing of the directory listings fail. But if you already have (or want to have) a computer hooked up to your TV Kodi is probably the best choice.
  • UMS. Very good match with regards to functionality. That text worked on all kinds of files is nice, but I don't feel confident about about fixing video format and coding issues to make it play all kinds of files on our TV.
  • Emby: Didn't test.
  • Jellyfin seems the best of the lot.
... sort of odd that the DNLA server software for 2021 isn't quite up to 2016 standards. Not even the leading(?) commercial contender.

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