Network Media Streamer Face Off!
In a world dominated by shiny discs, a new contender is stepping forward to knock DVD and Blu-ray off their pedestals. Network Media Streamers are offering users the opportunity to store all of their films on a hard drive reducing storage needs and making everything available in just a few button pushes. With no need to worry about scratched discs, streamers are likely to become popular in homes where children have a habit of getting jam-covered finger marks all over your latest Blu-ray before it ever even sets it's sights on your player!
It's still early days - ripping your entire DVD collection could take a while, and doing the same with Blu-ray could take the rest of your life. Not forgetting the dubious legality of storing DVD rips on a network or hard drive - is this a backup? OR, is it an unauthorised copy? Unlike music, films are still big enough to become a hassle to download - instead of a few megabytes, a couple of hours of DVD quality footage could take up nearer 4GB, and HD could take up even more. If compression techniques help to bring these numbers down, they do so at the expense of optimum quality.
Disc-based media is likely to remain the best source of premium visual and audio quality, but that doesn't necessarily appeal to everyone. For some, DVD is still more than adequate and the option to reduce a dozen shelves worth of discs down to one 2TB hard drive is very tempting. You could store 3-400 films in the same space as half-a-dozen DVD cases with minimal quality loss (if any). It's a tempting proposition for those who find space is a premium and this is the exact market in which network media streamers will become a must-buy. There's also the added benefit that you could have multiple streamers around your house and have access to you entire collection in the bedroom or kitchen with the same ease as in your main home cinema setup.
We've spent the last few weeks putting some of the options through their paces. The market is full of different solutions - some simple, standalone boxes; others are full-blown PCs and yet others bill themselves as Network Media Tanks. Some have support for Blu-ray playback, others work wirelessly and some are just a true pain in the neck to get to work. Each solution will have features that appeal to some, but not others, so picking the right one for you can be a real minefield.
There are added complications when it comes to home cinema PCs - do you stick with the Media Center supplied with Windows, do you opt for something else such as XBMC? There are many options and we'll attempt to give you a good idea of what each option is capable of and what else to think about before making a purchase.
Network media player/streamer, Wireless (optional), Best Value and for those with little space
The Xtreamer is a great little piece of kit. It's the cheapest option on review here and supports almost everything that the more expensive streamers and platforms have to offer at the unfortunate expense of user-friendliness. The Xtreamer is very well built with solid construction and good materials used throughout - it is purely a streamer out of the box, although you have the option of connecting an internal 2.5" or external USB hard drive to store things locally.
The Xtreamer is available in three different forms - the standard unit features a wired Gigabit connection and has a slightly noisy fan to keep things cool. You also have an option of a cooling kit added at the factory which provides some respite from the fan - it turns one side of the unit into a large heatsink and effectively allows you to reduce the fan speed for near-silent operation. Finally there is the option of a handy little wireless dongle that supports 802.11n protocols for optimum speed and coverage. In our experience, wireless performance was more than adequate for SD video playback, but anything more really required a wired connection for smooth, faultless video performance.
To date, the Xtreamer has played everything I've attempted - from basic DVD rips to ISO files, Blu-ray rips (without menus or features) and various other formats/containers including MKV and M2TS. The interface for locating and selecting videos to play isn't the most friendly of the units on test. There is no option to play a video from a folder, rather you must navigate down through to find the particular video file you need. This can look messy when accessing non-ISO DVD rips and ideally I would like to see the option to play the largest file when selecting a folder.
Likewise, the lack of Blu-ray menu support is a disappointment, however, the size of Blu-ray rips mean that this kind of funcionality would only be required by a very small number of people.
The remote control is basic and doesn't offer the best navigation options - there is no support for chapters in DVD rips or MKV files, but there is the option to skip 10 seconds or a few minutes using the navigation arrows. The IR receiver is also not perfect and requires good line-of-sight and works only over a limited distance. Finally, the interface itself isn't very attractive - red-on-black with very sluggish response times. Our review kit was not supplied with a UK-standard plug, but with a continental adapter - not idea and something we'd be keen to see replaced in the future.
Overall, the Xtreamer is a good value streamer. It has plenty of features and would make the perfect secondary player on any home media network. The negative points above do detract from the overall product, but for the money you wont find anything better especially when you factor in the high quality HDMI cable, carry bag and USB wi-fi extention cable that are included to add extra value.
The Xtreamer can be purchased for £99 in the UK from Tranquil PC
The Xtreamer supports the following media containers and formats:
MPEG1/2/4 Elementary (M1V, M2V, M4V), MPEG1/2 PS (M2P, MPG), MPEG2 Transport Stream (TS, TP, TRP, M2T, M2TS, MTS), VOB, AVI, ASF, WMV, Matroska (MKV), AVC HD, MOV (H.264), MP4, RMP4, FLV - Flash Video, AAC, M4A, MPEG audio (MP1, MP2, MP3, MPA), WAV, WMA, FLAC, OGG, RMP4, FLC, PCM, PLSX
Network media player/streamer, Wired (at present), Best high-performance / low cost option
The Mede8er is very similar to the Xtreamer in its current form. The interface may be faster and slightly more attractive, but the actual core features are pretty much identical. However, where the Mede8er steps up a gear is in the support for an internal hard drive - just pop in a 2TB SATA drive and have a massive media tank for all of your files. Obviously this increases the size of the Mede8er and the lack of a heatsink option means you're stuck with the factory-fitted fan - which isn't too noisy.
Other than that, the Mede8er has the same issues that the Xtreamer has - the navigation to video files is identical, but feels somewhat easier just due to the faster response times between pressing a button and seeing the results. Similarly, the Mede8er has played everything that the Xtreamer did with the same caveats. One area of potential improvement in the coming months is a major interface update that gives the streamer a feel more in line with it's more expensive peers. There are plans for an implementation of a YAMJ style-interface, and there is now a beta firmware available to download. Whilst not perfect, this interface will make the Mede8er more user-friendly and shows huge potential.
The Mede8er has a wireless option that is available at an additional cost, we tested the unit on a wired network and found it performed flawlessly. Video and audio playback were perfect, although we'd like to see navigation around video files improved as we often found we'd accidentally jumped to the end of the video with the press of one button and navigating back to the previous point was a hassle.
The Mede8er is definitely an upgrade from the Xtreamer, but you pay with a price tag that is currently £40 more than its cheaper rival. For your money you get support for a larger 3.5" internal hard drive and a much faster and more attractive interface - both of which are key reasons to consider spending the extra. It's a quality piece of kit that is well constructed and easy to use and comes highly recommended.
The Mede8er is currently available to buy for £139.99 in the UK from Digital Era
The Xtreamer supports the following media containers and formats:
MKV, H264, DVD (VOB - IFO - ISO), DIVX, XVID, DAT, AVI, MPEG, HD MPEG-2, TS, HD MPEG-4, SP, ASP, AVCD (H.264), MTS, M2ts, WMV9, FLV, VC-1, Real Networks (RM/RMVB) 8/9/10, up to 720p, MP3, MP2, OGG Vorbis, PCM, LPCM, AAC, RA, Dolby AC3 Passthrough, Dolby AC3 Downmix, DTS Passthrough, DTS Downmix, FLAC, WAV, WMA Standard
Popcorn Hour C200
Network Media Tank, Blu-ray support (no drive supplied), Configurable, Best for those who like to experiment, not for beginners!
The Popcorn Hour C200 is a beast - it's huge - old VHS player huge, but it's also very solid and well built. It handles pretty much every key media format and includes the ability to install a Blu-ray drive to make it a fully featured unit that can totally replace your standalone players.
All of this functionality comes at a price - and that is performance. It is probably the slowest unit on test with long boot-up times and delays when navigating the remarkably basic and simple menus. Quite why it suffers from these problems is up for argument, but the optimisation is obviously targetted at video playback rather than the interface.
It is also probably the most complex unit on test - it took well over an hour from unboxing to playback due to difficulties in configuration and access of shared folders on the network. Once it was set up there were additional problems - some video files would only play to a certain point despite working correctly on all of the other units on test. An image of the 'Return of the Jedi' DVD was a particular stumbling point with the C200 failing to play back after chapter 52. Once the video file was re-encoded the problems were resolved, but there were other similar issues with other DVD ISO files. The unit performed as expected on all other file types, but for quick ripping, ISO files are quite popular.
Inserting a Blu-ray drive gives support for Blu-ray playback and this worked well although sound from the HDMI output to TV lacked a lot of depth. Through an external AV amplifier the sound was on a par with the other units and also my standalone Sony BDP-S350 player. For Blu-ray support you also need to install either a 2.5 inch hard drive OR a USB flash drive to enable the unit to install the necessary drivers. Most Blu-ray drives are supported, but there are some compatibility issues.
There are lots of ways to experiment with the C200 and there is a thriving modding community, but it definitely isn't something that a beginner would get along with. The price is also significantly higher than other standalone units. With further updates and community support this is the most powerful option you'll have without chosing a dedicated HTPC, but that power comes with some disadvantages. Finally the lack of wireless is a strange ommission that sets the unit apart from all of the others on test, and not in a good way.
You can buy the C200 in the UK for £279.99 from Digital Era
The Popcorn Hour C200 supports the following media containers and formats:
MPEG1/2/4 Elementary (M1V, M2V, M4V), MPEG1/2 PS (M2P, MPG, DAT, VOB), MPEG2 Transport Stream (TS, TP, TRP, M2T, M2TS, MTS), AVI, ASF, WMV, Matroska (MKV), MOV (H.264), MP4, RMP4, XVID SD/HD, MPEG-1, MPEG-2 MP@HL, MPEG-4.2 ASP@L5, 720p, 1-point GMC, MPEG-4.10 (H.264) : BP@L3, MP@L4.0, HP@L4.0, HP@L4.1, WMV9 : MP@HL, SMPTE 421M (VC-1) : MP@HL, AP@L3
Now we're onto the big boys toys! Home Theatre PCs are the obvious option to allow total futureproofing. Whilst you're limited to firmware updates and third-party mods for standalone units, full-blown PCs are a completely different kettle of fish. Firstly they have all of the benefits of the PC on your desk - you can run games, productivity software, check your email and brows the web; but more importantly for streaming there are a variety of different interfaces that give you smooth and streamlined access to all of your media.
The obvious downside is they also suffer from all of the problems associated with PC systems - viruses, configuration issues and the odd 'blue screen of death'. However, many find the flexibility and power that you get with a HTPC outweigh the negatives. Below we've taken a look at two popular HTPC options, but first let's have a very quick rundown of the two key media centre applications you can use...
Windows Media Center
If you're running Windows 7, you may already have this installed on your PC. Combined with an IR remote it can turn you computer or laptop into a fully-fledged streamer with very little work - just point it to your movie and music folders and you're ready to go. It's a nice and simple streamlined system that also supports live TV via Freeview or Freesat with the necessary onboard decoders. You can easily configure it to act as a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) replacing the likes of your Sky+ or Freeview PVR and the limitless hard drive space you can add means that there's never a need to worry about how much space a recording takes up.
The biggest issue is in the software's lack of support for DVD ISO files. While it IS possible to access ISO files using third-party applications that mount the ISO as a virtual drive, this is fraught with problems and we were unable to find a totally stable 100% working solution. If future iterations of WMC build in ISO support we could be onto a winner. You also have the complications added by the need for the installation of various codecs - most are easily found packaged up, but there isn't a one-click solution to date.
WMC is ideal if you have your video stored in formats supported by the software. It's easy to use and has all of the features and options you'd expect from Microsoft supported software, with regular updates and the abilty to add third party modifications (albeit with the need for some technical know-how!). If you chose this options we strongly recommend the use of the Media Browser plugin which adds a really nice browser on top of the standard functionality.
The other major contender for HTPC media centres is XBMC. It originally started out as a modification for chipped Xboxes but it is now a solid and well supported app that runs on all major PC platforms including Windows, Linux and OSX. While its roots are in the murky world of Xbox hacking, it is now a fully-fledged piece of highly respected software that is easy to use and offers huge expansion options through its plugins and scripts.
Our preferred version (mainly for speed) is to run XBMC live which is a standalone application based on a simple Linux install. You don't need to know any Linux to install the software - just download and burn the ISO file to a DVD and then install it either to your HTPC hard drive or even a USB flash disc - this means you can turn ANY PC into an XBMC media centre without installing on the core OS or needing to format the hard drive. It's a real masterstroke that allows anyone to try XBMC without jumping straight in.
The software also totally skinable, so if you don't like the look of the default install just browse the hundreds of alternatives until you find one you do like!
In terms of playback, XBMC has the big advantage that it supports ISOs without the need for any fiddling. This instantly gives the software an advantage over WMC but it does come at the cost of slightly more complicated configuration options. XBMC Live in particular can be daunting if you need to get under the hood as it is based on a Linux core and those not comfortable with using a command line will be quickly put off.
The benefits of tackling this learning curve mean that you can configure the software in any way you like and the vibrant community of developers means that there is always something new to try out. Currently the software doesn't support PVR functionality, but there are various plans to add this in future developments and XBMC is truly an option worth supporting.
ASRock Ion 330HT
Home Cinema PC, Blu-ray, nVidia Ion graphics controller, Best for HTPC
The ASRock Ion is a great looking, solid piece of kit. The shiny black case and understated looks make it instantly appealing. The unit on test here incorporates a slim Blu-ray drive.
The PC is built around an Intel Atom processor. These are slower than you'd find in most desktop PCs, but at the same time they consume significantly less power (around 30W compared to 300W+) and run quieter and cooler. The ION330HT also incorporates the NVidia ION chip which is aimed at supporting HD video meaning the processor has less to deal with - a significant advantage that means that the PC can playback full 1080p quality with no stutters or other artefacts.
The ASRock shipped to us without an operating system so we tested with both Windows 7 Media Centre and XBMC Live and both performed well. We did however find that we had occasional dropouts of audio via the optical output in Windows that required occasional reboots. We were unable to resolve this issue at the time of writing, but this could well have been a driver/configuration issue and was unlikely to be hardware related. No such problems were experienced with XBMC Live.
The ASRock has an internal IR censor which worked well but did require configuring within XBMC Live and this would be a daunting task for anyone unfamiliar with Linux; especially given the lack of online resources for this particular issue. We were also unable to play back Blu-ray from within XBMC Live; DVD playback worked as expected.
Whilst the ASRock Ion 330HT is a well built piece of hardware, the use of a slim laptop optical drive means that this aspect feels flimsy. A nice slot-loader might have been more appealing both in aesthetics and functionality, but it's not a huge negative.
Overall, we like the Ion 330HT. It's a nice looking HTPC that would fit well into a home cinema system. The Atom/ION combination provides enough grunt to perform its primary duties and the PC can easily handle day-to-day household tasks if required. Support for HDMI/VGA and optical outputs give the PC the connectivity it needs and the built-in Gigabit network port, Wireless N wifi and IR receiver and remote give you all the tools you need. It is supplied with an ample 2GB RAM and supports 7.1 channel audio through the optical output. There are 6 USB ports to allow the connection of multiple external hard drives and accessories.
Shuttle H7 4500H XPC
Home Cinema PC, Blu-ray (and HD DVD!), Full Core2Duo processor, Best for HD disc playback
This is the big one - a full PC in the usual miniature Shuttle packaging. It may be larger than the ASRock, but it's gorgeous, heavy and solid and the fact that it's a proper PC means you can upgrade it in ways that other units can't be. The Core2Duo processor is blindingly fast and coupled with a decent graphics card, this would make a brilliant PC gaming system.
There are far too many specifications to list - check the Shuttle Website for a full rundown. Suffice to say, this is THE daddy.
It's not perfect - remember this is a full PC so it will take more power to run. The Core2Duo is a fast processor and it can run hot so a fast fan is a prerequisite meaning that this is the noisiest hardware on test, but you can run any software you want on here from graphics applications to the latest 3D games. Is it overkill for a HTPC? Yes, if that's all you need then you don't really need to go for the luxury or expense of the Shuttle. It's not aimed at being JUST a set-top box and the price would make it very expensive just for that use. If you want to replace your Xbox, Blu-ray player, Freeview HD box and have everything in one unit then it has to be the best option available on the market today.
We tested both WMC and XBMC on the Shuttle and both worked as expected. The PC ships with Windows 7 as standard (although ours was supplied sans-OS so we used Windows 7 Home Premium for test purposes). XBMC Live worked and picked up all of the correct drivers and supported the IR remote control with no problems.
Despite the Shuttle's small size, it's shape can make it difficult to fit into a home cinema environment. Ideally, a set-top box should be of as small and compact a stature as possible, but this obviously isn't an option when the cooling required takes up most of the case!
It is obvious there is NO perfect solution, but there are options for almost every need. The Mede8er wins as our pick for the best standalone option due to it's speed and functionality; while the countless options available for full HTPCs make choosing any particular unit a difficult task. We really like the Shuttle - it's a solid and powerful piece of hardware, but it IS expensive and the Core2Duo processor is power hungry. It's also the noisiest unit on test given the need for a larger fan. It can do far more than anything else here though and the expansion options mean it is totally future-proof.
It is a fast-changing market and issues can be easily correct with firmware fixes and software updates. New hardware is always becoming available and active communities mean that many things that were never envisaged come into play. Right now work is being done to run XBMC on Popcorn Hour hardware - could that be a killer combination? We think it has potential. We've only scratched the surface here and while we hope this article has been of use, it's always worth doing your own research.