Do you want to watch your movies in the bedroom or listen to albums in the kitchen? PC Advisor identifies which devices do the best job of streaming PC-based video and audio all over your home.
Today it's easier than ever to liberate your collection of audio, video and photo files from the confines of a PC. Streaming media players, also known as digital media receivers, connect to your TV and speakers and enable you to stream multimedia files from networked PCs, hard disks and (in some cases) the internet. That way you can enjoy content in comfort through your home theatre setup.
Because its maker is such a recognisable brand, the Apple TV is probably the best known of these devices. But it's not the first of its kind – and it's not necessarily the best media streamer for you. It's definitely the prettiest, though.
PC Advisor examined six media streamers, pitting the Apple TV against contenders from Buffalo, D-Link, Mvix, Netgear and ZyXel. We considered which were the easiest to set up and use, which were able to play the most popular and the widest range of formats and – by no means a small consideration – which were most pleasing to the eyes and ears.
As well as these dedicated streaming devices, in the following pages we'll take a look at other ways of beaming music, photos and other content around your home. Who knows: you may own a media streamer without even knowing it.
Let the testing begin
We conducted most of the tests using Windows XP, but also performed some compatibility testing with Vista. Each product's support for wireless and ethernet networking was tested, but only ethernet was used to score performance. This is because 802.11g Wi-Fi lacks the bandwidth and reliability to manage many videos.
To gauge picture quality, we ran several short films and trailers at both standard definition and HD (high definition): 720p, 1080i and 1080p. We played them on a 1080p-capable HDTV and, where possible, we connected the media receivers via an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface). For audio we relied on an optical SPDIF connection. Audio tests included 320Kbps (kilobits per second) MP3 files and unprotected 128Kbps WMA files.
Our Best Buy award goes to the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000. Although it was one of the pricier options, it was easily the most versatile.
The Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000 supports a wide range of video formats, can play files protected by Windows Media DRM (digital rights management), works as a digital video recorder and even lets you check your email and watch YouTube.com videos on your TV. It also outputs up to a full 1080p resolution for HD content.
The classy Apple TV, which we rated second overall, will impress yet more once the iTunes Store video library comes to the UK. It's extremely easy to set up and displayed great-looking video (though only at resolutions up to 720p). It can play anything iTunes can, but that means it won't play Windows Media or formats popular with online file sharers, such as DivX and XviD. Apple TV can stream converted YouTube videos directly, which was another bonus.
The players all support HD video to some degree, but as yet there isn't much true, legal HD video out there. You can download film trailers, some video podcasts and a few short films, or you can convert recorded HD content yourself. And that's about it, unless you own an Xbox 360.
Each unit can create photo slideshows, usually with an option to use one of your music files as a backing track. And speaking of music, fans of internet radio will have to settle for the services that their device supports. The Netgear permits you to enter the address of a stream manually.
Beyond streamed content, most devices include USB ports for playing back files stored on external hard drives and thumb drives. The Mvix Wireless HD MX-760HD even lets you connect a USB DVD-ROM drive and install your own internal 3.5in IDE hard disk, or you can pay extra to have one preinstalled.
The Apple TV comes with a 40GB or 160GB internal hard drive and you can copy music, video and photo files to the drive using iTunes. Unfortunately, the Apple TV won't play content from drives connected to its USB port.
Each device we tested supports 802.11g wireless networking but – your home's geography permitting – a wired ethernet connection will give the best results. What looks smooth when viewed over an ethernet connection can stutter without the cable.
The 802.11n Wi-Fi spec, which is already out there but isn't finished yet, promises some improvement. But despite the fact that the UK version of the ZyXel Streamer DMA-1000 had just been repackaged and was getting set for European launch as we went to press, the Apple TV was the only draft-n device in our group.
Getting it all to work
You'll find a huge number of audio and video formats floating around and no player can handle them all – with the exception of MP3 audio, which is universally supported. Support for unprotected iTunes music and unprotected WMA music is common, too. Video is trickier. Many devices support XviD, for instance, but some require the accompanying audio to be in MP3 format, while others support XviD using AAC audio.
The Apple TV handles compatibility in a convenient but limiting way. It uses iTunes on a Mac or a PC as a media server. If iTunes can play a file, so can the Apple TV.
Every other product (except the Mvix) comes with software – usually plug-and-play servers that organise media, send it to the device and control what folders are presented to it. You don't have to use this, since the devices can see shared folders on a network and play files from them.
If you do use this method of accessing your media, the streaming device's onscreen menu will probably just show you files in folders, while music and video that's accessed through a server will be organised by such things as genre and performer.
Windows Media Connect is built into Windows Media Player 11.0. WMC allows some players, including these Buffalo LinkTheater, D-Link DSM-520 and Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000 models, to play protected WMA files bought from services such as Napster and MSN.
Music wherever you go
As well as the video-capable devices we've reviewed in this feature, there are a handful of devices that allow you to stream music around your home. In some cases – such as Roku's £118 SoundBridge M1001 (broadbandstuff.co.uk) and Philips' £99 WAK3300 (johnlewis.com) – these music-focused streamers are far less pricey than those that can also beam video around.
In other cases, such as with Sonos' great-looking ZonePlayers, pricing reflects both their desirable design and their 'muso' pretensions. The ZonePlayer 130 bundle (sonos.com) consists of two players, one of which has a built-in amplifier, plus a separate wireless remote. This 'starter' kit will set you back £699. Only one of the ZonePlayers can be in a different room from your router, as it needs an ethernet connection.
A cheaper yet still stylish option is Slim Devices' £195 Squeezebox (broadbandstuff.co.uk) or you could opt for Apple's £65 AirPort Express Base Station with AirTunes (apple.com/uk). This uses software to divert music wirelessly from a PC to itself, which in turn connects to your stereo – a very simple way around DRM and compatibility issues.
Network music players specialise in sending audio files from your PC to any stereo in the house. In most cases, you install server software on a PC, set the streamer to work with your Wi-Fi network then simply plug it into your stereo.
The cheapest solution of all is to use a Y-adaptor audio cable with a stereo mini-plug on one end and left and right RCA connectors on the other. Plug the RCA connectors into your stereo, the other end into your audio player and you're away.
STREAM FROM NETWORKED HARD DRIVES>/h2>
The media streamer concept has one obvious flaw: for true convenience,
you must keep your computer on and networked at all times. This wastes power and, if your music and video is stored on a laptop, your family may be disappointed when you take it to work. What's more, media libraries can fill up even huge hard drives in a distressingly short time.
Here's a solution. A NAS (network-attached storage) drive is an external hard drive that plugs into your router via an ethernet port, so that any PC in your house can access it. Such drives consume less electricity than a PC running continuously – less than 20W for some NAS models, versus roughly 120W to 400W for a typical PC. And if you turn the drive off, it comes back online much faster than a PC when you power it on again.
Many modern NAS drives function as UPnP (universal plug and play)-compatible media servers. If the box says the media server is DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) certified, that means it's UPnP-compatible. An example is Buffalo Technology's £125 250GB LinkStation Live.
Once it's connected to your network, it becomes accessible by any computer and compatible streaming device. You configure it by using a browser, as you would a router.
There's one limitation: the Buffalo LinkStation Live can't serve protected iTunes or Windows Media files to any device other than a computer that's already licensed to play them. Still, the LinkStation Live also works as a USB print server and it comes with a handy backup program.
STREAM CONTENT VIA AN XBOX 360 OR WII
You may not need to buy a dedicated streaming device. If you own one of the latest generation of games consoles, you're already set to start streaming media from your PC.
Nintendo's Wii can play MP3 files and display photos via its SD Card slot, while Red Kawa's free Wii Media Center X server software streams files from your PC wirelessly. You'll also find free tools at this site for converting video files into the Nintendo Wii's preferred Flash format.
Though Red Kawa, Orb Networks and other developers have come up with equivalent software for Sony's PS3 (PlayStation 3), a recent firmware update for that console now lets it stream non-protected music, movies and photos from networked PCs running a DLNA (digital lifestyle network alliance – yet another attempt at creating compatibility across digital media devices) media server such as Windows Media Player 11.0.
Another cool thing to note is that PSP (PlayStation Portable) owners who find themselves at a Wi-Fi hotspot can now use the Remote Play feature to stream content from their home PC – just as long as they also have an internet-connected PS3.
Then there's Microsoft's Xbox 360. The 360's Media Center interface mirrors and seamlessly syncs with Windows Media Center–equipped PCs, allowing you to stream music, video and photos – and schedule and stream TV recordings if the PC has a TV tuner. Microsoft plans to offer Xbox users live and on-demand, HD web TV by 2008. Danny Allen