By Eric Griffith
October 13, 2003Price: $ 249.95
Advantages: DIVX support, quick setup, 802.11g support.
The inconvenients: Impenetrable and frequently crashing server software, boring user interface, no local storage.
Diskless media players are all the rage, with companies like SMC Networks, Linksys and even Creative Labs, a longtime media expert, recently announcing units with built-in 802.11. Beating them all in the fist was PRISMIQ (pronounced priz-mik), which built wireless capabilities into its MediaPlayer decoder months ago by supporting 802.11b PC cards. The latest version uses 802.11g. The extra 54Mbps speed of 11g is there, in theory, to give video playback extra bitrate.
The purpose of a product like this is to play media stored on computers through your TV and / or stereo. PRISMIQ presents it as a ânetwork entertainment gatewayâ. Your huge MP3 mess that you carefully ripped from CDs for years should not, after all, be listened to just on your pathetic PC speakers. Beautiful video from a digital camcorder shouldn’t be limited to the one monitor in your living room. You get the picture.
The product looks like a small version of a cable box, with a green light on the front to indicate when it is on, and another to indicate when it is receiving from your PCs (see below) via WLAN. The rear of the unit sports composite video jacks, an S-video jack, digital audio out, 10/100 Ethernet port, and CardBus slot for an 802.11g PC card.
The $ 250 unit doesn’t include its own Wi-Fi card, but PRISMIQ did provide a Netgear WG511 for testing, which would cost around $ 70 more. The company has a long list of Wi-Fi cards on their website that the MediaPlayer will support. It is a very precise list; for example it supports the Netgear WG511 but not the 108Mbps version, the WG511T, so make sure you have the correct card. The unit comes with a triple composite RCA cable, an S-video cable and an AC adapter.
An infrared remote control (batteries included!) Completes the set. No one really wants another remote, but without it the MediaPlayer is useless. A full-size infrared keyboard is also an option for an additional $ 50, but the keyboard is only really necessary if you plan to use the MediaPlayer as a “Web TV” for surfing and sending emails. Don’t put anything on the keyboard keys when not in use – this will blow the batteries out in no time (learn from my mistakes, folks).
When it comes to format support, the MediaPlayer has (almost) it all. Built-in MPEG hardware plays MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 files, and the software can handle MPEG 4 and the increasingly popular DIVX codec used to create high-quality, small-size video files. At the audio level, it plays MP3, WMA and WAV files. It even plays Internet radio – at least, streams in Shoutcast and WMA format. Unfortunately, the unit does not support formats that would likely cost money to license, such as QuickTime or Real. Software updates in the future may add new codecs as they become available. It can also make graphics slideshows in formats like JPG or PNG.
Connecting the MediaPlayer is relatively easy. Insert the Wi-Fi card first, then hook the RCA or S-Video cables to the box and your TV and / or stereo receiver. Turn it on, tune in to the right selection of videos from your TV, and you’ll be greeted by the green-hued User Interface (UI). The system is configured so that the wireless card defaults to DHCP with no security enabled and look for an SSID of “Any”. If you don’t have security on your home network, it will find it quickly. Configuration of security, SSID, etc. Is simple ; click on the Setup link in the menu and you’re greeted with a very Windows tabbed interface to change all kinds of settings.
Menu options include Home, Video, Pictures, Audio, Web, and Setup. Below the menu, you’ll see your local weather (based on your zip code) and links to news headlines from the web. The user interface is one of the weakest parts of the product. MediaPlayer runs a Linux operating system underneath, which works great, but the user interface is rather stilted and boring – quite similar to what Microsoft’s early web TV units looked like, in fact. I would blame this on the limitations of Linux, but anyone who owns a TiVo knows this is not the fault of this open source operating system.
You might be online and can see the news, but before you can view the media stored on your PC (s), you need to turn the PC into a server. The MediaManager server software comes on CD with the box and you can install it on any Windows PC that contains media files. The MediaManager will search your drives and find files anywhere or right where you say they are. It creates a master list in the software. MediaPlayer at Entertainment Center can now find all files listed in MediaManager.
MediaManager seems at first glance to be a more than adequate tool, but it comes with additional tools that seem to do nothing other than initiate constant streams of impenetrable data. Probably useful for experienced users, but more likely for back-to-basics engineers. It would be better if this information was never seen by consumers.
Worse yet, on my main Windows XP workstation, MediaManager frequently sent the computer into a blue screen of death, forcing a restart. This seemed to happen mostly when Microsoft Office 2003 products were running; when running MediaManager alone it behaved better. Your best bet: Set aside a PC to be ONLY your media server and put all the audio and video you want to watch on its hard drive. Taking an older system, shrinking it down to Windows essentials, and making it serve only as a media server is the best bet for optimal video playback.
You can install MediaManager on multiple PCs on your network, but MediaPlayer will only play one at a time. It’s a shame – the excellent Gateway Wireless Connected DVD Player, which shares many features with this product, will support multiple servers. The other option is to configure MediaManager to search for shares on other PCs on the network.
Playback was not perfect, especially for video – I found DIVX and MPEG encoded videos to be choppy, especially if they were long. Blasting a small resolution full screen video on the TV made them look terrible, as you would expect. Much of the clutter may be due to the fact that the PCs on my network acting as servers aren’t exactly Pentium 4 class systems; I tried streaming with the Ethernet connection instead of wireless for the same result.
The digital still image slideshows were superb and the sound from my laptop sounded beautifully wirelessly to the stereo speakers. It would have been nice to randomize the playback of the files, but you can’t. If you do not want the files to be played in the order in which they were imported into the MediaManager software, you must create new playlists on the PC. Browsing the web or using e-mail evokes images from the old web TV service (thankfully at faster speeds than current dial-up access). Email is very nice though, as you can access webmail accounts like Yahoo! Mail. But forget to send messages unless you’ve got the optional $ 50 keyboard, or you’re the kind of masochist who thinks typing text messages on a number pad is fun.
Surfing the web on TV will always look like something you put together for your grandma over the holidays to introduce her to the internet. The web on TV looks terrible. It might have been a selling point in the days of Web TV, but with the MediaPlayer, it’s all gravy. Although I admit I enjoy reading web based radio stations a lot. It is by no means an XM satellite radio, but almost as eclectic.
It’s hard to recommend a crass product like the MediaPlayer when you can spend the same money to get a high-tech gadget like Gateway’s Wireless Connected DVD that does almost all of the same things, albeit without 11g support ( only 11b), DIVX, web browsing and email. It will depend on your needs. If you are happy with an existing high-end DVD in your home and / or want to surf the web in your living room, get the PRISMIQ. But you could spend more money to get the Gateway DVD and just use your laptop in the living room to surf. After all, if you don’t have a laptop, why do you have a wireless LAN?