October 13, 2003
Playback of digital media from the PC to the TV probably has never been easier than with this set-top box, but that might not be enough to recommend it to everyone.
Pros: Support for DIVX, fast setup, support for 802.11g.
Cons: Inscrutable and frequently crashing server software, boring UI, no local storage.
Diskless media players are all the rage, with companies like SMC Networks, Linksys, and even long-time media expert Creative Labs announcing units lately with built-in 802.11. Beating them all to the punch was PRISMIQ (pronounced priz-mik), which built wireless capabilities into its MediaPlayer set-top box 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 some extra throughput to video playback.
The point of a product like this is to play media stored on computers through your television and/or stereo. PRISMIQ bills it as a "networked entertainment gateway." Your massive mess of MP3s that you carefully ripped from CDs for years should not, after all, be listened to only on your pathetic PC speakers. A digital camcorder's beautiful video shouldn't be limited to just the monitor in your den. 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's powered up, and another to say when it's receiving from your PCs (see below) over the WLAN. The back of the unit sports composite video jacks, an S-video jack, digital audio out, 10/100 Ethernet port, and the CardBus slot for an 802.11g PC Card.
An infrared remote control (including batteries!) rounds out the package. No one really wants another remote control, but without it the MediaPlayer is useless. An infrared, full-sized keyboard is also an option for an additional $50, but the keyboard is only really needed if you plan to use the MediaPlayer as a "Web TV" for surfing and e-mail. Don't rest anything on top of the keyboard keys when not in use -- that'll blow through the batteries in no time (learn from my mistakes, people).
When it comes to supporting formats, the MediaPlayer (almost) has it all. The built-in MPEG hardware plays back MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 files, and the software can handle MPEG 4 and the increasingly popular DIVX codec used to make high-quality, small-sized video files. Audiowise it plays MP3, WMA and WAV files. It even plays Internet radio -- at least, streams in the Shoutcast and WMA format. Unfortunately, the unit doesn't support formats that would probably cost money to license, such as QuickTime or Real. Software updates in the future could add new codecs as they become available. It can also do slideshows of graphics in formats like JPG or PNG.Hooking up the MediaPlayer is relatively easy. Insert the Wi-Fi card first, and then hook the RCA or S-Video cables to the box and your TV and/or stereo receiver. Power it up, tune in the right video selection of your TV, and you'll be greeted by the green-hued user interface (UI). The system is set for the wireless card to default to DHCP
The menu options include Home, Video, Images, Audio, Web and Setup. Under the menu you'll see your local weather (based on your zip code) and links to news headlines pulled from the Web. The UI is one of the weakest parts of the product. MediaPlayer is running a Linux OS underneath, which works just fine, but the UI is pretty staid and boring -- quite akin to what the early Microsoft Web TV units looked like, in fact. I'd chalk it up to limitations of Linux, but anyone with a TiVo knows that it's not the fault of that open source OS.
You might be online and able to see the news, but before you can view any 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 has media files. The MediaManager will do a search of your drives and find files everywhere or just where you tell it. It creates a master list in the software. MediaPlayer at the entertainment center can now find all the files listed in MediaManager.
MediaManager seems at first to be a more than adequate tool, but it comes with extra tools that seem to do nothing but roll constant streams of inscrutable data. Probably handy for power users, but more likely it's for the engineers back at home base. It would be better if such info was never seen by consumers.
Worse, on my main Windows XP workstation, MediaManager frequently sent the computer into a Blue Screen of Death, forcing a reboot. This seemed to happen especially when Microsoft Office 2003 products were running; when running MediaManager alone it behaved better. Your best bet: Set aside one PC to ONLY be your media server and put all the audio and video you want to watch on its hard drive. Taking an older system, stripping it down to the bare Windows essentials and making it serve as nothing but a media server is the best bet toward optimal video playback.
You can install MediaManager on several PCs on your network, but the MediaPlayer will only read from one at a time. This is a shame -- the excellent Gateway Wireless Connected DVD Player, which shares many traits with this product, will handle multiple servers. The other option is to setup MediaManager to search 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. Blowing small resolution video up to full screen on the TV made them look terrible, as would be expected. A lot of the choppiness may be because the PCs on my network acting as servers are not exactly Pentium 4 class systems; I tried streaming with the Ethernet connection instead of the wireless to the same result.
Digital slideshows of still images looked great, and audio from my laptop sounded beautiful coming wirelessly to the stereo speakers. It would have been nice to randomize playback of files, but you can't. If you don't want files to play in the order they were imported to the MediaManager software, you have to create new playlists at the PC. Browsing the Web or using e-mail conjures images of the old Web TV service (thankfully at speeds faster than dial-up now). The e-mail is very nice however, because you can access Web-based mail accounts such as Yahoo! Mail. But forget sending any messages unless you have the $50 optional keyboard, or you're the kind of masochist who thinks punching in text messages on a number pad is fun.
Web surfing on the TV will always feel like something you'd set up for your grandmother around the holidays to introduce her to 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 just gravy. Though I admit to liking the playback of Web-based Radio stations a lot. It's not XM satellite radio by any means, but almost as eclectic.
It's difficult to recommend a rough-around-the-edges 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 the same things, though sans support for 11g (only 11b), DIVX, Web surfing and e-mail. It will depend on your needs. If you're 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 better money might be spent on getting the Gateway DVD and just using your laptop in the living room for your surfing. After all, if you don't have a laptop, why do you have a wireless LAN?