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.