Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player Review

Actiontec has a solid start with the Wireless Digital Media Player and there are certain things it does quite well.
Actiontec has a solid start with the Wireless Digital Media Player and there are certain things it does quite well.
Actiontec has a solid start with the Wireless Digital Media Player and there are certain things it does quite well.

Highs

  • Handles images and video well
  • digital audio and video connections
  • supports HDTV.

Lows

  • Poor audio performance
  • poor Internet performance
  • slow remote response time.

DT Editors' Rating

Home > Product Reviews > Media Streamer Reviews > Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player Review

Summary

With a host of important features, the Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player offers just about everything you could want in a networked media player; support for video, audio, images and Web browsing. Unfortunately it falls short in two of the four categories. While batting .500 would be history-making in baseball, when it comes to consumer electronics, having only half of your features work as intended just doesn’t make the cut.

Actiontec’s Wireless Digital Media Player handles the playback of images and video quite well, but it falls short in its Web browsing capabilities and the feature that most people are going to want the device for – playing music.

Actiontec has a solid start with the Wireless Digital Media Player and there are certain things it does quite well. If you are looking for a device that can play your digital photos on your TV or home-theater monitor, this would be a good choice, that also offers good movie playback and limited audio functions. If you’re looking for a networked media player to play a large digital audio collection, this may not be the best choice. With some important improvements, this product just might be something worthy of most home-entertainment systems. But until then, it is simply a mediocre device in an increasingly competitive market.

Introduction

 

Actiontec is a Silicon Valley-based provider of broadband communication and networking products. While their product lineup centers mostly on network access devices such as modems, routers and network adapters, they also offer a few Bluetooth products and the subject of this review, a Wireless Digital Media Player.

 

We’ve written before that networked media devices – home-theater components designed to play your digital audio, video and images through your TV and/or stereo – are going to be a big focus for a number of companies. While the “big guys” – companies like Yamaha, Linksys, and Sony are pumping out their designs, it really is the smaller manufacturers that are making the most innovations. Companies like SlimDevices, Roku and Prismiq are giving the big players some good competition, and great ideas.

 

Actiontec’s approach to the networked media device is a low-profile device that can play back images, movies, audio, and even browse the Web from the comfort of your living room all for under $200. With both analog and digital connections to your stereo and television, including support for HDTV, and a wide range of supported formats, the Digital Wireless Media Player may appeal to techies and the non-technical alike.

 


Actiontec’s Wireless Digital Media Player is fairly featureless, except for the protruding WiFi card.

Features and Design

 

The Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player is – as far as home theater components go – a relatively small device with a brushed-aluminum and black plastic casing. It measures about 10-inches wide by 6 ½-inches deep and 1 ½ inches high. The top, front and sides are relatively featureless, aside from the Actiontec logo on top, a black smoked-plexiglass bar across the front and a PCMCIA card slot on the left side.

 

Behind the smoked-plexi front are three status lights: ‘Power’, ’10/100′ and ‘Link/Act’. These indicators are green LEDs behind an etching of the word in the plexi. While it looks good, the lights really don’t offer much information and aren’t bright enough to be seen from a distance.

 

Actiontec provides plenty of analog and digital connections on the back to make all levels of home-theater enthusiasts happy. For video the unit features the following outputs: Digital Video Interface (DVI), Composite Video, S-Video, and Component Video. On the audio side, the Actiontec sports a left and right analog RCA output as well as an optical S/PDIF and an RCA S/PDIF interface.

 

For network connectivity the Actiontec features a 10/100 Ethernet port on the back and the PCMCIA slot on left side where the 802.11b wireless card goes. The Wireless Digital Media Player comes with an Actiontec branded 802.11b card so you have the option of using either type of connection. Going wireless introduces a serous aesthetic problem – the wireless card sticks out so far from the side of the unit that it looks like it isn’t plugged in all the way. This really takes away from the looks of the device and creates an unwanted focus point. Surely someone at Actiontec must have the same thoughts as us and we hope they will address this issue in future revisions.

 

Also included with the Wireless Digital Media Player is an infrared remote control. Every function of the player can be controlled by the remote. This includes Web browsing and other functions that require the entry of letters.

Installation and Setup

 

Installation of the device is fairly straightforward and simplistic. Just hook up the desired audio and video connection, plug in the wireless card or Ethernet cable, install the “Actiontec Media Buddy” software on a Windows computer and power the media player on. Once powered up, you have to locate the media server on your network. This may take a little time and if you are not running a DHCP server, you’ll have to enter the IP address and network information manually using the remote control. This is a tedious process, but thankfully only has to be done once. We had no problems hooking the media player up on wired or wireless networks, besides the time it took to manually enter the network information. It supports WEP encryption but, like we’ve seen in other wireless media players, not WPA. If you run a network with WPA encryption, you’ll either have to change that, or look for a device that supports it.

 

The remote features a “Mode” button that allows you to cycle through the available display options. If you power the device up and can’t view any output, this is easily fixed by hitting the “Mode” button until your current output device is selected. The Actiontec Media Player supports the following resolutions:

 



  • Composite/S-Video NTSC


  • Component NTSC


  • Composite/S-Video PAL


  • Component PAL


  • HDTV Component 480P


  • HDTV Component 720P


  • HDTV Component 1080i


  • DVI 480P


  • DVI 720P


  • DVI 1080i


  • DVI 600×480


  • DVI 800×600


  • DVI 1024×768


  • DVI 852×480 (Plasma) 

The Media Buddy software works on any Windows operating system (98 and up) and the company lists minimum hardware requirements as a 700MHz Pentium III or higher if you want to use the device for streaming video. We installed our test server on an Abit AT7-Max2 motherboard with an Athlon XP 1600+ and 512MB of PC 2700 DDR. This system was more than adequate.

 


The rear of the device features both analog and digital connections – including a HDTV compatible DVI port.

 

Although setup is easy, it can take quite a bit of time. If you have a large number of media files – and if you’re thinking of buying the Actiontec you probably do – it will take the program a while to scan all of your media. Once you install the software you then tell it what folders to scan for pictures, video and music. Admittedly, we had a very large collection of music to scan – just over 5,000 audio, video and image files – but it took over 6 ½ minutes.

 

One reason why the setup and media scan takes so long is that the program creates a thumbnail image for each picture in your collection.

Audio Playback

 

Actiontec’s Wireless Digital Media Player supports a wide range of audio formats such as MP3, AC3, AAC, WAV, WMA and Ogg Vorbis. We tested it with all supported formats and found performance to be similar with each.

 

Audio sounded excellent when played through the optical connection, and as expected when played via the analog RCA jacks. With digital audio, the playback is only as good as your encoded files, and most of our files are encoded with the LAME encoder at variable bit rate, so they sound CD-quality, or close enough for most people to not notice a difference.

 

The player allows you to listen to audio one track at a time, in order by folder, or randomly by folder. Unfortunately, it lacks a number of features that are common in other digital media players. The Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player can not read playlists. It will read a playlist and report that it is an “Empty File.” The player also only plays music in the current folder. So if you have separate folders for each artist or album, you can’t randomly play between them. You either have to have all of your music in one huge folder, or play only each album at a time. We think this will be a big issue for many users – and potentially lead to them not considering the Actiontec for purchase. It also doesn’t allow you to select one song from a folder, play it and then skip to the next track. If you select one song in a folder, you’re stuck playing that one song unless you go back and select the entire folder. Another annoyance we found was the inability to play a song and then cue up another song to play next. If you are listening to a track, the only way to go back to view your music list is to stop the song and go back to the main music menu. And finally, the time it takes to switch between songs when you manually progress through the tracks is a long five or more seconds. Those used to instant gratification from their CD player or PC-based audio player will find the wait too long.

 


The Media Player’s menu allows you to select all of your media files with the remote control.

 

Video Playback

 

The Wireless Media Player supports video encoded in MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, DIVX, Xvid and RPM4. We were able to successfully play back MPEG2 files recorded from cable TV through a Hauppauge WinTV 250 capture card. However, our MPEG2 files encoded in “better” quality were choppy and unwatchable when played over the wireless network. On the wired network they played perfectly smooth.

 

Xvid and DIVX files did not suffer any choppiness when played via the WiFi network. Some of our DIVX movies did not play at first and the player would return a message saying “Unknown Video Codec” when we tried to play them. The Media Buddy application on our media server marked those same file names in red, signifying that something was wrong with them. However, the software includes a button to re-encode DIVX files to OpenDiv3 and this enabled us to play all of our DIVX files. The conversion was quick, taking just about a minute for a 750MB video file.

 

Fast-forwarding and rewinding video files worked fairly well, but the player would get hung up every once in a while, especially on the MPEG2 files, and either stop the file or restart it from the beginning.

 

The remote control features a button called “zoom” which allows you to view movies (and pictures) in three different settings: Full Screen, Fit To Screen, and Actual Size.

 

High quality movies looked great on an HDTV monitor. We tested using a Samsung 43-inch HDTV and a Gateway 42-inch EDTV plasma monitor and pictures and video looked crisp and clear.

Viewing Images

 

Displaying images is the Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player’s strongest feature. Images are sorted in folders much like the music is and playback suffers from the same folder restrictions, but with images, this is much more acceptable than with music. Curiously, the issue we had with selecting one audio file from a folder and then only being able to play that one file is not an issue with images. If you select one image from a folder, you can then go forward or backwards through the folder to view the other images.

 

The system allows you to assign music from your music list to play in the background while viewing images if you chose. Images can be played in alphabetic order or randomly. You can also play images one at a time, progressing with the forward and backward buttons on the remote, or as a slideshow. You can set the slideshow to wait between one and 60 seconds between each image.

 

Browsing The Web

 

It’s a great idea, but browsing the Web via your Actiontec Wireless Media Player just isn’t user-friendly at all. With no mouse or no keyboard, you are stuck with the four-direction arrow keys for browsing. This means you can only select links by highlighting the word and clicking the Enter button on the remote. Web browsing is also done in a very low resolution, so unless you view sites for mobile devices only, you’ll be missing out on a large portion of the Website.

 

Actiontec includes a small selection of Internet radio stations and these work well. You can also play any other radio station not listed in the presets with ease. We had no problem playing any of Winamp.com’s net radio listings – except for having to navigate through the page with the Actiontec remote.

 

The Web browser relies on the bookmarks on the server computer, so if you find a number of mobile-ready Websites and add them to the favorites list, it will greatly improve Web browsing. Unfortunately, it still is very slow and tedious. The player also includes a listing of nine news sites, but sadly, you can only read the lead sentence of each article, making it rather useless.

A Few Bugs and Quirks to Work Out

 

Actiontec will need to work out a number of issues to make the Wireless Digital Media Player as useful as they say it is. The speed, navigation, and ease-of-use of audio playback really needs to be addressed. As audio capabilities will probably be the most important feature for prospective buyers, this is the first thing Actiontec should focus on. They also need to totally revamp the Web browsing utility, as it is nearly useless in its current form.

 

There are also some display issues and performance issues that should be addressed. The remote suffers from a latency issue, which can make navigating through media files a hassle at times. Navigation with the remote could also be improved as the menus can take some getting used to and don’t seem as intuitive as they should be. The device would also benefit if the display of media file names were shifted to the left, since many music and movie titles are cut off now, and there is wasted empty space to the left.

 

We’d like to see an LCD display on future revisions too. Having to turn on your TV just to listen to music is one of the drawbacks of many of today’s networked media players, and we think an LCD or VFD, like the Slim Devices products, go a long way in making the devices more useful. The device could also use a relocation of the PCMCIA card slot, as the wireless card takes away from the product’s aesthetic appeal by sticking out so far.

 

Actiontec’s support for the product really needs to be improved also. We called them with a few questions and there was no option on their support menu for the Wireless Digital Media Player. After selecting the wrong menus and hanging up to redial numerous times, we finally found a way to talk to a service rep, who didn’t have many answers for us. Actiontec’s online support is just as lacking, as there is no Web support section for the player, while there is one for each of their other products. At least it would be nice for them to post an FAQ on the Website, as there certainly must be some frequently asked questions.

 

Finally, Actiontec needs to get their facts straight between their Website and product literature. There are many inconsistencies that can lead to confusion. For instance, the box states that the player is compatible with “All Major Operating Systems including Windows 98, 98SE, Me, 2000, NT/4.0, XP, Mac OS X (10) or higher, Linux/BSD, Unix.” We could not verify this as the Website only lists the Windows operating systems and the included CD is only for Windows operating systems. The box also states that the product supports DIVX files but the Website makes no mention of it.

 

Conclusion

 

With a host of important features, the Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player offers just about everything you could want in a networked media player; support for video, audio, images and Web browsing. Unfortunately it falls short in two of the four categories. While batting .500 would be history-making in baseball, when it comes to consumer electronics, having only half of your features work as intended just doesn’t make the cut.

 

Actiontec’s Wireless Digital Media Player handles the playback of images and video quite well, but it falls short in its Web browsing capabilities and the feature that most people are going to want the device for – playing music.

 

Actiontec has a solid start with the Wireless Digital Media Player and there are certain things it does quite well. If you are looking for a device that can play your digital photos on your TV or home-theater monitor, this would be a good choice, that also offers good movie playback and limited audio functions. If you’re looking for a networked media player to play a large digital audio collection, this may not be the best choice. With some important improvements, this product just might be something worthy of most home-entertainment systems. But until then, it is simply a mediocre device in an increasingly competitive market.