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Linksys WMA11B Review

Highs

  • Relatively inexpensive
  • easy to hook up
  • good image quality

Rating

Our Score 5
User Score 4

Lows

  • Remote control latency issues
  • navigation and display shortcomings
  • must use TV while listening to music
It does an excellent job with images, but anyone buying this device specifically for its audio capabilities will be disapointed.

Summary

We really wanted to like this product. We had high hopes for a product that plays both music and images, by the home networking industry leader at a price point of less than $150. We had hoped this would be the product to put networked media devices on the map – it just isn’t the device to do it. There are just too many design flaws and performance issues.

While several competing products can play Internet radio stations, uncompressed WAV files and other compressed formats, the WMA11B is limited in the audio files it can play – only WMA and MP3.

Several companies are going the TV-only display route and we think this is a terrible idea. Even if the product interfaces with your TV, we still think there should be some kind of LCD display so you aren’t forced to have the TV on while navigating through and listening to music. Lack of an external LCD display aside, the on-screen display is just a bit too “dumbed-down” for serious audiophiles to appreciate.

But the big problem with the Linksys Wireless-B Media Adapter is the way it handles your music. Navigating with the remote control is cumbersome and at times confusing, as well as annoyingly slow. The interface leaves out a lot of items that are usually a given in other media players such as extended ID3 information, track duration and time left, and the ability to view the full name of the song.

Anyone considering purchasing the Media Adapter should go about it thinking of it as a device that displays your digital pictures on your TV, and that also happens to play music. It does an excellent job with images, but we think anyone buying this device specifically for its audio capabilities will be disappointed.

Introduction

As we mentioned in our coverage of CES 2004 many major players in the consumer electronics industry already have or plan to introduce a networked media player. Innovation in this market has been led by smaller specialized companies like SlimDevices and Prismiq, but as we said, once the “big boys” get involved, things will get quite interesting.

When it comes to big players in home networking, you can’t get much bigger than Linksys, one of the pioneers in SOHO networking and now a subsidiary of Cisco Systems.

Linksys’ entry into the networked media device arena is their Wireless-B Media Adapter, also called the WMA11B. The Media Adapter connects to your network wirelessly with 802.11b, or through wired Ethernet if you prefer, and plays back streamed digital audio and images stored on a computer with an interface to your stereo and television.


Front shot of the Linksys Wireless-B Media Adapter

Using the included remote control to navigate through menus on your TV, you can browse through images on your computer by folder, filename or thumbnail. Images can be viewed one at a time or in a slideshow. The Media Adapter supports JPG, GIF, TIF and BMP formatted images. You can also use the remote to browse through your collection of MP3 or WMA audio files and play it through your stereo.

Features and Design

The Wireless-B Media Adapter is a 6.30-inch by 7.48-inch by 1.97-inch silver and black box that can be oriented vertically or horizontally and should fit in most home theater arrangements. It features an eight-inch antenna for connecting to your 802.11b or 802.11g network and an Ethernet jack for a wired connection.

Only Windows 2000 and XP are capable of interfacing with the Media Adapter, and Windows 2000 can only connect to it with a wired Ethernet connection. Since the software relies on the Microsoft .NET Framework, that package (included with the Media Adapter) will need to be installed before use.

There are only a few connections on the back of the unit to hook up – a DC power input for the power transformer, an Ethernet port for optional wired networking, a composite video output, a left and right RCA jack output and an S-Video output.


The rear of the WMA11B features minimal connections to your TV and stereo

On the front panel of the WMA11B is the power button, the infrared sensor and three status LEDs: Ready, Wireless and Ethernet. The Wireless and Ethernet LEDs illuminate when there is a network connection and flash when there is network activity.

Included in the retail package is the Media Adapter itself, a “cable hood” to route the cables, a base stand for vertical mounting, an S-Video cable, an audio/video cable with three RCA connectors, an infrared remote control with batteries, an Ethernet cable, the power adapter, a software CD and product literature.

Installation and Setup

Setting up the hardware for the Media Adapter is pretty straightforward. While many competing products offer digital audio outputs, the Media Adapter connects to your stereo with left and right channel RCA connectors only. You have a choice of connecting the Media Adapter up to your display with an S-Video cable or a composite video cable.

The software included with the Media Adapter features the media server package and the hardware configuration tool, and must be installed on the computer you plan on using as the host.

The setup routine first asks you to identify the folders where your images and audio files are stored and allows you to easily add several different folders. It scans each folder for subfolders and adds them to your content library also.

Once you identify the media folders to use, the setup software looks for a Wireless-B Media Adapter. When the Media Adapter is identified, you can then set up your wireless information by entering in your SSID, and any WEP encryption you may have set up. As with other devices we have tested, the WMA11B Adapter does not support WPA encryption, meaning it can not be used on a network with WPA. This is unfortunate as WPA encryption is more secure than WEP and may soon become the standard.

Linksys also offers the ability to set up your Media Adapter by using the remote control and your TV instead of through the host computer, but we highly suggest against this option. Entering your SSID, DHCP information and WPA passwords with the remote and on-screen keyboard is a very tedious and frustrating procedure.

The server application runs as a service in Windows XP and Windows 2000 and by default is automatically started when the computer is powered up.

Once the server software is installed and the Media Adapter is configured, you are presented with an easy-to-navigate main menu on your TV that gives you options for Music, Pictures, or Help.

Testing and Usage

We installed our Media Adapter server application on a Windows XP Professional PC configured with an AMD Athlon 1600+ processor and 512MB of DDR memory. Linksys suggests that the server have a minimum of a 600MHz processor with at least 128MB of RAM. Our test server had no problem multitasking while serving up music and images, but the software may be quite taxing on a lower-end system.

The main page you are presented with when you turn on the Media Adapter is called the ‘Media Navigator Home’. From that menu you can select ‘Music’ or ‘Pictures’ or go to the help system.


The WMA11B remote control takes some time getting used to

Browsing through and playing your media is all controlled with the infrared remote and right away we were presented with the limitations of this system; there is nothing “instant” about it. The remote control really suffers from latency issues – every page change, item selection or command entered seems to take longer than is reasonably acceptable. We found ourselves instinctively pushing buttons repeatedly in hopes that it would register our command but that just confuses the system.

We must have been spoiled by our use of the SliMP3 and the Squeezebox by SlimDevices, because those devices could not be tripped up as each command entered resulted in an instantaneous response. Besides the slow response on the remote, it also doesn’t operate well at extended distances or angles. We tested this with fresh batteries to be sure and it still experienced these problems.

Browsing and Listening to Music

The ‘Music’ menu gives you three sub-menus: ‘Choose Music’, ‘Now Playing’, and ‘Options’. In the ‘Choose Music’ menu you can select all music, or select by artists, playlists, genres or folders. The ‘Now Playing’ screen shows the current selection that is playing and the ‘Options’ screen allows you to shuffle or repeat playlists.

Navigating with the remote takes some getting used to because it is not as intuitive as it may seem at first. For instance, the remote features a directional keypad with a left, right, up and down button. The product manual says that these arrow keys and the select button in the middle of them are to “move through menus, songs or pictures.” However, they don’t react as you may expect. When navigating, there is a right arrow icon on each item you can select, so we repeatedly found ourselves hitting the right arrow to select these items. The ‘Select’ button is used for selecting items, but of course it does not have a right arrow icon on it. You also can’t go back to a previous menu with the left arrow key – that function is accomplished by hitting the ‘Previous’ button. So even though the manual says that these keys are for navigating through the folders, you really have to use a combination of the arrow keys, select button and the next and back buttons.

Navigation also lacks the ability to fast forward or rewind through digital audio tracks – again a basic function of many traditional digital media players and MP3 software.

Once you get the music to play, there are still navigation issues. One annoyance we found was the fact that no matter how you select the music you want to play, the song you pick first always will show as track 1 in the list. For instance, if you select track number 5 to play, the on-screen display will call that track one. Since most ID3 tags have track numbers in them, and people used to playing CDs are familiar with track numbers actually meaning something, this takes some getting used to.

On the subject of ID3 tags, the WMA11B uses them, but not as well as we think it should. It knows genre, artist and album names, but there is no option to see the full track information on the screen. When playing a song, the display only shows title, artist and album. One important feature that was left out was time – time remaining in a track, duration of the track and how much time has elapsed. This is one of the most basic display aspects of CD and DVD players and almost every MP3 or digital audio player we have ever seen – yet it is not shown anywhere on the Media Adapter display.

The display also suffers from the inability to show enough characters. If the Title, Artist or Album name is more than 20 characters long, you won’t be able to see the end of it. After 20 characters you see three dots, usually something that lets you know there is more to be seen, but you can not scroll to the right to read the rest. Other players will scroll the text left and right to allow you to view the whole name but that is not an option here.


Two of the WMA11B display screens. Notice how the song title gets cut off

The issue of remote control latency is most noticeable when playing music, as clicking to go the next or a previous track while playing a song takes way too long.
 

Viewing Pictures

The ability for the Wireless-B Media Adapter to play images on your TV separates it from the audio-only networked media devices on the market, and Linksys did a pretty good job with it.

The ‘Pictures’ menu gives you three options: ‘Choose Pictures’, ‘Now Showing’, and ‘Options’. The ‘Choose Pictures’ screen lets you select the pictures you want to view. You can select all pictures, specific folders or specific images. The ‘Now Showing’ screen displays thumbnail images of the selected pictures.

Once you select the images you want to view, pressing the Play button on the remote will start a slideshow. You can use the Play/Pause, Stop, Next and Back buttons on the remote to control the slideshow. In the Options menu you can change settings such as slide duration, turn on or off slideshow shuffle, or select if you want slideshows to repeat once they are complete.

If you start music first and then go into the Pictures menu, you can listen to music while viewing your images.

Audio and Video Quality

Audio quality on the Media Adapter is about as good as we expected with the analog RCA jack outputs. True audiophiles may be disappointed but we think the sound will be acceptable to the majority of listeners.

However, there were a few glitches in the sound. There is a noticeable “pop” when moving from one song to another. This pop only happens when you skip from the middle of one song to another. It does not happen when a song ends and the player automatically plays the next song.

We also experienced a strange problem with one of our music selections – the CD “All Killer No Filler” by Sum 41. This CD was ripped using EAC (Exact Audio Copy) and encoded with the LAME encoder as is the majority of our test digital music collection. We have played these same 13 tracks over and over again on Winamp and Microsoft Media Player, portable players, car MP3 players and other networked media devices, such as the SliMP3 and have never experienced a problem. With the Linksys Media Adapter, there was a strange series of loud squeals before each song in this collection. We’re not sure what to make of it but it was quite startling the first time we heard it.

Visual quality was also about as good as we expected when viewing high-resolution digital images on a low-resolution television. Overall, the images looked excellent and were only a bit grainy at very close distances.

Wireless Performance

Wireless performance was pretty good, as we’d expect coming from the industry leader in home networking solutions. Every once in a while we’d get some interference and it would result in a few loud squeaks and squeals in the music. But our player never lost the signal from our 802.11G router, which was located a room over and a floor above the player.

Conclusion

We really wanted to like this product. We had high hopes for a product that plays both music and images, by the home networking industry leader at a price point of less than $150. We had hoped this would be the product to put networked media devices on the map – it just isn’t the device to do it. There are just too many design flaws and performance issues.

While several competing products can play Internet radio stations, uncompressed WAV files and other compressed formats, the WMA11B is limited in the audio files it can play – only WMA and MP3.

Several companies are going the TV-only display route and we think this is a terrible idea. Even if the product interfaces with your TV, we still think there should be some kind of LCD display so you aren’t forced to have the TV on while navigating through and listening to music. Lack of an external LCD display aside, the on-screen display is just a bit too “dumbed-down” for serious audiophiles to appreciate.

But the big problem with the Linksys Wireless-B Media Adapter is the way it handles your music. Navigating with the remote control is cumbersome and at times confusing, as well as annoyingly slow. The interface leaves out a lot of items that are usually a given in other media players such as extended ID3 information, track duration and time left, and the ability to view the full name of the song.

Anyone considering purchasing the Media Adapter should go about it thinking of it as a device that displays your digital pictures on your TV, and that also happens to play music. It does an excellent job with images, but we think anyone buying this device specifically for its audio capabilities will be disappointed.

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