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Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite EVA9150 Review

Highs

  • Handles wide array of file formats; easy setup
  • for the most part; 500GB of internal space; clean menu system; decent remote

Rating

Our Score 6
User Score 9

Lows

  • Some software installation woes; loaded with bugs and glitches; unintuitive audio player; slow photo viewer; not enough documentation for less intuitive features
If you look at the hardware and specs beneath the EVA9150, it's easy to see why home theater buffs got so wound up...

Summary

Streaming standard-def movies from computers and remote hard drives to televisions has been old hat for years now. But for high-def connoisseurs looking to step up to the good stuff – pure 1080p digital content – extreme file size and bandwidth constraints have severely hampered streaming and storage. The EVA9150 solves that issue with 802.11n networking capabilities for more bandwidth, and an onboard 500GB drive for storage and buffering, making it one of the few boxes capable of streaming Blu-ray quality video. If you’re looking to go discless, this machine’s the ticket – but is it worth the price?

Netgear EVA9000 Digital Entertainer EliteFeatures and Design

From the outside, the EVA9150 looks nearly indistinguishable from almost any other bit of A/V equipment. It comes in a slab-like black box that shims neatly onto the stack of other receivers and players you might have hanging out below your television.

But you won’t find a tray for a disc behind the front door on this player. It flips away to reveal the slot where the hot-swappable 500GB hard drive goes, potentially allowing you to pop it out and slide in a bigger model in just seconds. The otherwise-plain face also has a power button on the left, and a USB slot and IR receiver on the right.

Swivel around to the back and you’ll find every output necessary for a home theater setup new or old: HDMI, S-video, component video, and composite video and audio. Netgear has even included the obscure SCART, S/PDIF coaxial and optical audio connectors, as well as another USB connector and an Ethernet jack for hardwiring the unit.

The EVA9150 can pull multimedia content from both the Internet, and other locations on your network, giving you access to the vast array of free content (like YouTube and streaming radio) out there, as well as owned content like a library of ripped Blu-ray movies on a computer in your office. One of the primary selling points for this particular device is the wide range of file formats it supports. No matter what you have your files stored as, the EVA9150 will probably play them. On the video front, that includes common formats like AVI and DivX, protected formatted like WMA, and more obscure formats like ISO and VOB (disc image formats used to lift video data directly from a disc without re-encoding them.) The same goes for the audio: MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC, FLAC, WMA-Pro, M4A, M4P, AC3, DTS Passthrough, PCM, LPCM, and AIFF are all supported.

Setup

After plugging in and turning on the Digital Entertainer Elite, the box walks the user through the rest of the setup on screen, with no real need for documentation. We found it easy to establish Internet access through either an ordinary Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi, but complications arose when we went to install Netgear’s software on the PC to make our file libraries accessible. On one Windows XP machine, the software outright refused to install. On another Vista machine, Norton 360’s firewall caused connectivity headaches until we disabled it (then uninstalled it in frustration when it refused to stay down). After dealing with these issues, the computer and receiver had no issues seeing each other. Initiating a “quick scan” from the EVA9150 finds new media in the folders you have set the computer to watch, and from there, all your media falls into place below the right menus. Despite the headaches, we would still call setup easy given the complexity of what the device does, and it’s certainly easier than the endless problems you might run into on a DIY system.

Netgear EVA9000 Digital Entertainer EliteTesting and Usage

The Digital Entertainer Elite’s home menu presents seven intuitive options: video, music, photos, Internet media, news and weather, PC access, and “more,” which leads into advanced settings. A panel to the right displays previews of content you’ve highlighted, or if you’ve begun watching something and switch out of full-screen mode, it will continue playing there as you navigate. Even for novice users, it’s easy enough to find the type of media you’re without much trouble, and we liked the clean, blue-tinted menu system, which gives off a modern vibe.

Though most tech companies without a home theater lineage tend to throw a cheap rectangular block in with these type of devices and call it a remote, Netgear has actually put some effort into designing the piece of this unit that you’ll be handling the most. The remote included with the EVA9150 has a hefty feel, rubberized finish, and matte surfaces that don’t collect fingerprints. We do wish the buttons glowed for use in the dark, though, and because 90 percent of navigation involves pressing arrow keys, it would have made sense to put the directional pad in a more comfortable place than the tippy top.

Photos

For photos, you have the option of yanking from either Flickr, or your own collection. We found the browsing options for both methods abysmally clunky, making it difficult and slow to locate the photos you’re looking for if they aren’t named comprehensibly. For instance, after opening a folder containing photos from a given date you took them – a common way many people arrange their collections – you’ll be presented with a list of files arranged alphabetically. Scrolling over any given one will pop up a thumbnail in two to three seconds, but you can’t view a sheet of thumbnails to locate the shot you’re looking for. You have to add them all to a sort of visual playlist, a process entailing its own wait, then view thumbnails, which will take another chunk of time as the system scales each one to thumbnail size. It’s even worse on Flickr, where the system took us 12 to 16 seconds just to show us what a photo in a list was after hovering over it. The lack of support for Picasa, Kodak Gallery, Photobucket, and all the other popular photo storage sites also frustrated us. At the end of the day, we would really rather uproot a laptop from its happy home on a desk and deal with the tangle of cords to hook it up to a TV, rather than trying to arrange a custom slideshow on the EVA9150.

Netgear EVA9000 Digital Entertainer EliteMusic

Music suffered from a similarly unintuitive setup. We found it easy enough to browse by music tags or folders, but compiling playlists lacks the ease that you would find on even a decent portable media player – after adding songs to a list, you won’t even be able to rearrange or delete them. Good luck using this setup as a party to let guests control to the music – you’ll probably see them chuck the remote across the room before they set it up the way they want it.

Video

If you can overlook the glitchiness and somewhat hairy user interface, the Digital Entertainer Elite does perform some video tasks that other boxes just won’t do. For instance, you can move full 1080p video at bitrates up to 30Mbps, something Linksys’ Media Extender and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 won’t touch (they’re capped at 15Mbps). The broad array of file support also means you’ll be able to play anything in your library, including the relatively rare ISO and VOB formats. These bit-for-bit disc clones basically mean you can simulate popping in a DVD, menu and all, without ever actually getting out the disc. For video connoisseurs who scoff at more compression, or losing DVD features, this feature alone makes the EVA9150 worth considering.

YouTube makes a useful addition to the unit’s array of video features, too, although obviously not one you can’t get elsewhere. The navigation and playback system all worked without too many hang-ups in this arena, but buffering definitely seemed to take longer, when connected via Wi-Fi, than you would wait on a comparably Wi-Fi-connected laptop. Like with the Internet photo options, we were also disappointed to find no out-of-the-box support for other big video sites like Hulu – the cheaper Internet TV Player seems to actually do a better job at aggregating content from a more diverse array of places.

Netgear EVA9000 Digital Entertainer EliteBugs & Glitches

Our EVA9150 browsing experience was riddled with hiccups, crashes, and errors. These usually manifested as vague error messages that would (sometimes temporarily) block us from accomplishing something, but we also managed to completely crash it by pressing a directional arrow when apparently we shouldn’t have. Whoops. It was also prone to blacking out for long periods – a minute or more – without any control, though audio usually kept going. Trying to go back to the main device menu while playing DVD video, for instance, put it into a long stasis where we couldn’t even turn it off, let alone pause or stop the audio track.

The EVA9150 comes with a handful of preinstalled video feeds and Internet radio stations – but the flaky nature of some of these partners means that a lot of them won’t even work out of the box. It couldn’t find the right files to play for ABC News, for instance, and a decent chunk of the included Internet radio stations didn’t work, either. We understand the difficulty in keeping these links alive, given how many different sources they reference, but the device needs an automated function to comb out dead links so they no longer appear, cluttering up the list and causing frustration.

We attempted to add our own stations, only to get aggravated with typing URLs on a TV. But the user manual promises the ability to add stations from a browser interface, so we tried that instead. Not only does it sport graphics that would have been called laughable on a Web page built by a middle school kid in 1999, the alleged “add station” function didn’t exist, so far as we could tell.

Conclusion

If you look at the hardware and specs beneath the EVA9150, it’s easy to see why home theater buffs got so wound up over it at first blush. But when you consider the steep $400 price tag, and how sloppily many of the functions have been integrated, the box quickly loses its high-def luster. The bugs and glitches that crop up along the way act as the sour icing on the cake that makes this thing hard to swallow – and one look at enthusiast forums for this device will confirm that we weren’t the only ones running into them. Unless you truly need some of the top-shelf features it provides, like ISO and VOB support, we would recommend looking at cheaper options. Even an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 can serve as a workable home media center with HD output, and moonlight as real gaming machines, too.

Pros:

  • Handles wide array of file formats
  • Easy setup, for the most part
  • 500GB of internal space
  • Clean menu system
  • Decent remote

Cons:

  • Some software installation woes
  • Loaded with bugs and glitches
  • Unintuitive, feature-weak audio player
  • Dreadfully slow photo viewer
  • Limited support for online photo and video sites
  • Not enough documentation for less intuitive features

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