I’ve tried a number of media centers over the years. And, sadly, in large part, they’ve stunk big time – mostly due to uneven performance as the device and the PC seemed less interested in meshing together and more in protecting their own “turf.”
But don’t think I’m getting ready to trash Netgear’s Digital Entertainer. True, there’s no hard drive, so it has to rely on a PC to stream content as well as access a number of functions. Nonetheless, within the parameters of an imperfect world, it does what it’s supposed to exactly right. And that retail price of $399 slides down easy too.
Features and Design
About the same size and weight as that of a standard DVD player, there’s no moving parts, so the unit can sit on a shelf or be placed just about anywhere without worrying about heat build-up.
There’s nothing really special about the device’s looks (except maybe for the dual antenna), but no sweat: It’s all about accessing your digital library, with the icing on the cake being some Web-based content like Internet radio stations and YouTube videos.
All the connections are on the back, so once everything’s set up, you’ll just use the remote to navigate. And about the only reason to turn the Digital Entertainer around is if it locks up and you need to push reset, which happened just once over an extended period of time and came from a momentary power glitch. (Serves me right for not having it plugged into an uninterruptible power supply…)
Image Courtesy of Netgear
If you just want the Digital Entertainer to hook up to your TV, use the HDMI port to send video and audio together via a single cable and also get up to 1080p resolution capability.
Of course, there’s also the choice of a component cable, S-Video and composite. But using the analog video outputs should be a last resort, as are the RCA stereo outputs – taking the optical or coaxial out will let you hit 5.1 multi-channel audio through a receiver. In addition, ignore the rear USB 2.0 port and use the one on the front instead – it’s next to the headphone jack.
The Digital Entertainer features both wired Ethernet and wireless connectivity. (It uses the “G” standard which is fairly fast for most content, although it can hiccup when high-resolution video is being transmit-ted.) Just remember that a network – whether wired or wireless – is required, or pretty much all of the de-vice’s personality is lost. That said, I prefer going with a wired connection to keep things simple, but I’d make sure both antennas were pointing straight up if wireless was my choice. I’m also taking the HDMI into my Denon amp, which takes care of the 5.1 audio and feeds video to my 1080p front projector.
Turning on the Digital Entertainer, you’ll wait through a modest startup and navigate to the basic setup, which is optimally geared for PC use. (Mac/Linux users will find setup requires more personal technical expertise and offers limited functionality). The Digital Entertainer will auto-join your network, which is par for connectivity devices these days, and have you input your zip code for accessing online weather and news feeds (complete with modest imaging).
Now it’s time to get the PC involved, and for this you’ll run step-by-step, software-based wizards that take care of needed configuration. Fortunately, the software knows its business, and as long as Windows XP is up to date, there won’t be any problems – even typical thorny issues with firewall protection and other security bugaboos are effortlessly taken care of.
Content is aggregated so that the Entertainer can access it, and pretty much all of the expected audio and video formats are supported, from MPEG to H.264 to AVI, etc. (Including those featuring the dreaded DRM – digital rights management.) Just make sure you have the most recent version of Windows Media Player. Intel’s Viiv Media Server and iTunes are supported for use as well.
Going back to hands-on performance, the remote will let you handle everything with ease, including bringing up videos to watch and music to listen to as well as controlling key functions.
Overall, content quality is as good as the original source material allows. For example, during testing, the 40th anniversary edition of The Graduate played clean and solid without artifacting or color blur an-noyances in DVD-quality resolution. The same goes for viewing a few high-resolution trailers of upcoming movies; there’s no stuttering, just a smooth playback experience throughout.
Accessing Flickr for photos is no different than doing it on a PC, but for sure a big screen TV shows just how low-quality YouTube videos can be. (Then again, who cares, since there’s so much dumb, funny stuff to watch…)
As for audio, quality also depends upon the source. For the most part, Internet radio stations come through without any hiss and play smoothly in the background. Playing music files through a stereo sys-tem definitely improves one’s perception of sound quality to boot. There’s also the expected use of playlists and cover art. But getting deeper involved with the integration between the Digital Entertainer and the PC allows you to do some unexpected things like use a Web browser and get email. Just have patience, because this process does involve a bit of a learning curve. However, fortunately, the manual includes a lot of useful reference material.
One nice addition to the unit is the ability to save and watch prerecorded TV shows, provided your PC has a TV Tuner (mine doesn’t) and you’ve downloaded the optional electronic program guide. The Digital Entertainer can also play files off of a USB memory card or hard drive at full speed, upping its portability factor, since you can take it with you to places without the need for a network or PC.
The only real competitor to the Enterainer would seem to be the AppleTV, but this doesn’t really do a service to either device as the technical differences are obvious but not deal-breakers in either case. On the hardware side, the AppleTV has faster wireless, a smaller form-factor with an internal drive but no USB external access and is limited to 720p video/1080i upscaling capabilities. On the software side, the Entertainer has more options for connecting and a stronger focus for those using Windows-based PCs. This enables the Entertainer to tame the PC so it can just work without the need for constant tech-support. That lets you watch and listen to your digital library the way it should be – on a big screen and with real speakers.
• Provides for high-resolution viewing
• Easy integration into a home theater
• Aggregates all of your digital content
• Requires PC for digital content
• Wireless connection can drop HD signals