In 1999 when I cofounded Mediabolic, we had a vision of the “connected home” that we pitched all over the world. In 2000, I first started hearing (and using) the phrase “THIS is the year of the Digital Home” (yes, in all-caps). I’ve heard that phrase every year since, but have yet to see the vision come even close to reality. So when I saw the first demo of NETGEAR’s Digital Entertainer HD at CES 2007, I was fairly impressed, and began pestering them to try it day-in, day-out. With my current role as the company’s current guest blogger, I got exactly that – early access to play with the EVA8000 (which formally launched earlier this week).
Unfortunately, I got my unit with less than 10 hours before I hopped on a flight to the East Coast, but like any good geeky blogger would do, I spent about half the night playing with it. Not only that, I spent most of that time videoing my efforts, and edited it down to about 20 minutes (most of which shows the interaction with the device, it’s GUI, etc). The videos are available on YouTube (in 3 parts, because of their filesize limitation) and you can watch them here (for people in RSS readers, here are direct links to parts 1, 2, and 3):
- Connects to your TV and your home network
- Streams music, photos, and videos from connected PCs as well as from the Internet
- Support for numerous video formats, and stream quality is up to 1080p HDTV resolution
- Works with YouTube, Flickr, and BitTorrent content, and can display RSS feeds
- Networked DVR (“TiVo-like”) features to stream live TV from PCs with TV tuner cards
Makes a mean bowl of tomato soup
Pretty simple and straightforward, eh?
The product retails for $399, which is probably high in the long-term, but for now is a decent price point. Since we’re still in such an early adopter timeframe for digital home products, I don’t think there is a real urgency to focus on the mass market. Further, if you consider the pricing on HD/BluRay DVD players, it really fits in pretty well (especially since the amount of content it can play is staggering). Obviously sub-$300 prices would be ideal, but, as someone who comes from the other side of the field, I understand exactly why it’s priced this way. Also, don’t forget that it’s always possible to have a sale, but never possible to raise a price…
Using the Digital Entertainer HD
Onto the EVA8000 itself. I liked the user interface (GUI) in that it’s simple and navigates quickly (much faster than, for example a MovieBeam or Comcast HD-DVR menu). If you’ve ever used a TiVo or Media Center PC, you shouldn’t have any problem getting it up and running. The installation is also quite simple, and the unit has all the important outputs (HDMI, SPDIF, and optical audio) as well as the less-important-but-probably-necessary-ones (component, composite, and stereo audio). For connectivity it has built in wireless 802.11g (with support for all the security formats – excellent), Ethernet and a couple of USB ports as well.
The setup went mostly smoothly (although I think I found a weird bug in the HDMI settings, but that’s a minor thing), and it was able to find my network, get online, download an update, and find my networked hard drive with me just following along with the remote. This is very important people – I didn’t have to install any software, drivers, or anything, and was able to get my music, photos, and videos all streaming in a matter of minutes.
There was one exception to the above: if you want to watch YouTube videos, you do need to have the PC software installed. Furthermore, please remember that I already have a properly configured networked drive (Maxtor Shared Storage Plus) streaming music to my Sonos, so I didn’t have to adjust any settings. If you haven’t ever streamed media on your home network before, this might take you a little longer, and you may need to use the PC software.
Regarding media playback performance for a moment. I looked at quite a few photos, and I didn’t really feel they were being displayed at the maximum resolution possible. This could be a trick of the eyes, but I was expecting the pictures to look “HD-like” since they are all resolutions of 720p (at a minimum), so I’ll have to look into this further to see if it was just user error or if the box can’t display them at full resolution. Music playback was spot-on, with only a minor delay between songs. Again, I need to dive deeper to understand the feature set around queuing music, making playlists, and performance with huge collections, but when I selected “play something” from my 15,000-song MP3 (and WMA) collection, it did exactly that. Last up is video – I didn’t have a chance to really put the HD features to a test, but will do that next week. The videos I played were in a range of formats, and the highest bitrate I used was a 2Mbps WMV clip, which looked perfect (yes, even wirelessly). I am curious to see how it stands up once I get the 6+Mbps videos going, but I don’t have any reasons to doubt its potential there.
One key set of features with the EVA8000 is its ability to act as an extension of a PC with a TV tuner card. This means you can have a PC in one room of the house and stream its live/recorded TV to the living room. As a Slingbox owner, this wasn’t something I needed personally, but if you do have a TV Tuner and use Orb or another service, you should look into the Digital Entertainer HD. Also, the hardware was designed to support multiple Entertainers on the same network, and even have them control each other (there’s actually a whole suite of “Follow Me” features that I missed out on since I only had the single unit). Naturally, I wasn’t able to try any of these features myself, so I’ll hope to come back and revisit in the future.
One ding to the product is in the PC software. While it was easy to install and seems to have a pretty low impact to performance, it did create a whole new “sound card” in my computer. This means Windows thinks there is another audio output, and it threw off a couple of programs until I realized it had happened. I didn’t see any way to disable this on installation, so once you’ve completed setup, you might want to double-check your PC’s audio settings.
I really enjoyed the integration with both YouTube and Flickr. I was browsing through my own content in just a few minutes (you can use the remote control’s 10-key for text entry the same way you use your cell phone’s keypad). While I couldn’t quite navigate the collections and all the settings both services offered, the EVA8000 is remote upgradeable (I’ve already gone through one upgrade process – worked fine), so I’m sure the folks at NETGEAR can react and add new options dwn the road. The unit also is compatible with RSS feeds and has a few built-in offerings, including some weather features that were quite nice (even a snow report for the Tahoe crowds). I didn’t try the BitTorrent services, since I am not a user (believe it or not, I’ve never ‘Torrented).
If you skipped the videos and just read the text, you missed half the story, so here are (again) links to parts 1, 2, and 3. Now Apple TV is coming soon (possibly within days or hours), and the Xbox 360 has a lot of personal media services as well. I like the EVA8000 against Apple specifically because it can play so many different file formats and is focused on open services, while Apple’s will have a much narrower set and is a completely closed platform. It seems like everyone’s utterly ceded control of music to them, I sure hope it doesn’t happen again in the living room. With products like the Digital Entertainer HD, it’s good to see they have a pretty strong set of competitors.
Overall, the product impressed me (a lot more than I was expecting – no knock to NETGEAR, but I’ve just seen so many similar products that were just terrible in the past). Perfect? No, but I’ve yet to see a single product in the “connected home” that is. The interface was clean and simple, and the unit performed as it should. A few nice bells and whistles of Internet content services did a great job rounding out the personal media streaming features. $399 is a little high (it’s $349 on Amazon), but it’s also the only game in town with both full 1080p support and the built-in integration with YouTube content, all delivered direct to the boob tube.
I really have to dive in even deeper to understand the full spectrum of features the unit offers, and figure out which ones I like/dislike, but most importantly – the product’s basic value proposition is definitely delivered in a good way. With the feature set I’ve seen so far, it is a very strong contender (quick and simple setup as well as HD streaming is a huge factor there). So if you are looking to find a way to play your digital videos on your TV, stream your MP3s to your stereo, and bring some Web media services straight to the living room, the EVA8000 is a solid option for you.
Disclosure: At the time of writing, I am working on a consulting project with NETGEAR, but this is of no bearing to this review. Furthermore, my Guest Blogger status merely granted me access to a unit, I was given free reign to write the review as I saw fit.