Getting your digital media around the home can take some planning, but what if you do not want to rewire or buy lots of kit? What if, you have got one computer and one TV and you would just like them to talk to each other. Could there be just one box that can make that happen?
BBC Click Reporter Dan Simmons took three set-top boxes for a test drive. In his home he has a two-year-old PC running Windows XP. It has got all his photos, music, and some videos stored on it and, using his wireless router, he is hoping to beam all of that to his Toshiba HDTV television.
It is stylish and feels solid. It has a simple remote that Mac fans will know from Front Row. Despite the recent ad campaign, Apple TV works with both Macs and PCs, but there is no support for machines running Vista yet. Like all the boxes on test it has wi-fi, but you can also hardwire it to your PC with an Ethernet cable.
A look round the back of the box reveals the first of many limitations. I can either hook it up using component jacks or a high definition HDMI cable but there is no SCART or composite plugs and that means Apple TV will not plug in to a lot of older, standard definition TV sets.
The Apple TV is an iPod for your television
The graphics are similar to Apple's Front Row software and look stunning. They are smooth and the remote is responsive whether you are streaming media or have it wired up.
It is the only box I am trying which has a built-in 40Gb hard drive, which it uses to store your media files locally - this can take some time when you first sync up. Or you can directly stream your content over Ethernet, or if you have wi-fi, it supports all the standards including the latest 'n' type.
If you have got a password or encryption key set up on your router make sure you have that handy. Apple TV located my wireless router without a hitch. The box will then give you a five figure number to tap into your computer to connect the two.
Anything that does not fit on the disc drive will be left on the PC to be streamed - apart from photos, which, surprisingly, the system cannot send wirelessly. As such it seems odd that the default priority for syncing media to the box's hard drive puts photos at the bottom of the list (remember if a photo is not on the Apple TV hard drive you cannot view it on the TV).
If your friends come over with their laptops they can hook into your Apple TV through wi-fi. In fact up to five computers can link to the box, but all the content, regardless of what it is, must be stored in iTunes, and only one iTunes library can be streamed from at a time.
The limitation of this box is that it is completely tied to Apple's iTunes service. That means that you must have all your media imported into iTunes 7, which is the platform that manages the link between your PC and TV Box. That limits the types of files you can play to those that iTunes recognises. Windows files or movies using the popular DivX encoding cannot be viewed.
It also limits the online experience too. You cannot search the internet for content from the box. It only talks to iTunes, and you cannot even download content when hooked up to the iTunes store. That needs to be done back at the PC. Outside of the US there is precious little content beyond music to buy from iTunes. The box will stream 30 second TV trailers and movie, as if teasing what Apple hopes to make available later this year to non-US users.
The box has a USB port at the back but Apple says this is not to 'read media' from flash memory sticks. I was told it is for firmware upgrades, should this be required in future.
There is also no way of recording live TV using the box's interface. A trick missed by Apple perhaps but not by the Apple add-ons industry. Even before the box was in the shops long-term Apple partner Migila announced its MaxTV+ box. It records TV and will even rip your DVDs in an Apple friendly format (H.264) on the fly in real time.
It only works with Macs at the moment but opens up a wealth of useable video content and makes me wonder if Apple got too worried over copyright issues to include such useful features in the main box.
A word on High-Definition, despite all the fancy connections on this box, and because of the limited file types it supports, you are most likely going to be viewing content in a 480 line format, which is roughly the same quality as standard TV.
And if you want to see video you downloaded for your iPod it will be worse than that - 240 lines. But the box will handle HD content at 720 lines, the same specs as my flashy Toshiba HDTV. But Apple are not providing any 720p HD content yet. Expect to see Apple making use of this higher quality soon.
Note: When Apple TV is connected to an HDTV screen it automatically upscales its output to 720 lines. This upscaling from a standard to a high definition format does not mean you are watching true HD quality - for that the source must be of HD quality.
Netgear's Digital Entertainer HD is already selling in the US and has a European launch soon. As the name suggests, it supports High Definition 1080i content although it is not recommended that you send your HD movies wirelessly from the PC to the box as most wi-fi networks will not be up to it.
The choices do not stop there; because the software that comes with it is based on Windows Media it supports a myriad of different file formats including those used by iTunes (although not those bought from iTunes), which gives you much more choice both in playback and when downloading.
The Digita Entertainer lets you play YouTube videos on your TV
On the back of the box there is a choice of SCART and composite connections in addition to the High Definition HDMI socket, which means it will run with most standard definition TVs as well as the flashy panel displays.
The PC software that comes with it is fairly straightforward, asking you to place a tick against which folders you want to 'share' with your TV. Like the Apple TV box there are parental control tags that can be added to files if you do not want your children accessing them. When the parental control option on the Digital Entertainer Box is selected those files will not play.
But unlike the Apple box this one was less intuitive to set up and took me a while to configure correctly. Some files I expected to be able to play simply did not, with little in the way of an onscreen explanation. Quick successive presses on the remote control occasionally caused the system to freeze. The system suffered from a slight lag time, only a few seconds at most, when responding to commands. While this is an early test box which I had been given to try, it would be impressive if Netgear is able to solve these issues before its European launch.
On the plus side t,he graphics, borrowed from Windows Media Centre, look good and are reasonably smooth. I like the idea of being able to navigate around the menus while the last thing you selected continues to play in a smaller window in the top right hand side of the screen. (The Apple TV box just cut the music when I moved into the main menu.) Selecting a song from your library adds it to the playlist rather than immediately jumping to it, so you can quickly build a selection of favourites.
The unit has two USB ports for connecting memory sticks with media on or for your iPod. Unfortunately Netgear has not solved the problem of Apple's unique naming system for track titles, so to make any sense you need to search by album cover or artist.
It is possible to have more than one of these boxes around the home and send messages between them, sync them all to play the same thing or have them playing different content, although I did not test this feature. Like Apple TV you can wirelessly link up other laptops or PCs to the Digital Entertainer and share their content with the box, although the manual suggests no more than one wireless connection in total to the box.
You can use the unit to access your email on your PC, use Instant Messenger, and even browse internet pages, but the system was unreliable when I tried it and extremely fiddly when it came to moving around the pointer and tapping in text. These are not its most reliable features.
What is impressive is its ability to directly access content on the web. I was able to see videos from YouTube and move the ones I liked to a favourites folder, all from my sofa using my 2Mbps broadband internet connection (you will require broadband internet access for this feature).
The picture was a little blocky, but you would expect that, and the remote has a zoom button so you can resize the picture to something more watchable if you wish. Similar deals have been struck with the photo site Flickr and dozens of internet radio stations. The potential to unlock the web's Audio/Video content and to explore it on our TV screens is exciting - expect to see more sites added soon.
This box can also handle full HD pictures (1080i). I got several test videos (in 1080p) running with little problem over an Ethernet cable to the HDTV set. In wi-fi the streaming was jittery but in fairness Netgear does recommend that HD content is not streamed, as most networks do not have the required bandwidth.
The Digital Entertainer will also allow you to watch recorded or live TV from your PC (if it has a compatible TV Tuner card) on your big screen television (but this was not part of the test).
D-Link's MediaLounge 520 feels more solid than the Netgear offering. Again there is a good selection of sockets on the back to support both standard and high definition televisions. It is the oldest box on test (launched in summer 2006) and there is a newer version available in the US (the 510 model).
The MediaLounge does not play DivX files
Installation was fairly simple and it recognised my wi-fi network with no problems (if you use an encryption code on your wi-fi network make sure you have this handy for setting things up).
The system supports a reasonable range of media file types, although not as many as the Netgear box and not Apple's AAC format, or DivX movies.
For video, the AVI filess must be MPEG4 layer and MPEG 4s must be of the Advanced Simple Protocol type without motion compensation.
It has no support for the AAC format and the only TIFF support for photos is in RGB.
Audio: No support for AAC format.
The software CD loads D-Link's Media Server on to your computer. Like the Netgear system you choose the folders you want to share with the TV.
As far as the TV display is concerned, unfortunately MediaLounge's graphics are lounging somewhere in the 80s, looking blocky and simple, and the slightly fewer file types it supports was probably the reason why some of my files did not play.
Again, the remote is not as quick as with the Apple, and while the wi-fi signal was fine most of the time it did drop out occasionally causing video to freeze or music to crackle or buzz momentarily.
Like the Netgear, the box has a USB port for media although its more limited codec support gave me a few problems with playback. It crashed to blue screen when I plugged in a (v1.1) USB stick.
Wired up to the PC the box handled HD pictures brilliantly. This is the most impressive element of this box for me.
While the content online is not as wide ranging as Netgear's, it does offer a wealth of internet radio stations available to stream through the live365.com portal, and to buy through the totalvid.com website.
Both can be accessed from your TV, although for video you will need to set up an account (check the totalvid.com site first to see if it has the sort of video content you would be interested in).
A word about games consoles. The Xbox 360 will also bridge the gap between your PC and TV. It will stream your media from a Windows PC or, with an inexpensive downloadable upgrade, a Mac. Sony's PS3 can also download and play films from the web. Both have wi-fi.
So if you do have a console check out what it can do first before diving into the PC to TV set-top box market, although a games controller makes for a lousy remote. Both consoles offer separate media remotes.
To sum up, if you want style and something that just works out of the box go for the Apple, but do so knowing that it is essentially an iPod for your television.
Apple could have done more but every limitation this box has is designed to ensure reliability. If you have lots of Windows Media files, especially videos, you may not want to spend the time converting them to something compatible.
But if you are a bit more adventurous, have a bit of experience with digital media, and want to explore what the net has to offer, the Digital Entertainer HD should keep you amused. Just do not be surprised if you need to reset the box or tinker with files occasionally.
Lab tests were not carried out on the boxes. The reviews are a summary of Dan Simmons own experiences having used the boxes over a two-week period.