Friday, March 27, 2009

Mein Kampf Against the Network Media Tank

Recently, I read many favorable reviews about network media players (or "tanks"), and decided to get one. The most popular device of that kind is the Popcorn Hour made in China, of course. Actually, they all are made in China, except the much more expensive Dune made in Israel. I didn't want to buy the Popcorn Hour though, because of its ugly design with that silly imprint on top, lack of power switch, overheating and other drawbacks I read about in reviews. Instead, I decided to buy HDX 1000 NMT – basically the same chipset and software but in more attractive package.

Yes, it was attractive indeed. Heavy and solid body made of black brushed aluminum looked similar to the front panel of my Marantz receiver. Remote was also very good with nice metallic top and smooth and soft rubberized bottom. Its size and shape were similar to those of Marantz's remote and one could think that player and receiver were from the same manufacturer. I was really impressed with look and feel of HDX 1000. Unfortunately, this is the only good thing I can say about it.

Before listing all my gripes about that device, I probably should answer the main question: can it do what it is supposed to – play media files? Yes, it can and pretty well… if you manage somehow to get those files onto it!

It was probably the most user unfriendly device I have ever used. First of all, it did not have any user manual whatsoever. On the only sheet of paper in the box there were two diagrams showing how to install a hard disk and connect the player to other A/V components. That was kind of information I could easily do without. A quick reference chart of the operating system would be much more helpful, but no! Electronic user manual doesn't exist either, at least I could not find one on the web. The only way to learn its cryptic interface was trial and error.

Operating system looked like a poor copycat of Playstation OS and was buggy and unstable. I updated firmware (first attempts to get files from the internet failed and it worked only when I put the files on a flash card and plugged it in). It helped but not much.

Video playback was quite good, it played much more formats than Sony PS3 although not as much as VLC player on my computer. It played AVI files with Dolby Digital soundtracks, subtitles in SRT format but not IDX/SUB. I liked picture quality and features like incremental zoom and time seek. I wonder what other good features left unknown to users, because the manufacturer didn't bother to make a user manual? 

It very smoothly played a couple of 1080p trailers, but couldn't handle heavy videos from Canon 5DII – playback was slow and jerky.

There was a very annoying glitch though – screen blackout. After pressing STOP button, screen sometimes went off and the only way to turn it back on was to restart the player by pressing power button off and on, which took quite a while.

Music playback was fine. It played WAV, MP3, FLAC but not APE. A pleasant surprise was its ability to play HD audio in WAV and FLAC formats and output it through optical without downsampling. I tried 24/88 and 24/96. Funny, it played my HD recordings made with Edirol 09HR, but not demo files supplied with the recorder.

Photo playback was bad: very slow zooming and panning and all wrong colours, but I didn't care. I wasn't planning to use it as a picture viewer anyway.  

I am a Mac user and don't have a PC. Since HDX formatted its disk not in common FAT but in Linux EXT3, I was unable to connect it to computer via USB. Mac OS did not recognize the disk. The only EXT driver for Mac I could find honestly warned in its readme file: "This driver can corrupt your system, use it on your own risk". No, thanks.

I started Win XP through Parallels desktop, downloaded an EXT driver for Windows and tried to connect again. Connection worked but only in one direction: I could copy files from the player to computer, but any attempts do otherwise would freeze. As a result I got a bunch of corrupted files on the player's HDD and the only way to get rid of them was re-formatting.

USB slave mode was not the only way to get files onto the player. It also had 2 USB ports and a slot for SD cards. I tried to connect my hard disk dock with a 1 Tb drive and some flash cards in it. Also tried to plug cards directly into the player's slot and connect a USB keyboard. That was hit and miss. The player could never recognize all devices plugged in simultaneously. Sometimes it recognized one or two of three, sometimes none at all. It was absolutely random and I couldn't find any system in its behaviour. Well, those were first two days. On the day 3, its behaviour finally became consistent: it recognized the keyboard but refused to see the external HDD and flash cards, no matter how I tried. On the same day it started freezing during startup, and I decided I had enough.

The "tank" went back to the store. The above were only major problems I had with the box. There were smaller ones I don’t want to list. And I never tried networking and torrents! Can only imagine what cans of worms I would have to open there…

Anyway, it looked like a promising player, just not ready yet. The technology is at the beginning and evolves quickly. I hope next year or so, we will get many properly working and user friendly devices.


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