You can’t watch a film properly on a PC, so we checked out the devices that can set your digital media collection free, and stream it all over your house.
There's a world of digital entertainment at your fingertips, yet it's all trapped in ugly PC boxes with 17-inch displays and tin-can speakers. At the same time, you’ve invested in high-end home entertainment equipment sitting in your living room, but it’s useless if you want to watch or listen to anything in your digital media library.
All of the devices tested here can handle audio, video, and pictures. The products are basic digital media receivers for simply sending multimedia files from a computer over to your TV or your stereo system. The boxes come from D-Link, Philips, and Pinnacle Systems.
Cheap and (mostly) easy
Setting up a digital media receiver is dead easy. Each unit comes with PC-based server software that indexes your media files and then streams them on demand to the device itself. The receiver hooks up to your audio system and/or to a television through common connectors. Digital media receivers feature analog A/V connections (RCA audio, composite video, and/or S-Video) and, in many cases, component video and digital audio (coaxial, S/PDIF, or optical) hookups. Make sure that the device you purchase includes all of the outputs you need – some models, for example, provide only one set of RCA audio outputs.
Each product gives you a setup screen on your TV to step you through finding the network connection and server. If you have to enter IP addresses or an encryption key, be sure to write everything down in advance. And don't forget: Your PC must be running to stream content. If it decides to take a nap while you're rocking out to Led Zeppelin in your living room, you will have to interrupt your air guitar solo to wake it up.
D-Link's MediaLounge DSM-320 was easily connected to my stereo system with the included RCA cables. The quick-start wizard found our wireless network and located the D-Link media server software that we had already configured on the PC. Later, we installed the server software on a second computer and was able to use the television setup menu to switch between the two servers.
Setting up the DSM-320 was easy, but getting it running wasn't. Some multimedia folders contain hundreds of files, and the unit was often painfully slow to list their contents on screen. The remote control was a bit sluggish, too – even at close range and having inserted fresh batteries. After that, however, the D-Link unit performed well, streaming a movie without pausing or stuttering at any time. The device works with Napster, Radio@AOL, and Rhapsody, allowing subscribers to play streaming music and videos directly from the Internet.
The DSM-320 can also support Windows Media Connect software. None of these devices play protected Windows Media files, however, which is an obstacle if you like to download music from Web sites such as Napster and Musicmatch On Demand. Installing Windows Media Connect fixes that problem. If you spent your last paycheck on Napster downloads, this could be a major selling point.
Philips' Streamium SL300i works much like the DSM-320. Straight away though, the Streamium couldn't locate our network, although it found it the second time of asking.
From there, the Streamium performed beautifully. One annoying quirk though, is that there is no way to page through long file lists.
Streamium works with a number of Internet services, including Live 365, Musicmatch, IFilm (previews and short movies), Launch (music videos), and Yahoo Movies (trailers only). On the downside, the Streamium lacks the component-video and digital-audio outputs that the D-Link provides.
Pinnacle's ShowCenter did a good job finding our network and playing content.
Its PC-based server software delivers more than its competitors, allowing you to do things such as burn CDs or DVDs and export Winamp-compatible playlists. The software can also copy and convert incompatible media formats – most notably Windows Media video files – into one of four ShowCenter-compatible video formats. Like the D-Link, ShowCenter supports analog and digital audio output, as well as composite and component video.
ShowCenter does have an Achilles' heel: it provides no support for Internet-based streaming-media services. However, at press time Pinnacle said that it was planning to release an upgrade to make the device support both Rhapsody and Shoutcast-based Internet radio sites.
Not everyone is interested in streaming video and pictures to TV, of course. If you are merely concerned with playing your digital music collection and dancing around your house, choose an audio-only receiver such as the Roku SoundBridge M500 or the Sonos ZonePlayer ZP100.
D-Link MediaLounge DSM-320
3 stars out of 5
Price: £144 plus VAT
Bottom line: The price is right, setup is a snap, and access to Napster and Rhapsody is a plus. The brain-dead remote control and sluggish response are not.
Philips Streamium SL300i
Price: £153 plus VAT
Bottom line: Plan to party like it's 1989, because you won't encounter any digital hookups on this model. However, the unit does work with a nice selection of Internet content partners.
Price: £170 plus VAT
Bottom line:The unit's PC server software is a cut above the competition's. Once Pinnacle adds access to Internet music services, it'll be that much better.
Best Black Friday deals 2015 live blog: When is Black Friday & what are the best tech Black Friday...