Media players have been around but there's a reason why they haven't picked steam yet. It's just too complicated to understand what a media player does differently. To decode their functions, these are stand-alone devices that can be connected to a TV set and used to play audio and video files from a PC, an external hard drive or a network location.
We reviewed Asus O!Play Mini, Western Digital's TV Live Hub and iOmega's Screenplay TV Link MX media player. While each has its own character, they will certainly suit people who don't want to bother with the complexity and expense of a costly home entertainment unit. These little set-top boxes are the one-stop answer to view data.
Asus O!Play Mini
This is not a virgin device from Asus, so it comes with some definite improvements over its predecessors. The small size of the O!Play Mini allows it to fit in any corner of the living room. It has also shed the USB 3.0 connection found on the earlier O!Play HD2, and now comes with a single USB 2.0 port and a multi-format memory card reader. The USB port lets you connect directly to any hard drive and enjoy the content immediately without installing any drivers or configuration. But lack of internal memory and the fact that O!Play Mini can only be controlled using the remote control is a damper. There's also no network connection – either wired or wireless – which means you can't use the O!Play Mini as an Internet streamer or access online video on YouTube or Netflix.
But there's no denying that the new Asus O!Play Mini is a home entertainment package in a more manageable format. For starters, it allows various video formats up to 1080p full HD resolution. This is true for MP4 files, ASF, MOV or MKV but the player also handles MP3, WAV or FLAC formats as well as images. Apart from this, the device features an intelligent subtitling capability with its RightTxT feature. The HDMI port can not only play content in 1080p HD quality video but also supports True high-definition 7.1 audio supporting playback of Blu-ray content. While it renders decent image quality, for both full HD and standard-definition resolution videos, the noise reduction feature comes handy for videos with a low bitrate. When used for photos, O!Play Mini automatically scales the images to fit the output screen's format, allowing you to rotate the image and even adjust colour saturation.
Verdict: Small becomes big with O!Play Mini housing a strong video processor that can play almost any type of media file you have on offer.
Western Digital TV Live Hub
Price: Rs 9, 999
Western Digital (WD) TV Live Hub builds on the features of earlier streamers, while adding an internal 1 TB hard drive in a slimmer form-factor. The Live Hub is a network-capable media player that brings the Internet to your TV (you can attach a wired Ethernet cable to it). The USB ports can also be used as a wireless adapter if you don't have Ethernet. The media streamer supports 1080p output as well as HDMI connection.
While the Live Hub definitely makes a strong case for the home audio/video nerd, the simplicity and local storage are appealing. Some thoughtful features – slideshows, photo scaling options and display time – add to the experience. It supports DLNA, which means it can stream to and from other DLNA- compatible devices, like most Blu-ray players, gaming consoles and NAS units. It can play almost any type of media file – the Live Hub supports a wide variety of the most popular file formats including HD camcorder video – and there is no need to spend time transcoding. You can play high-bitrate 1080P videos, download movie trailers. During our trial, out of probably a hundred videos tested, only one very old WMV file failed to play.
Recently, WD has also added TuneIn Radio, an Internet radio guide with access to over 30,000 free radio stations and Deezer, a personalised on-demand music service that boasts of seven million tracks for Live Hub users. Overall, we were very impressed by the new software interface, making the WD TV Live Hub one of the easiest to use and sleek media players in the market.
Verdict: For those without networked storage at home or a firm grasp on organising digital assets on a computer, the integrated, all-consuming Live Hub makes sense.
iOmega Screenplay TV Link MX
Price: Rs 3,995
With basic configuration matching those of Asus O!Play Mini, iOmega's Screenplay TV Link is a compact and fairly lightweight media player that supports a wide range of formats, including H.264, WMV, RMVB, MPEG4, DivX Plus HD and MP3. The iOmega Screenplay is a simple device that can be attached to a TV and a USB drive for viewing movies or photos and listening to music. If you don't have an HDMI cable handy (it's not included in the package), then you will have to use the composite or component breakout cables that come with the unit. Even though the iOmega Screenplay has a high-definition port, this isn't exactly a real HD device, as it uses up-scaling to get to high-resolution formats like 720p and 1080i.
The iOmega Screenplay supports almost all USB hard drives or flash drives provided the device is formatted in either FAT32 or NTFS file systems. We streamed data from several flash drives and a 500GB Seagate FreeAgent Go drive. Once a valid USB source is plugged in, filenames and folders on the drive will be displayed on the output screen.
Once the external device is plugged in, the media player has a simple user interface for browsing through your list of music, movies and images. During our review we found out that the media player automatically runs slideshows, plays the first music or video files of the selected folder. If you want to browse through a folder to play a file of your choice, you need to press the stop button on the remote control. In video playback, the best-supported format seemed to be MPEG2. While playing these files, most features like fast forward, fast reverse, zoom, slow etc. worked flawlessly. With other format files, these advanced features were a hit and miss. For example, while viewing an AVI file using an XviD codec, none of the special keys like fast forward, reverse or zoom worked on this device.
Verdict: The iOmega Screenplay TV Link stands out in playback of ripped DVDs. If you want to experiment with ripping all of your DVDs to an external USB drive and don't want to spend the time re-encoding, this little device just might be the answer.