Reviews

Sep 24 2013

Review - Fractal Design Node 304 White SFF Chassis

Fractal Design has made themselves a reputation for quality and attractive chassis that can serve as capable as a gaming system just as it would in your living room as your home theater PC (HTPC). With the Node 304 White enclosure, Fractal Design is offering a small form factor chassis with a lot of storage flexibility and still the ability to have a full size video card, all for under $90. The challenge with the living room is the acoustics play as critical a role as the aesthetics, so that will all be considered as we evaluate the Node 304.

Sep 16 2013

Review - Ceton InfiniTV6 PCIe Digital Cable Tuner

Ceton InfiniTV6 PCIe Digital Tuner Cable Card

Six is a good number – even better when it is equated to the number of tuners in your current HTPC. Obviously it is possible to get by with less, but after considering EPG overlaps, a couple children and the spouse – what was an impossible luxury not that long ago quickly becomes a celebrated necessity. With ClearQAM disappearing and ATSC difficult to master in some markets, it is hard to argue with the simplicity that a single Digital Cable Tuner (DCT) provides. Ceton InfiniTV6 PCIe Digital Cable Tuner card includes the ability to use an M-CARD CableCARD to record any channel you subscribe to from your Cable TV Provider. Ceton already released a four tuner PCIe, four tuner USB, and most recently an Ethernet six tuner device, missingremote.com review-- they knew they were missing something for the HTPC crowd. Following a very easy setup for the hardware and software and you will be off and recording copious amounts of TV, movies and commercials you will feel like your own media company. You may hear, “Back in my day we only had four channels to watch,” but to those older people I say, “Welcome to TV of today!”

Sep 13 2013

Review - Wren V5AP Airplay Speaker

When it comes to selecting a mobile device wireless speaker box, there are many to choose from—with options from companies as large as Sony, Bose, Jambox and Beats, to smaller ones such as Supertooth. Wren is hoping to capture some attention on this market with a rather unique offering, with their Wren V5AP speaker box. Besides the usual speeds and feeds which the speaker touts, providing crisp and clear audio to your room, the Wren speaker pitches itself as a piece of art, adding style alongside sonic substance—an expensive one at that, coming in at $399. Let’s examine what this gets you—as with any category filled with competition, there will always be pros and cons to each.

Sep 03 2013

Review - NETGEAR AV+ 500 NANO SET (XAVB5601) Powerline Networking Adapters

NETGEAR XAVB5601 Review

When pulling Cat 6 Ethernet cables through the walls is out of the question there are a few options for enabling a high-bitrate-media capable network. MoCA is usually a reliable source of the 100Mbps required, but limited to existing cable infrastructure. New kid, wireless 802.11AC shows significant promise, but won’t come home for anywhere near the price where Powerline networking claims 500Mbps of bandwidth. Historically, Powerline technology has over promised and under delivered--with actual performance falling below the number on the box. With a NETGEAR AV+ 500 NANO SET (XAVB5601) available, it is time to address the technology’s viability again. Asking $110 (£60) at retail, the kit is reasonably priced, has receptacle pass-through offering a solution to a common Powerline gripe, and with 500Mbps to play with, one would expect to have plenty of bandwidth headroom even as distance and environmental load are varied.

Aug 12 2013

Review - ASUS WL-330N 5-in-1 Wireless-N150 Mobile Router

ASUS WL-330N 5-in-1 Wireless-N150 Mobile Router

The myriad of network permutations encountered when traveling with multiple devices is so diverse that covering them all seems impossible. Wired only access, web based authentication or per-device access charges? The ASUS WL-330N 5-in-1 Wireless-N150 Mobile Router has it covered, offering five discrete operating modes: NAT firewall router, access point, repeater, Ethernet adapter or [the almost magical] hotspot. Naturally, packing this many features into a small, USB powered, $45 dongle requires some trade-offs – mostly paid in setup convenience.

Jun 24 2013

Review - Intel HD 4600 - madVR Performance

Intel Haswell CPU

As many in the home theater PC (HTPC) community are aware, madVR produces an unparallelled level of flexibly and performance. Producing results that rival some of the best dedicated video processors available in the market. It was not that long ago that utilizing this advanced video renderer was limited to those with a high-end discrete graphics processing unit (GPU) and a penchant for mixing PC usability with HTPC use cases. Time and Moore's Observation (er... "Law") has changed this with the feature available through 10' friendly user interfaces (UI).

The previous generation HD 4000 GPU found in Intel integrated processor graphics (IPG), "Ivy Bridge", was the first Intel graphics solution to combine decent coverage for this feature and modern CPU performance. It was hoped that the 4th generation "Haswell" IPG would finally unlock the full capability of madVR, but as was mentioned in our first look at the Intel Core i7-4770K the HD 4600 could not. Having spent more time with the platform, it was time to revisit this issue and provide a more detailed look at what is, and is not, possible.

Jun 20 2013

Review - Intel Quick Sync: Examining Haswell Performance

Intel Quick Sync

In the recent release of 4th generation (Haswell) Intel Core integrated processor graphics (IPG), Intel placed significant focus on changes made to Quick Sync transcoding technology included with the HD graphics portion of the chip. As the review developed, it became evident quite quickly that this aspect of the Intel Core i7-4770K warranted specific coverage outside of the more general platform/system/performance characteristics that are usually covered. The detailed why and how of Quick Sync, or specifically what has changed versus the previous generation is beyond the scope of this discussion; this somewhat because Intel has already published a reasonably detailed whitepaper on the topic for those with academic interest, but mostly it is because results matter more than technical diagrams. In the pursuit of this goal the differences in Quick Sync speed and quality between 3rd and 4th generation Intel Core IPG will be detailed as well as how it compares with x264 when it matters the most - archiving high-bitrate material.

Jun 05 2013

Review - Ceton infiniTV6 Ethernet

When it comes to Digital Cable Tuners (DCT), time has been extremely generous to the home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiast. What was once $200 per tuner is now just $50. With multiple options for connection and tuner count per device available, the market appeared complete, though obviously it was not with Ceton still holding an additional card to play - the $299 six(!) tuner infiniTV6. While Ceton cannot claim to be the first to put six tuners into a single chassis, they are the only ones to do it with a single Multi-stream CableCARD (M-CARD) – marking the realization on the technologies’ full potential and saving users some coin by reducing the number of M-CARDs required to push past four tuners. With the PCIe variant still “coming soon,” we examine the [much more interesting] Ethernet model--Ceton’s first native network-attached CableCARD tuner. 

Jun 01 2013

Review - Intel Core i7-4770K (Haswell) / Intel DZ87KLT-75K and Intel DH87RL Motherboard - First Look

For home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts, the 4th generation Intel Core “Haswell” family of processors has been greatly anticipated. Expectations have been set both for its GPU performance, and that the long-standing issue with refresh rate accuracy will finally be put to rest. Unfortunately time with the new integrated processor graphics (IPG) was limited to just a few hours, but a significant amount of information was gleaned in the available window, with the high-end Intel Core i7-4770K and two Intel motherboards, the DZ87KLT-75K and DH87RL, provided for testing. Of course, because this is a desktop IPG “high-end” speaks only to the CPU half of the chip. Unlike previous generations, Intel’s GPU breakdown is much more complex this time around with the high-end “Iris” graphics not available on the i7-4770K; it provides only Intel HD 4600 graphics. This will limit our ability to truly examine how far 4th generation graphics have come, hopefully something that can be addressed at a later point as the lineup widens. Now let’s get into our first look.

Apr 24 2013

Review - Intel Next Unit of Computing - DC3217IYE

DC3217IYE

With a 17 watt integrated processor graphics (IPG) in a four-by-four inch chassis, Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) is of obvious interest to home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts. This footprint and low-power consumption, coupled with Intel HD 4000 graphics, promises to deliver an incredibly capable client system. It is small enough to hide away, or place discretely next to the other little-black-box content consumption devices; its laptop CPU doesn’t  make much fuss either. This does not come cheap however, with the commanding a $300 MSRP for what is essentially a “bare-bones” system. You will need to add RAM, an mSATA SSD, and, strangely, a power cable to make it go; let’s find out if it lives up to the potential or ends up just an expensive curiosity.

Apr 09 2013

Review - Yale Real Living Electronic Touch Screen Deadbolt with Z-Wave

Yale Real Living

Even those without a Home Automation (HA) system can appreciate the value in a keyless entry option for the home, but the real value for a lock like the Yale Real Living Electronic Touch Screen Deadbolt is realized by leveraging Z-Wave to integrate it in a HA system. After doing that, it unlocks a wide array of actions that simplify home security; offering features like: conditional access, short term key codes, and automated responses to lock and other device events. Other Z-Wave locks offer the same automation features, but the YRD220-ZW full numeric touch screen and excellent build quality set it apart. The additional features demand a premium versus competing devices; let’s find out if it is worth it.

Mar 12 2013

Review - NETGEAR NeoTV MAX (NTV300SL) Media Streamer

NETGEAR NeoTV MAX

After experiencing NETGEAR’s previous generation NeoTV NTV200, with solid function, value and distinction as one of the only media streamers with HDMI CEC support it was genuinely exciting when the NeoTV MAX (NTV300SL) arrived with a dual-sided QWERTY remote, full VUDU 3D and Netflix multichannel audio with subtitle support--that NETGEAR only asks $70 (MSRP) for the device was gravy. With the NeoTV MAX also promising 24p and continuing the tradition of seamless integration into a HDMI CEC controlled ecosystem it seems likely that NETGEAR would deliver the perfect Over the Top (OTT) streamer for the most demanding users.

Jan 17 2013

Review - Ceton - My Media Center

Ceton My Media Center

Earlier today a new Windows 8 "Metro" version of Ceton's suite of applications for managing Windows Media Center joined the existing lineup of Andriod, Windows Phone and iOS companion apps priced at $4.99. As part of this effort they were rebranded from "Ceton Companion Apps" to "My Media Center". All the great functionality for browsing recordings, managing series and scheduling, and browsing the guide is still there, but this time Windows 8 tablet and desktop "Metro" users can also join the party. We had a chance to take an early spin through the updated UI, let's dig in.

Jan 02 2013

Review - Intel Core i3-3220 v. Intel Core i3-3225

Intel Core i3As interesting as the third generation of Intel Core integrated processor graphics (IPG) were when they arrived in April, as home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts it was disappointing that the more applicable two core/four thread models were not available. We gleaned what we could about the minor processing improvements and major changes to the graphic processing unit (GPU) from the Core i7-3770K / Core i7-3770S, but as those were overkill for this space there are still many unanswered questions around how the six execution unit (EU) HD 2500 compares to sixteen EU HD 4000 and, perhaps more importantly, how 22nm Ivy Bridge (IVB) CPUs compare against the previous generation of Sandy Bridge (SNB) IPG with similar power requirements. To achieve these goals two 3.3 GHz, 55W Core i3s were tested; with only the GPU separating them – at least on the specifications sheet – let’s dig into the Intel Core i3-3220 and Intel Core i3-3225 and find out which is the better option for your next HTPC.

Nov 29 2012

Review - Ceton Echo Windows Media Extender

Ceton EchoFor Windows 7 Media Center (WMC) users the Xbox 360 has long been the only actively produced choice to extend the experience to multiple TVs--until the Ceton Echo Extender for Windows Media Extender (MCX) hit the market. When we first saw the Echo it was a very different device, driven by an Intel Atom based system on a chip (SoC), and subsequently a larger and hungrier device than what we have today. The form factor has changed significantly as well, to a sleek device around the size of most modern home theater “streamers,” but the functionality promised (i.e. small, quiet, efficient MCX) when used with WMC has not. This is an important point to note when examining the Echo on its own, because much of the previous coverage also included mention of Ceton’s Q (a TiVo like device) which, had it survived the summer, could have provided additional capability beyond what is possible from the standard MCX experience.  With firmware releases bringing new functionality and fixes every few days it has proved difficult to nail down a definitive snapshot of the Echo’s long term capabilities; as retail availability is now upon us it is time to build on our first look and provide a current state update for the device.

Nov 26 2012

Review - Kingston Hyper-X Genesis LoVo Power Use Comparison

Kingston Hyper-XIn the quest to build the perfect low power home theater PC (HTPC) it is natural to select low voltage memory under the assumption that it will reduce consumption – lowering your power bill, and producing a greener system. To test this theory three Hyper-X Genesis LoVo memory kits from Kingston were put to the test in three different HTPC systems to determine not only what 1.35V versus 1.5V nets at the wall, but also how scaling up RAM affects consumption.

Nov 02 2012

Review - First Look - Ceton Echo Windows Media Extender

Ceton EchoThe XBOX 360 has ruled the Windows Media Center (WMC) extender market since it killed off third-party completion with the release of Windows Vista, but for many the brutish gaming console’s size, appetite for electricity, and unpleasant noise levels made it unwelcome in the A/V stack. With a lithe chassis, miserly power consumption, and a modern system-on-a-chip (SOC) offering the potential for proper HD file support the Ceton Echo could be just the thing to breathe fresh life into Microsoft’s aging platform. Our sample just arrived so it has not been run through the wringer yet, but since the hardware is set and pre-orders starting it is worth taking a look to getting a basic understanding of what the Echo has to offer. Check back later for our full review when the software is finalized.

Oct 31 2012

Review - Onkyo TX-NR818 7.2-Channel Network A/V Receiver

TX-NR818As the glue in a well-equipped home theater, the audio video receiver (AVR) is a natural hub where audio and video processing can be consolidated into a single device alongside other functions like over the top (OTT) IP services. Onkyo has embraced this ideal with the 135 watts per channel TX-NR818, which offers decoding support for all of the modern audio codecs, HQV video processing and scaling up to 4K UltraHD. More importantly when it comes to room correction, arguably the most important feature of a modern AVR, the TX-NR818 offers Audyssey‘s flagship MultEQ XT32 – an outstanding feat given its $1200 MSRP (~$800 street). With all of the features included, the TX-NR818 seems to be an incredible value, offering unmatched capability per dollar. Moving beyond the spec sheet however, nothing is without compromise – let’s dig in and discover where Onkyo’s 2012 mid-range master excels, and where it does not.

Oct 15 2012

Review - Intel DH77DF Media Series Mini ITX Motherboard and Core i7-3770S CPU

Intel DH77DFIntel’s third generation Core integrated processor graphics (IPG) chip, aka Ivy Bridge (IVB), got off to a slow start for us with a set of high-end CPUs not really intended for the home theater PC (HTPC). We still do not have one of the low power Core i3/i5 with HD4000 graphics on hand; now that they are available, H77 based Mini ITX motherboards are much more interesting since the updated platform controller hub (PCH) is required to fully utilize new features like PCIe 3.0 and DDR3-1600. There are several options to choose from, but none include the HTPC specific features like Windows Media Center infrared and HDMI CEC support via specialized headers and third-party hardware like the Intel Media Series DH77DF paired today with 65W Intel Core i7-3770S and i5-2400S IPGs. Not content to differentiate only on those features, it also offers mSATA via a Mini PCIe slot and Firewire (IEEE1394a) and addresses a traditional shortcoming in Intel’s previous Mini ITX boards – support for 95W TDP CPUs.

Oct 09 2012

Review - Pulse-Eight Internal HDMI CEC Adapter

Pulse-Eight LogoIn an HDMI A/V environment, Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) is the glue that ties components together into a cohesive unit--able to be controlled by a single remote without the hassle, or expense, of a normal universal as well as removing infrared’s (IR) line-of-site requirement for playback devices. Where there can be problems with the protocol, most often the root cause is linked to the unfortunate fact that CEC works [best] when every component on the HDMI bus supports it – which until recently has left home theater PC (HTPC) users out in the cold. Coming to market with an HDMI+USB dongle, Pulse-Eight brought this segment into the modern age, but with the form factor trade-offs demanded of an external adapter and lacking of wake-from S5 (soft- off) some compromise was still required. Fortunately for those with Intel Media Series motherboards offering an HTPC_HEADER like the DH61AG or DH77DF, Pulse-Eight is back with an internal solution able to correct both of these gaps.

Oct 03 2012

Review - Pivos XIOS DS Media Player

 

Have you ever wanted to play those games from your Android smartphone on your big screen? Pivos is relying on a significant amount of these types of users with the introduction of the Pivos XIOS DS. This is a tiny device which runs either a version of Android or Linux and is a crossbreed between being a media player and casual gaming device. With a retail price of $129 (street at the time of publishing around $99) the Pivos XIOS DS is priced higher than popular streamers such as the Roku or AppleTV, but do the extra capabilities of a fully connected Android device make it worthwhile?

Oct 01 2012

Review - Fractal Design Define R4 ATX Chassis

headerFractal Design made a great impression on us last year with the debut of the Define R3 ATX chassis and its smaller sibling, the Define Mini Micro-ATX chassis. It is hard not to love a high-quality, well-built, sleek and unobtrusive chassis and these are all qualities the Define series of chassis exhibited to us. Not content to rest on its laurels, Fractal Design went back to the drawing board to come up with several enhancements to the design of the R3 with the new Define R4 ATX chassis.

The main refinements offered by the Define R4 are larger and improved fans, a more flexible hard disk drive (HDD) cage, a wider case body for easier cable routing, additional mounting options for 2.5” SSDs, a new tool-less front fan holder, support for liquid cooling radiators, a new fan controller that is integrated with the front panel, and an additional USB 3.0 front panel port.

Sep 18 2012

Review - Mini Z-Wave Device Review

Z-WaveIn our recent review of Micasaverde’s Vera home automation (HA) controller several devices were mentioned, but not in enough detail to be useful to anyone thinking about building a Z-Wave network, or adding to an existing one. To address that a list of all the devices and a mini review is included below:

Sep 13 2012

Review - Mi Casa Verde Vera Home Automation Controller - VeraLite

Mi Casa VerdeHome automation (HA) covers a wide spectrum of capabilities and devices, spanning the gap from placing a light timer on the fish tank to a complex system that manages many of the mundane aspects of lighting, HVAC and scheduled activities in the house or business. Historically these highly integrated systems, capable of things like automatically dimming the lights when watching a movie, were constrained to high-end consumers due to hardware cost, complexity, and the locked-down dealer relationship between OEMs and custom installers (CI). While this works for both groups, it is blocking for those with a more limited budget – which is where the Mi Casa Verde Vera 3 and VeraLite come in. As a fully functional Z-Wave HA controller, it offers the same feature set and capabilities that more expensive options provide, but in DIY (do-it-yourself) friendly format where managing devices and scenes entails a quick browser session instead of a wallet thumping from your local CI.

Aug 29 2012

Review - Actiontec PWR500 - 500Mbps Powerline Network Adapter Kit

Actiontec PWR500 Powerline Networking Adpater Kit

Powerline networking has a reputation for promising capable “hardwired” networking solutions, but historically often fell short when it came to delivery. Having tried a few iterations of the alternative-to-Ethernet over power wires in the past, in my personal experience this reputation has also proved well deserved. Of course with each new generation, the technology evolves and is therefore worth another look.  To achieve that goal, Actiontec provided their newest Powerline Network Adapter kit, the PWR500. Supporting up to 500Mbps between nodes, and exposing 100Mbps Ethernet to devices, it should be more than a match for even the most demanding file streaming requirements. Combining this with a price of around $50 for two adapters, it could be the perfect way to extend your media to those hard to reach places around your house or apartment.

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