Reviews

Jun 26 2014

Review - D-Link Wi-Fi Smart Plug (DSP-W215)


Home automation has always been one of the most sought after pieces to anyone’s home or home theater environment—at least to our fans. Getting ready to watch a movie, you press a button and the lights dim, the curtains go down, and your movie collection shows up. In the past this was impossible to suggest without an exorbitant price tag, as most home automation systems operated on their unique network and required proprietary and expensive hardware—not to mention the software that required a computer programmer to configure! D-Link’s newest $49.99 Wi-Fi Smart Plug (DSP-W215) is just a small component of home automation, but it’s attempting to do so over your existing wireless network, and with an extremely simple smartphone utility to configure and use.

Jun 19 2014

Review - Logitech Illuminated Living-Room Keyboard K830

Logitech K830

For home theater PC (HTPC) the value of a good wireless keyboard should go without saying. After all, despite its special role in the A/V stack a HTPC is still a PC – so text entry and pointer based navigation is an essential aspect of configuration, use, and maintenance. Also as over the top (OTT) content’s search based consumption takes an ever-larger slice of our eyeball time, both on the HTPC and the myriad of increasingly complex streamer type devices, an attractive wireless keyboard that clearly looks like it belongs is an important “best tool for the job.” The market for living room friendly wireless keyboards is relatively crowded, but too often product selection requires more compromise in functionality, features, range and style than is ideal. Logitech hopes to resolve that conflict with their newest Unifying enabled “Illuminated Living-Room Keyboard K830.” The K830 specifications are impressive, including a back light, Windows 8 gesture support, 33’ of range and a built in rechargeable battery--but the most obvious feature is the way it looks. The $99 (£89) Logitech K830 is relatively expensive in this segment; let’s find out if it can deliver enough value to warrant its price tag.

Apr 30 2014

Review - Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) DN2820FYKH - Celeron/Bay Trail SFF HTPC

Intel NUC DN2820FYKH

A small home theater PC (HTPC) driven by an Intel Atom is not a new idea. Both NVIDIA’s ION and Broadcom’s Crystal HD offered solutions that coupled the chip’s TDP with specialized hardware that overcame its shortcomings--one with a complete GPU, the other providing just hardware accelerated video decoding. Neither of these products truly delivered on the concept of a quiet, low power HTPC that just works without undue compromise in many areas. To be fair, some of the blame clearly belonged to Intel because the CPU in yesterday’s Atom was slow and the GPU inadequate. Fortunately increased competition at the low end of the market and the shift towards mobile has provided the necessary impetus to address both of these deficiencies, with modern “Bay Trail” system on a chip (SoC) offering significantly improved CPU performance alongside a much more capable GPU, so much so that the integrated processor graphics (IPG) powering the Intel NUC DN2820FYKH comes to us today wearing Intel’s budget desktop moniker “Celeron” instead of “Atom”.  Marketing labels aside, if the $139 system can deliver the perfect low power small form factor (SFF) HTPC, “steal” would be the best way to describe it.

Apr 25 2014

Review - NETGEAR EX6100 - AC750 802.11AC Wireless Extender and Bridge

NETGEAR EX6100

Even in a mid-sized home, it is quite common to end up with a few “dead spots” where the main Wi-Fi router just does not provide enough signal to make the network work smoothly. Until recently--if your network is based on 802.11AC--the only way to address this, and take advantage of AC’s performance was by adding another full-on router acting as a media bridge or repeater. While this works, it is a costly way to address the problem, and one where frankly a specialized device might be better suited. Thankfully as 802.11AC has matured the device ecosystem has as well, and today we have the $90 (£65) NETGEAR EX6100 “AC750” Wi-Fi Range Extender / Media Bridge available for testing.

Apr 08 2014

Review - CyberLink PowerDVD 14 : Adds HEVC & Cloud

Last year CyberLink added the option to subscribe to PowerDVD alongside their cloud service, and that continues to be available this year with PowerDVD 14. The $44.99 per year (or $14.99 per quarter) alongside the standard purchase options of Ultra ($99.95), Pro ($79.95) and Standard ($49.95). If you opt for the subscription or Ultra 10GB of CyberLink Cloud storage is included in the price alongside the Android/iOS/Windows 8 “Metro” Power Media Player. There are quite a few new features this year, including HEVC (H.265), WASAPI audio support, and automatic cloud-based file synchronization between clients. I’ve had the chance to play with a beta release of the product – click through for some impressions an the full PR.

Apr 07 2014

Review - Thecus N5550 5-Bay NAS Server and XBMC Home Theater Computer

NAS (Network Attached Storage) units have been growing in popularity over the years, due to their ease of use in providing a lot of storage in a compact enclosure, while making redundancy a simple matter of replacing drives when warned. With the HTPC continuing to evolve however, where does the NAS stand in supporting or replacing your traditional server box filled with your media? The N5550 from Thecus has been out for almost two years now, but the modifications made to this affordable five-bay NAS box allow us to pose the question whether a NAS can truly replace your need for a traditional HTPC. By having simple integration with XBMC media center software the N5550 can offer the unique hybrid opportunity of being both your NAS and your media center in a single unit.

DEVICE

As the Thecus N5550 is not new, there are plenty of server-based review websites which cover in detail the speeds, power and data transfer speeds of the system’s NAS functionality. So instead, I’ll be focusing this review on the full time HTPC-usage capabilities of the box. However, I did want to cover briefly the specifications of the box which is basically a full powered system:

Item

Spec

Processor

Intel® Atom™ Processor D2550 (1.86GHz Dual Core)

System Memory

2GB DDR3

LAN Interface

RJ-45x2: 10/100/1000 BASE-TX Auto MDI/MDI-X

WOL supported

USB Interface

USB 2.0 host port x4 (back x4)

Mar 13 2014

Review - Gigabyte Brix Pro GB-BXi7-4770R Mini-PC

Gigabyte Brix Pro GB-BXi7-4770R Mini-PC

For home theater PC (HTPC) “small” is another word for “compromise”. Thankfully, the amount required by our miniscule content consumption devices has decreased exponentially over the last few years. There is still a price demanded however, tiny systems require slower mobile integrated processor graphics (IPG) to drive them. We have to choose between size and performance; it is simply not possible to fit desktop capability in a five inch PC. But what if it were not? What if you could slip a 65W desktop chip inside a 2.4” x 4.3” x 4.5” chassis? Is it possible to cool it and extract desktop level performance from a physically diminutive system? Gigabyte asked exactly that, but was not content to use just any desktop CPU, instead opting for the 3.9 GHz (turbo) Intel Core i7-4770R with Iris Pro 5200 graphics - creating the $650 Brix Pro GB-BXi7-4770R. Putting so much CPU in a little box is sure to have its own set of trade-offs however, let’s find out what they are.

Jan 24 2014

Review - Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) D54250WYKH - "H" is for 2.5" HDD Mount

When Intel brought out their Haswell Next Unit of Computing (NUC), inclusion of features like SATA made it clear that they had bigger things in store for the little system. They were honest that some of this promise will require 3rd party case OEMs to fully realize, but Intel quickly announced that they would be creating their own chassis with 2.5” drive support a bit later. Providing this feature is interesting to two groups of users: those who have, or want to leverage a 2.5” SSD instead of mSATA or anyone who wants local, rotating, storage in the NUC. As it happens, now is the time, and when I sat down with Intel at CES to talk NUC they had one of the new 116.6mm x 112mm x 51.5mm enclosures for me to take back and run through the paces.

Dec 16 2013

Review - NETGEAR R7000 Nighthawk Smart AC1900 Wi-Fi Router

Nothing can deliver the raw capability of Gigabit Ethernet when it comes to pushing large amounts of data around the home. Unfortunately, in many homes it just is not practical to pull Cat-6 through the walls, so other methods must be found to enable the demands of a fully functional media consumption network. Where many other low-installation-effort home networking technologies have failed, 802.11AC’s 1300Mbps of theoretical bandwidth is tantalizing. With more than enough headroom to deliver stutter free streaming it holds tremendous promise, but whether the technology can really deliver was still open even after our first look. Today we have another chance to examine it however – this time with NETGEAR’s $199 Dual-band AC1900 R7000 Nighthawk Smart Wi-Fi Router. The R7000 is particularly interesting not only because its dual-core 1GHz processor and USB 3.0 support represents the current state-of-the art in Wi-Fi appliances, but because the underlying Broadcom 4709 Communication Processor (which makes that possible) marks a shift from MIPS to ARM for this market segment. Of course that change is only meaningful if the R7000 can deliver the stability, feature set and performance demanded by the home media enthusiast.

Dec 11 2013

Review - Fractal Design ARC MINI R2 Micro-ATX Mid Tower Chassis

Fractal Design ARC MINI R2
Over the last few years Fractal Design has cultivated a reputation for delivering intelligent, quiet, and well-built PC cases that do not require breaking the bank. With solid steel construction, ample storage options, and three hydraulic bearing  Silent Series R2 fans (2x 120mm, 1x 140mm) included, we should expect the ARC MINI R2 Micro-ATX case to continue this tradition. However it is natural to wonder if Fractal Design can deliver the innovative features of its larger, more expensive, chassis at the smaller enclosure’s $99 price point. Let’s find out.

Nov 12 2013

Review - Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201 Bluetooth Bookshelf Speakers

We reviewed the previous generation Grace Digital Internet Stereo System over two years ago, and while we loved it then, the world of audio has continued to evolve as users grow more and more attached to their mobile devices. That's where the GDI-BTSP201 Bluetooth Bookshelf Speakers come to play, offering a standalone left and right stereo experience while still supporting Bluetooth and direct audio, all for under $250. 

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Let's take a look at the exact specifications of the Grace Digital Bookshelf Speakers:

  • Full Range High Fidelity 36 Watt Powered Stereo Speakers
  • 1” Soft Dome Tweeters, 3.5” Composite Cone Woofers and Rear Port
  • Dynamic Frequency Range from 50 Hz to 20,000 Hz
  • Wireless Bluetooth 4.0 Connection allows Music Playback from any Bluetooth Device
  • Utilizes CD Quality Wireless Transmission with Integrated aptX Technology
  • Supports SBC, AAC, and aptX codecs and A2DP and AVRCP Profiles
  • Premium Leatherette Wrapped Case
  • RCA Auxiliary Audio Input to listen to Wired Audio Sources
  • Connects to TV’s, Computers, Smartphones, Tablets, MP3 Players
  • Supports Charging Smartphones via the USB Charging Port

Some notes from the above--the 36 watts is combined. Each individual speaker has 18W of power. The speakers support Bluetooth 4.0 which features support for the aptX codec, designed to produce better sound, and the speakers were tested utilizing a Samsung Galaxy S4 which does offer compatibility (sorry iPhone users, you're out of luck for now). 

Nov 04 2013

Review - Fractal Design DEFINE XL R2

When one is considering what chassis to use for their home theater or server build, a lot of factors come into play. In the past a traditional home theater PC build contained a small or desktop (horizontal) style chassis to help blend in with the AV stack, but that has evolved as the demands for storage and silence--as well as big screen PC gaming--has grown in importance. The Fractal Design Define XL R2 does not fit under the SFF category, as it is a full size ATX with tons of bells and whistles. The attraction for our needs is that the Define XL R2 does not sacrifice noise nor aesthetics to achieve its mission. Suitable for either the living room or closet (although what a shame that would be as it is quite attractive), we will be analyzing the merits of it to see if it is suitable of a person with more than your average HTPC needs.

 

Oct 23 2013

Review - 3M Streaming Projector Powered by Roku - SPR1000

There are many scenarios where a portable projector can be very useful – for business and for play. Providing a reasonably priced option, 3M Streaming Projector Powered by Roku (SPR1000) can tick both boxes, promising to make it easy to host an impromptu outdoor movie night or presentation using this highly portable, battery powered, 480p projector. Also, because it includes a Roku Streaming Stick in the box all of the over-the-top (OTT) goodness that service provides is available in a just-add-Wi-Fi experience. At $189 ($299 SRP) it almost seems too good to be true; let’s see where this little projector + streamer shine and where it is lacking.

Oct 09 2013

Review - ASUS RT-AC66U AC1750 Wireless 802.11AC Router

ASUS RT-AC66U

When you cannot install Ethernet throughout your house there are a few options available, but none tantalize the same way as 802.11AC’s promise of Gigabit-esque bandwidth with ease of wireless installation. Admittedly the recent trend in marketing routers by summing their potential speed is a bit confusing, but given the chance to redefine the home networking landscape we can forgive a lot. With a pair of ASUS’s RT-AC66U Dual-Band Wireless-AC1750 on hand we have the opportunity to explore this exciting new standard in depth. Can this $189 802.11AC multifunction home networking appliance deliver, or will it simply join the list of “not good enoughs” when it comes to meeting our most demanding media streaming needs.

Oct 04 2013

Review - Intel NUC Kit D54250WYK

Intel NUC Kit D54250WYK

For home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts the news that Intel was leaving the retail motherboard market cut deeply. After all, many of the features we have come to expect, like an Intel network interface card (NIC), consumer infrared (CIR), and outstanding stability along with innovations specific to our market, such as the custom solutions (aka HTPC) header, looked likely to slowly fade away. Fortunately--at least for now--these concerns have proved meritless because the output of that decision, the Intel NUC Kit D54250WYK contains each of these features along with something that was previously unattainable to DIY – a 15W TDP integrated processor graphics (IPG). Running $342 in bulk, the cost of the 1.3-2.6GHz Intel Core i5-4250U makes up much of the $360 (estimated SRP) we expect the D54250WYK barebones to retail for. While not cheap, it certainly appears a good value if the Haswell iteration of the NUC can deliver the perfect client HTPC.

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.

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