Reviews

Nov 25 2014

Review - Perfect Home Theater (PHT) T-ITX-6: Thin-ITX HTPC Chassis

Perfect Home Theater (PHT) T-ITX-6: Thin-ITX HTPC Chassis

There are many different types of home theater PC (HTPC) enclosures; with most falling somewhere in the spectrum between a throw-everything-including-a-big-O’-GPU-in-the-box and the small-silent-discrete varieties. Supporting only Thin-ITX motherboards the $160 Perfect Home Theater (PHT) T-ITX-6 is firmly located in the latter category. That’s not to say that expansion is strictly limited to just an optical disc drive (ODD) however, with the chassis supporting one low-profile PCIe and up to three 3.5” hard drives, or a Slim-line ODD, two 3.5” and one 2.5” storage devices. With such a sleek aluminum profile there must be some compromise required, let’s dig in and find it.

Nov 18 2014

Review - Thecus N2560 2-Drive NAS System

Back in April, we took a look at the 5-Bay NAS N5550 from Thecus, which was one of their first NAS units including an HDMI port to allow hybrid functionality by combining the reliability of a NAS with some of the features of a dedicated HTPC (home theater PC).  With conventional hard drives reaching 6TB these days, support for five disks is unnecessary for many buyers , so Thecus has released a two-bay version of their NAS, the N2560. Available in white, this two drive NAS also includes an HDMI port but has a much smaller footprint, which increases the installation flexibility and reducies the potential for noise pollution, alongside a much more affordable price.

 

Nov 17 2014

Review - D-Link DIR-880L Wireless AC1900 Dual-Band Gigabit Cloud Router

D-Link DIR-880L

It isn’t safe to call it a glut, but we are increasingly spoiled for choice when it comes to 802.11AC routers. Choice is never a bad thing so it was great to see D-Link bringing an AC1900 (1300Mbps 5GHz + 600Mbps 2.4GHz) entrant, the DIR-880L, into the fray. At $175 street ($209 SRP) this wireless router/bridge is $10-$20 cheaper than its rivals from the other major networking OEMs, but offers almost exactly the same features set: 1GHz dual-core Broadcom (BCM4708A) SOC, attached storage via USB 2.0/3.0, three stream 802.11AC, four (LAN) + one (WAN) Gigabit Ethernet. If it can also match the stability and performance, D-Link will have a winner on their hands.

Oct 13 2014

Review - D-Link Dual Band AC1200 802.11AC (DAP-1650) Gigabit Range Extender

D-Link DAP-1650 AC1200

For me, the most interesting thing about 802.11AC Wi-Fi comes down to bandwidth. While it can’t quite deliver the same speed and bullet-proof reliability as a full Cat6 wired installation, its capability comes at a fraction of the cost and much greater flexibility; dropping in an AC1750+ router + media bridge enables the same kind of "heavy" media consumption possibilities without the hassle of running wire. A few months ago, while still a cheaper alternative, it still wasn’t exactly "cheap" to add this capability to your home – with most vendors only offering run-a-second-router-as-a-bridge solutions. Fortunately, as the AC market has matured so has the supporting ecosystem, bringing two-stream "AC1200" (867Mbps 5GHz + 300Mbps 2.4GHz) bridges into play. Offering a four Gigabit Ethernet 802.11AC Wi-Fi Extender (bridge) the D-Link’s DAP-1650 is not alone in this group, but at $90 it is one of the most affordable. 

Oct 05 2014

Review - Ditter U20 Media Player

Ditter U20

Ditter is a company you’ve probably never heard of located in Shenzhen China, the ultimate home of most electronics. If you google the brand however, you’ll find a lot of forum chatter surrounding their affordable line of XBMC-compatible media players available for sale from a number of sources. We received the U20 model—which uses an Allwinner A20 dual core 1.2GHz CPU and have been putting it through the paces. Available for just under $50, this tiny box is similar in footprint to an AppleTV, and touts a world of features at a fraction of the cost. In this review, we will dig deeper to see if all the hype lives up to the performance.

Sep 07 2014

Review - D-Link Dual Band 750Mbps 802.11AC (DAP-1520) Wireless Extender

D-Link DAP-1520 AC750

Even with a fancy new 802.11AC Wi-Fi router, it is almost impossible to avoid having a few dead spots in a house. Unfortunately, those corners where the wireless does not quite reach reliably also makes a great place to put a bean bag chair for some casual web browsing or over-the-top (OTT) media consumption. Now that this market has matured with a myriad of AC1750 and AC1900 devices, we are also starting to see more devices like the $60 single stream D-Link Wireless AC750 Range Extender (DAP-1520) which promises to fix this problem without a significant cash outlay.

Aug 08 2014

Review - Simple.Tv and Tablo - Showdown of Free Over the Air TV DVRs

Utilizing over the Air (OTA) broadcast television has been growing in popularity recently as the move towards “cord cutting” and lowering utility bills has increased in importance. For Home Theater PC (HTPC) users, the options were always plentiful and simple—toss an ATSC or SiliconDust networked tuner card into your computer, connect it to an antenna, and voila—free high definition television. OTA provides plenty of free content with channels such as NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and more depending on how close to the antennas the home is in your city. For users without an HTPC however, the choices have been somewhat limited to a select few costly DVR’s such as TiVo, the now extinct Boxee OTA cloud based DVR, or connecting just their televisions directly but not having the ability to record or timeshift. Simple.TV’s Simple.TV 2 powered by SiliconDust and Nuvyyo’s Tablo hope to change this ecosystem by providing dual tuner DVR capabilities with a different pricing technique. When we received both units within a week of each other so it seemed natural to pit them against each other in a head to head evaluation—may the best network enabled OTA DVR win.

SimpleTV vs Tablo

Overview

Aug 05 2014

Review - BenQ W7500 Projector Review

The BenQ W7500 projector is a work of art, or should I say can display any work of art; it is a beautiful projector and picture. This projector is built for your house and gets you man[or woman]-cave ready for sports, movies or gaming. Forget the theory that projectors should be for occasional use--you will want to use this projector every day. It has crystal clear picture on any wall or screen with 60000:1 Ultra High Contrast Ratio. With dual HDMI connections, VGA, RGB (Component), S-Video, Composite (RCA), USB, 12Volt DC, and RS-232 control it provides enough inputs for most installations. The W7500 is designed to give you the biggest and best picture at close proximity, other than short throw projectors, than many of the other projectors in this market. So sit back and enjoy the show in 2D or 3D with this 1080p DLP projector, with a retail price of $2799, check out the review below to see if this top of the line home projector is coming to your house following this review. 

BenQ W7500 Front Left PR Shot

Jul 29 2014

Review - Perfect Home Theater (PHT) FLS-8 Silent Chassis

There are a number of factors to consider when searching for an HTPC chassis--size, heat dissipation, noise level, materials, and construction are just a few--and the Perfect Home Theater (PHT) FLS-8 performs incredibly well in all of these categories. But is it truly “perfect”? Read on to find out.

Jul 28 2014

Review - Fractal Design Node 804 Cube Case

It was nearly a full year ago that we reviewed the Fractal Design Node 304 small form factor cube case, and boy did we like it—it offered a wealth of options packed inside a tiny chassis. The size of it was one of the few gripes, where due to the overall size of the cube it made managing items within it difficult. With the introduction of the Fractal Node 804, they are presenting a significantly larger cube case to answer some the challenges of the small ITX case, as well as broaden the target market for the chassis. While the 304 came in black or white, the 804 only comes in black—which should satisfy the majority of users. At $109, the Fractal Node 804 is $20 more than its predecessor, but seems to bring a lot more to the table.

 Fractal Node 804

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.

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