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Editor's Note July 27, 2010: Our performance update with a fresh unit as supplied by Astone has been appended to the bottom of this review. As the functional details of the unit are still the same, our comments on the design and feature set remain as they were.
We've commented before that most small media player boxes all tend to look a bit similar. In the Astone Media Gear AP-360T's case, we feel we've hit a tipping point. If it wasn't for the Astone logo on the front of this bleak black box, we wouldn't be able to tell you who made it, or why, but we'd have a pretty good guess as to what it did. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the epitome of simple but dull design. There's a blue light on the front to indicate that it's on, type A and B USB ports on the front for connecting up remote storage, and component, composite, HDMI, Ethernet, USB A and SPDIF and optical audio-out on the rear.
The Astone Media Gear AP-360T's remote control looks fairly generic and busy, but the layout works well enough. The remote control itself is another matter, which we'll address a little further on.
The AP-360T joins that rapidly growing army of little black boxes that tick multiple boxes in any survey of what your home AV gear can do. It's a digital set-top box with a single tuner. By adding a hard drive to it, it becomes a PVR. Either via an optional Wi-Fi dongle or via direct Ethernet connection it'll handle media playback from any UPnP source. Via USB you can play back directly connected files, or use a B type USB cable to connect to your PC for the same task. It's worth noting that you can't run both front USB connections at once.
In terms of media playback performance, the AP-360T supports MPEG-1 (DAT/MPG/MPEG), MPEG-2 (MPG/MPEG/VOB/ISO/IFO/TS/TP) MPEG-4 (MP4/AVI/MOV), DivX 3/4/5/6, XviD (AVI/MKV) H.264 AVC (TS/AVI/MKV/MOV) VC-1 (TS/AVI/MKV/WMV), WMV 9 (WMV), Real Video HD 8/9/10 (RM/RMVB) and FLV (FLV) video files at up to 1080p quality.
Performance: Original test unit
Setting up the review model of the AP-360T was a little more involved than most PVR solutions, because the unit we got came without any onboard storage. The price quoted above includes a 1TB drive, but it's interesting to note that the full colour instructions supplied with the AP-360T make upgrading or installing a drive quite a painless procedure. Even those who've never installed a hard drive before should manage that with a minimum of stress.
That's because the stress with the AP-360T is almost entirely concentrated on the user experience. Based on our testing, to say it's unstable might be something of an understatement. We quickly settled in to a routine of crashes, frustrating menu glitches, crashes, missed EPG recordings, crashes and, just in case we forget to mention it, crashes.
Special mention has to be made of the Astone Media Gear AP-360T's remote control. Not because of the layout of the remote, which is easy enough to learn. Not because of the fact that it obviously shared a lot of remote codes with other gadgets in our lab, which randomly switched on and off when certain buttons were pressed, because that's not exactly the AP-360T's fault. No, we'll make mention of the remote control because it's quite insane, especially on the current firmware. Any time we pressed the "up" button on our review sample, it would dump us in a folder view menu — the same folder view menu — irrespective of what we were doing. Thankfully most of the menu commands scroll from bottom to top, so it was feasible to just use the down button. It doesn't stop there, however. Coming out of a fast forward or rewind from a pre-recorded file brings up an onscreen menu, and the only way to back out of that to a clear picture is to go into a further sub-menu. On more than one occasion, trying to pause live TV rebooted the entire unit and wiped all channel listings and timer settings.