File compatibility and media support
Impressively enough, the Digital Entertainer Elite can handle an extraordinary amount of media file types. For video, you can stream and play AVI, DivX, Xvid, WMV, MOV, M4V, VOB, MPG, MP1, MP2, MP4, ISO, IFO, MKV, TS, M2TS, and PS files. On the audio side of things, you've got MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC, FLAC, WMA-Pro, M4A, M4P, AC3, DTS Passthrough, PCM, LPCM, and AIFF. The Elite can display JPEG, BMP, PNG, and TIFF photo files and even read various playlist file formats including WPL, ASX, WAX, WVX, PLS, M3U, and RMP. With this kind of universal compatibility, the Elite is one of the most tolerant media players we've seen across the board. Throughout our entire format testing, the Elite successfully played every file format we threw at it, including ripped DVDs.
As always, the caveat is DRM files--you won't have luck with anything that's copy-protected (such as videos purchased from the iTunes Store). Likewise, online video displayed via Flash won't be viewable on the Digital Entertainer Elite. (The exception is sites such as YouTube, which make a non-Flash feed available.)
You also won't get access to any of the streaming-video services (with the exception of YouTube) that are becoming popular on home video devices, like Netflix or Amazon Video On Demand. Alternative products, like game consoles and Blu-ray players, often offer these features, although they lack the EVA9150's broad file format support. Which is right for you will come down to a matter of taste; the Digital Entertainer Elite is really for the do-it-yourself crowd, while the other devices cater to those willing to pay a little more for the ease of convenience.
Overall performance with the Digital Entertainer Elite was solid. We conducted all of our testing over an 802.11n network and found there to be little-to-no difference in picture quality when streaming wirelessly or with a wired connection. We certainly couldn't say this about other networked-media devices we've tested. During our week of testing, we did run into a few crashes, however, but nothing fatal to the point of having to completely redo our configuration; a simple reboot seemed to set the Elite right.
The Elite's impressive feature set aside, we're still on the fence about the included 500 GB hard drive. While it's certainly a welcome addition, we wonder if the omission of the drive could reduce the overall price. Netgear claims the hard drive allows for quicker buffering of streaming media, and while that's definitely an advantage, we wish the company left that option to the consumer. Maybe chop $100 off the price and then let there be room to bring your own storage device. Surely people who own something like a network storage device will be turned off by the fact that the Elite ships with a large drive. That being said, such a device will work with the Elite as well as long as it's connected to the same network.
You can also use the 500GB for personal storage. You can direct the Elite to transfer media to the drive from the user interface, or you can copy media via a network-connected computer. The drive is user-replaceable, with support for up to 1 terabyte of storage (any standard SATA 3.5-inch desktop hard drive should suffice).
Minor glitches and a few crashes aside, the feature set and enormous compatibility found with the Digital Entertainer Elite gives it a huge leg up over competing models. The fact that it doesn't require Windows Media Center is a big advantage and its easy-to-use interface is a really big selling point.
Priced at $400, it's the most expensive network-connected streamer of the ones we've tested and for that price you may just want to opt for something like a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, both of which offer decent-to-impressive media features (plus disc-based movie playback and gaming). Likewise, anyone whose digital world revolves around the iTunes Store should instead opt for the Apple TV, which offers native compatibility with iTunes-purchased movies and TV shows.
However, if you're looking for any easy way to stream media off your network in addition to some Internet content, the Digital Elite Entertainer should have you covered.