While the digital audio receiver (DAR) category has seen significant price erosion over the past six months, Prismiq's MediaPlayer is the first DAR we've tested with a sweet-spot combination of value and features. At $249, the MediaPlayer comes with everything you need to stream audio, video, and photo slide shows over a wired network. Better yet, you can easily add compatibility with all three wireless-networking protocols using one of several off-the-shelf PCMCIA cards.
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Thanks to its black, plastic casing and scant dimensions (9 by 1.5 by 5.25 inches), the MediaPlayer will blend easily into most home-entertainment systems. The front panel is vacant except for a few text labels and four status LEDs that beam through the translucent black faceplate.
As the MediaPlayer itself doesn't have any buttons or knobs, you control the unit with either the included remote or the optional $50 wireless keyboard. The remote's Home, Video, Audio, Images, Web, and Chat buttons provide direct access to the TV-based interface's main menus. The analog directional pad and its neighboring Select key facilitate straightforward point-and-click navigation. The keyboard, necessary for surfing the Net and chatting on AOL, duplicates the remote's controls.
The included CD-ROM contains the MediaManager software. We installed it on our PC, launched it, and followed prompts to build its media library. Then we connected the application to our TV and stereo, inserted a Netgear MA401 802.11b PCMCIA card into the slot, plugged in the machine, and turned it on. Like most recent DARs, the MediaPlayer was easy to configure on our DHCP network, in which a router autoassigns IP addresses. After we had completed a few simple onscreen steps, the MediaPlayer was ready for use.
The MediaPlayer handles MP3 and WAV audio files; JPEG images; and video in AVI, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4/DivX, and VOB. It can stream music from Internet radio stations that use the PLS playlist format. Prismiq pledges that firmware and software updates will add support for more file types.
MediaManager deftly organizes your PC's files into video, audio, Internet radio, and image subcategories that are mirrored on the TV interface. The My Custom Info tab allows you to configure the Home screen to display personalized items such as Web bookmarks, local weather reports, and stock quotes. Unlike Escient's Fireball and X10's, the MediaPlayer doesn't retrieve CD artwork from the Net.
In terms of connectivity, the MediaPlayer is well equipped. On the back panel, you get one set of RCA analog-audio outputs and one out each for digital audio (coaxial), S-Video, and composite video. Also at the rear are an Ethernet port and a PCMCIA slot for wireless cards. A firmware update released during our evaluation enabled support for higher-bandwidth 802.11g and 802.11a cards, validating Prismiq's forward-thinking, upgradable design. You can find a list of compatible network cards on &siteid=7&edid=&lop=&destcat=&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Eprismiq%2Ecom%2Fsupport%2Fwireless%2F" target="_blank">Prismiq's Web site.
At $249, the MediaPlayer currently rules the DAR category with its price-to-features ratio. A few models that cost about the same have off-the-shelf wireless capability, but most are without the all-important TV-based user interface and video streaming. For the sake of comparison, check out Cd3o'sand RCA's $99 .
Using the wireless 802.11b card, the MediaPlayer delivered excellent audio streaming. Photo slide shows were similarly smooth. More impressive, however, was the surprisingly good wireless video streaming. Few of our MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 test files suffered jerky playback, so the extra bandwidth you'd get with the 802.11a and 802.11g wireless standards would be more insurance than necessity.
Web surfing was the MediaPlayer's weakest link. Despite our broadband connection, pages loaded more slowly than they do on a PC. And navigation felt a little sluggish, though in fairness, we have the same issue with other Internet set-top boxes, such as Microsoft's WebTV. Using the optional keyboard to chat via AOL Instant Messenger felt more natural.
Our MediaPlayer came preconfigured to stream nine Internet radio stations. To help you find more, the user guide suggests some access sites, but of those, Shoutcast alone offers a large number of usable stations, and Live365 has only selections incompatible with MediaManager. Prismiq says it will fix the problem with the next software update, which should be out in a few weeks. Once you've located the URL of a compatible station, adding it to MediaManager is a drag-and-drop affair, just as with PC-based media files.
The MediaPlayer and the wireless access point can be in different rooms, but the range and the quality will depend on the thickness of your walls, the competing RF signals in your home, and other factors. One wall and about 30 feet separated our unit and transmitter, and we didn't have any problems.