As the DVD player market continues to grow, manufacturers are looking to add more functionality to their disc spinners. From video upscaling machines to suit the latest flat-screen TVs, to , it seems that the latest craze in DVD fashions is going to be home network integration. It's a concept pioneered by Danish manufacturer KiSS, and now PC component manufacturer Buffalo wants a piece of the action.
The company's first entry in the AV market is the LinkTheater, a box that looks just like any other DVD player out there -- except that it's packing a network port on the rear. Using this connection, or the internal wireless card, the Buffalo can stream music, video and photos from a home network and play them back through your TV. If you find the setup of a home network prohibitively technical, you can keep it simple and play these same files from recordable discs or USB via the front panel. If you warm to this concept, you should look at buying a Media Center PC, but as the LinkTheater is high-definition compatible and very modestly priced, it comes recommended for PC types who want to upgrade their AV setup.
Buffalo's LinkTheater is identical in size and form to nearly every DVD player on the market, with a DVD tray on the front and all connectivity housed on the rear. There are a couple of other additions that are small enough to go unnoticed to the untrained eye -- a USB socket on the front and a network port on the rear. The other big feature is even more covert and that's the integrated wireless card that's hidden inside the box. This lets the LinkTheater jump straight onto the airwaves to grab your media files -- and it's a super-fast 802.11g (54MBps) card too.
There are a few things that stand out on the LinkTheater and they're a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good: the box has a set of component video outputs on the rear, meaning it can send high-definition video to your flat-screen TV or projector. The bad: the inclusion of these component video has been at the cost of standard Scart connectivity. The ugly: when the designers at Buffalo had packed all their cool technology and features into the LinkTheater, they must have headed down the pub and left the menu system to the work-experience kid.
Scart is the de facto video standard in the UK and this is the first DVD player we've seen that doesn't include a Scart output. Even those cheap Korean companies you've never heard of manage to get their heads around SCART. If you've got a regular old CRT and you want to use the box, you'll be forced to go with S-video -- not a completely unusable video standard, but certainly not up to the quality of RGB Scart. And to top it off, Buffalo brings some pioneering new functions to the market, then hides them under the world's most unintuitive and ugly menu system.
However, the player is geared up for a proper AV setup when it comes to sound. There are digital outputs (coaxial and optical) and stereo outputs for those yet to jump up from analogue. Bear in mind that it doesn't support DTS though.
The remote control isn't atrocious, but it falls way short of the perfection reached by Sony and Panasonic of late. It has been custom designed to cater for all the functions unique to the device, but it never feels like you've got complete control. You'll certainly need the patience of a saint when you're inputting the 14-character WEP key for your wireless network, but more on this later.
With support for DivX, DivX High Definition, Xvid, Windows Media Video/Audio, MP3 and JPEG, the LinkTheater says to the PC, 'Anything you can do, I can do better.' Indeed, we were flabbergasted to see that the box could play back high-definition DivX files without dropping frames -- the Toshiba Portégé laptops that we use can't manage that.
Apple Macintosh owners will be the first to spot the box's omission of AAC and QuickTime support, and they'll be disappointed to learn that the box has no support for Mac OS systems at all. You'll need to be running Microsoft Windows 98SE or above, but bear in mind that you can connect your devices directly to the LinkTheater via USB. The , Pentax Optio S5z and the Sony PSP were all recognised by the host machine, but true to form, all Apple iPods refused to share the music held within (it's all locked away in the otherwise lovely iTunes).
Making the LinkTheater work with your network can be a challenge, depending on your level of experience. Wired connectivity offers faster speeds and more reliability, but as wireless is so much sexier, we decided to start there. Connecting up to our office network might not be a real-world situation, but we thought it would be cool to see it in action with access to so many different computers. It proved about as much fun as being trapped in a small cage with the world's deadliest animals. When we finally connected to the wireless network, it was a genuine accident.
We decided to upgrade the machine's firmware before testing anything else, and sure enough the box found an update online and proceeded to download it. Helpfully, the update wiped all the settings that we'd carefully spent the last half an hour researching and entering -- including a 14-digit wireless network key that had to be typed out using a mobile phone-style input system, like text messaging before predictive text arrived. It was an act of physical endurance and patience that only competitors in the world domino rally championship could possibly relate to.
We suspect that the target audience for the LinkTheater will forgive it for such foibles, and to be honest we did, once it was all set up correctly. After all, anyone who will pay the premium for this player is likely to have a modicum of technological knowledge. Heck, if that's you, you might even enjoy all this tinkering, especially once you see how comprehensive the system is in full swing. The menu system isn't good looking, but anyone used to Microsoft Windows will be able to pick it up. It's confusing because the same rules of navigation for DVD don't apply to DivX files -- pressing the Menu button during playback does nothing, so instead you have to press stop and lose your place in the film.
The LinkTheater's video upscaling capability will be the feature that will attract most cooing from the AV sect. For anyone who missed our Denon DVD-2910 review, upscaling is a premium feature that's been introduced to help shorten the gap between the low-resolution DVD format (576 horizontal lines of resolution) and HD flat-screen TVs (720 horizontal lines or above). We wouldn't compare the LinkTheater to the Denon DVD-2910 on picture quality, but there is a big jump in quality when you use upscaling. There would have been an even bigger jump had Buffalo included HDMI or DVI digital video out, but this might be one wish too far. The AV hardcore will be apoplectic at the news of no DTS support on the player, which is even more unbelievable than the lack of Scart output.
So, despite some ups and downs, we were impressed with the LinkTheater. However, there's obviously still room for improvement. It would have been nice to see a hard drive -- a similar device from KiSS has an 80GB drive for recording television and you can even send the recorded programmes to your computer for editing. The absence of a hard drive means the LinkTheater is cheaper, but also prevents it from ticking all the boxes on the geek wish list.
The LinkTheater will output in either 720p or 1080i resolution, matching the resolution of your flat screen and interpolating the video stream to fit. If you're watching a DivX HD clip, the results are very good, and standard DVDs are serviceable as well. It's a shame that there are only four DivX HD clips available on the site at the time of writing, and it doesn't look like it will become a major force in HD technology in the way that MPEG4 and Windows Media Video 9 have. It's one of the few ways to see HD in action though, way ahead of Blu-ray and Sky HD in 2006.
When you're upscaling video and using the component outputs, low resolution DivX content looks good too. We converted a DVD of comedy cartoon classic Family Guy in Dr. DivX with a horizontal resolution of 384 lines, and it was very detailed, considering the compression. Audio performance was also good, but the lack of DTS support is fatal.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide