Hands-on testing: Pioneer's new 'Kuro' doles out streaming media

Panasonic, and Sony have done it; now Pioneer's new "Kuro" does network connectivity.

Pioneer's media navigator

Pioneer has followed the current trend of TV media streaming, introducing an Ethernet jack on the back of its latest line of Kuro televisions, the PDP-6020FD and PDP-5020FD; the latter of which we gave high marks. The set is one of a few HDTVs on the market that are certified as DLNA clients, delivering an interoperability framework that promises to allow you to painlessly stream movies, music, and photos over your home network to your attached television, using Windows Media Player 11, TVersity, or some other media streaming software. If you're not interested in using your computer as a media-hub, it might be worthwhile to check out some of these products, which offer similar streaming functionality without the clunky PC tower.

Pioneer's implementation doesn't include as a media-rich experience like Samsung's latest model, the LN46A750, which has built-in Shockwave tutorials, weather reports, and other more advance features, but it still offers a decent DLNA option with a wide array of supported file formats. And for the most part, it works like it's advertised: a bare-bones solution for streaming your media archives. However, many AV devices already offer more advanced streaming capability--don't expect the Pioneer to replace your Xbox 360 or PS3.

Lately we've seen several of the major television manufactures embracing network connectivity in various forms. Sony is testing the waters next fall with the streaming of the film Hancock over its Bravia Internet Video Link. And Panasonic has recently introduced its new line of televisions with Viera Cast, which integrates YouTube and Bloomberg Reports into its interface. As we've experienced, though, not all manufactures offer the most comprehensive implementations; some even include a headache-inducing setup.

Fortunately we were saved the headaches, as our Kuro television recognized our media right away. Sometimes simplicity is best: The set was able to connect to the TVersity and TwonkyMedia server. We used a wired connection and compared our experience with the media browser on the Xbox 360.

Music playback
Use your HDTV as a jukebox in your living room. CNET

For audio, the unit supports WMA, MP3, WAV, M4A, and ACC formats. And it covers the same wide gamut for video: WMA 9, MPEG 1 and 2, H.264 and ASP. It also accepts JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, and TIFF photo formats as well (up to 1,600x1,200 for TIF photos and 3,680x2760 pixels for all other formats).

Right away, we saw that Pioneer went with a bare-bones interface. Browsing for music is done by genre, artist, album, and song--nothing to complain about here expect it would have been nice (and helpful) if Pioneer provided thumbnails for album art. It's not as slick in comparison to the Xbox 360's system as you scan through a large music collection. Audio playback worked as it should for all the supported formats, and we didn't notice any latency from either system.

Photo slide show
Pioneer's new "Kuro" HDTV allows for a slide show of your family photos, or the cosmos. CNET

For pictures, the experience was similar: a Windows-like hierarchy pasted onto a Pioneer's new brushed metal interface, which is also used in the TV's main setup menu. As we scanned through our Hubble photo gallery, we noticed a slight amount of latency; it seemed the JPEGs were being streamed one at a time from our computer and not loaded all at once as one photo album, like is the case with the Xbox 360. When we pressed the tools button, we had the basic zoom, slide show, and video slide-show styles (included: blinds, swirl effect, etc.) Again, there weren't any thumbnails to lighten up the experience for photo galleries; there was just a plain, gray photo icon indicating to you, that yes, you were browsing your photo albums. Each photo displayed a thumbnail though.

As with most DLNA clients we've tested, audio and pictures are usually a simple, no-frills operation for the device to handle. Video, on the other hand, for having so many file formats, codecs, resolutions, and bitrates can be a more problematic affair. Pioneer, like other TV manufacturers, has tried to cover all the bases in terms of what video formats it can process. While that number may look impressive on paper, the Kuro's Home Media Gallery had a hard time streaming video as well as an Xbox 360 or PS3, the two best media clients on the market right now.

Video playback
Disappointingly, Pioneer's Kuro PDP-5020FD doesn't support DivX or Xvid playback. CNET

Yes, the Pioneer was able to stream WMA and MPEG 1 and 2 videos with acceptable video quality, but don't expect a pristine, high-definition picture. In our tests, we were able to play every video codec that Pioneer claims it supports; we were, however, miffed that the instruction manual did not state what video resolutions and bitrates are supported. A 720x576 Lost MPEG-2 trailer played fine; a 1280x720 video of the same content did not. For the average user, testing and retesting what resolutions and codec versions are supported will undoubtedly be an irksome experience. There was, in addition, a very noticeable amount of latency when we selected and played back a video--again, an indication of an underpowered processor. For example: When we played a clip from the film Happy Feet, it took longer on the Pioneer than the Xbox 360 for the stream to initialize. There was always the occasional juddering of the sound and video when we paused and replayed the video. As noted earlier, we tested our video playback over a wired CAT-5 Ethernet network, and our video playback compatibility fared better on the Xbox 360. Of course, it's not completely equitable to compare the built-in media streaming on the PDP-5020FD to a much more powerful device like the Xbox 360, but it does indicate that if you're serious about streaming media, you'll want to get a dedicated streaming device.

It's unfortunate that the Pioneer set doesn't support the DivX or XviD codec (especially for a television at this price point), some of most common video codecs utilized for video playback today. We also weren't able to fast-forward, skip chapters, or rewind our videos on all the videos formats we tested--probably, again like its processing power, because the television lacked the needed buffer memory to allow such functions.

Overall, we liked how Pioneer chose to keep its system clean and simple. We also have to mention that the television comes with a USB input, and you can access audio, photos, and videos stored on a USB memory stick. If you don't have the need for an Xbox 360 or PS3, and you're not into yoga or watching YouTube videos in the family room (the latter which you can already do with TVersity anyway), Pioneer provides a capable solution for family vacation photo slide shows and those endearing low-res video moments starring your pooch.