ADS Tech Media-Link review: ADS Tech Media-Link
Digital media receivers are becoming more HD-friendly. Consider the ADS Tech Media-Link, which sports a DVI port for an all-digital connection to an HDTV. Is it the best choice to stream your digital media? Read the full review for the answer.
ADS Tech's Media-Link wirelessly streams audio, video, and image files from your PC to your home entertainment system and has a built-in Web browser. Unlike some recently upgraded competitors, it doesn't support Rhapsody, a leading on-demand streaming music service, and can't play rights-managed music purchased from online music stores (Apple's iTunes Music Store, Napster, Musicmatch, and the like). But even if you don't care about those features, you can't get around the Media-Link's ($249) poor usability.
Some digital media receivers resemble home-theater gear, while others, such as the Media-Link, are styled more like a computer peripheral. Measuring in at 2 by 11.5 by 6.5 inches (HWD), the Media-Link is about the size of a typical network router. Because it has neither front-panel controls nor a text display, you have to switch on the TV and use the remote to navigate the interface. A recessed, translucent plastic strip spans the width of the front panel, masking network and power status indicators. The PCMCIA 802.11g wireless networking card that's supplied with the unit protrudes about one inch from the side panel.
Around back are optical and coaxial digital audio outputs as well as the requisite analog audio outputs. In addition to composite and S-Video ports, the unit has high-quality component and DVI jacks capable of outputting 480p video as well as 720p and 1080i resolutions for compatible HDTVs.
As long as you don't care about playing music purchased on the Internet or Windows Media Video files (WMV), the Media-Link's format support should be adequate. It plays MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and DivX video files; MP3, AC3, WAV, and non-rights-managed WMA and AAC audio files; and JPEG, BMP, GIF, and PNG image files. Only iTunes playlists are compatible--assuming, of course, they're composed of self-ripped, non-DRM songs.
Currently, just a few competing digital media receivers (such as the D-Link DSM-320D and Roku's audio-only SoundBridge line) can play WMA files purchased on the Net. Meanwhile, only the Apple AirPort Express can play AAC files procured from the iTunes Music Store. Numerous models support Rhapsody.
The Media-Link can stream files from the hard drive of any networked PC that's running the Media-Link server application. The Media-Link server doesn't have a scanning utility to automatically track down files that aren't in obvious locations. Although you can manually configure the server software to look in multiple locations for music and video files, there's no such option for image files.
Using the Media-Link PC software, you can preconfigure musical accompaniment for photo slide shows, but you can't do it with the remote control. What's more, you can't add more Internet radio stations to the approximately 100 that are preprogrammed by ADS Tech. Compounding any confusion you might have about the Media-Link's capabilities, the user guide covers only setup and installation. ADS Tech says a quick-start guide covering usage will be available soon.
Usability flaws abound. For instance, if you fire up a music track, then browse to another screen, playback stops. This annoying limitation prevents you from, say, playing music while browsing your photo collection. The remote's Home button conveniently shortcuts to the device's main menu, but it's inconveniently disabled whenever playback is active. Unlike competing devices, the remote doesn't have buttons that go directly to the main music, video, and photo library screens. And forget about using the remote's four-way keypad to freely and intuitively navigate the device's menu levels. It just doesn't work that way.
During testing, the Media-Link did a respectable job of streaming audio, video, and image files. Music tracks such as the Commodores' "Brick House" sounded clear and powerful even through the analog outputs. DivX and MPEG-2 video files streamed smoothly for the most part and looked good with the unit connected to our HDTV. Web browsing worked OK for light usage; the unit automatically imported our Internet Explorer bookmarks, which was a godsend, because navigating the Web with a remote control isn't easy. (ADS Tech doesn't offer an optional keyboard.)
In the final analysis, the Media-Link is a relatively stable product that's hobbled by a poorly implemented and comparatively incomplete feature set. The Media-Link appears to be loosely based on the same engine as Actiontec's Wireless Digital Media Player and FIA's On3, neither of which fared well in testing. Hopefully, extensive firmware upgrades will improve this product in the future.