Once the jewel in the home-theater crown, DVD players have been commoditized to the point that they're now the free gift you get with a new magazine subscription. Plain old DVD players are a dime a dozen--which is why manufacturers are scrambling to repurpose, repackage, and reinvent them in a variety of ways. Why get just a DVD player when you can buy one that records or upconverts to HD resolution? Or maybe one that can also stream video, audio, and image files from your PC to your TV and home stereo system over a wireless network, such as the Buffalo LinkTheater PC-P3LWGDVD? This device plays a vast assortment of formats, including WMV HD and DivX HD high-definition video files. A recently released firmware upgrade even enables the LinkTheater to play protected WMA files, such as those purchased from , , and most other online music stores--with the notable exception of Apple's iTunes. All of these streaming media capabilities are great, but the Buffalo's implementation unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired. Measuring 2 by 10.5 by 4.5 inches, the Buffalo LinkTheater PC-P3LWGDVD can easily be stacked in a rack with other home-theater components. The device's mirrored faceplate looks pretty cool and doesn't attract fingerprints as easily as you might expect. A green text display conveys the device's status, and front-panel transports (play, pause, and so on) make it possible to change tracks or load a disc without grabbing the remote. Although unremarkable in its design, the midsize remote control has a full assortment of buttons to operate all the functions of the DVD player and the digital media receiver.
When you power on the LinkTheater, the first screen you see is the login page. Using the remote's up and down arrow keys in combination with the Enter button, you can select any available source, such as the LinkTheater PC file server, the Windows Media Connect server, or a disc that's loaded in the device's drive. If you select the LinkTheater PC file server, the resulting screen has Video, Music, Photo, and Internet options from which you can make a selection to play the desired PC-based files, browse the Internet, or play Internet radio stations. Video and image files can be navigated by directory on your PC. You can also navigate music files by artist, album, and genre categories, but oddly enough, that's possible only if iTunes is set as your default music library.
During testing, it frequently took a few seconds for new screens to load, and the device occasionally posted error messages, forcing us to start over from the login screen. The navigation system, meanwhile, isn't quite as intuitive as we'd like. For instance, when playback is active, you have to first press Stop before you can use a navigation key. As a result, you can't browse your track library without first stopping music playback. The same limitation means that you can't fire up some music, then select a photo slide show as accompaniment or vice versa; you have to preconfigure musical accompaniment for photo slide shows with the PC server software. The Buffalo LinkTheater PC-P3LWGDVD combines a standard DVD player and a high-def digital media receiver in one unit. In addition to playing CDs and DVDs, it can also stream a variety of digital music, photos, and videos from a PC, the Internet, or even external storage devices, such as Buffalo's own LinkStation series of networked attached storage drives.
The LinkTheater supports a broad variety of video formats, including MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, XviD, and WMV, as well as a handful of other related files. But the LinkTheater's major claim to fame is its ability to play the DivX HD and WMV HD high-definition video formats via its component-video output.
Audio support includes MP3, WMA, protected WMA (downloads, not subscriptions), OGG, and WAV. Additionally, JPEG, GIF, BMP, TIF and PNG image files proved playable in our tests. Although the LinkTheater successfully played Internet radio stations imported from our iTunes library, the device wasn't able to load its own preprogrammed database of stations despite successfully connecting to the Internet.
The LinkTheater works with some--but not all--Universal Plug and Play (UPnP)-compliant PC file server applications. You must run Windows Media Connect (available as a free download) to stream protected WMA audio files or WMV HD video files via the device. We were, for instance, able to successfully stream files from MP3tunes.com's MP3Beamer, a Linux-based computer that runs a UPnP-compliant audio server application. On the other hand, the LinkTheater wasn't able to stream files from MusicMatch Jukebox when that application was running on a connected PC. And while the LinkTheater does stream copy-protected Rhapsody music you've downloaded to your PC's hard drive, it can't interact with the real-time Rhapsody content--that is, streaming music from the provider's central servers. Furthermore, like all other digital media receivers to date, with the exception of , the LinkTheater can't play protected AAC files downloaded from the Music Store. By contrast, GoVideo's latest networked DVD player, the , supports Rhapsody, but it can't play protected WMA files.
Considering the LinkTheater's cavalcade of audio, video, and networking features, its connectivity options, while ample, are a bit of a disappointment. Around back, you'll find the standard DVD outputs: composite, S-Video, and component video, as well as analog stereo and coaxial and optical digital audio outputs. Despite the LinkTheater's ability to output HD digital video files, however, it's missing the HDMI or DVI video outputs that would display such files in their all-digital glory. You'll have to use the component-video output to enjoy those files in high-def. Curiously, the sole digital video output is a D4 connection--which you'll find only on TVs sold in Japan.
In addition to the requisite Ethernet jack, the player has two internal wireless network antennas to interface with your home network, and there's a socket for connecting an external antenna should you need to boost its reception capabilities. Unlike your standard DVD player, it sports a front-panel USB 2.0 port for easy hookups to flash drives, flash media readers, and external hard drives. It can't, however, read photos straight off a camera; connecting our via USB drew a blank. The Buffalo LinkTheater PC-P3LWGDVD was pretty easy to set up; we just connected the unit to our A/V receiver and TV (it works fine with just the TV), loaded the utility CD-ROM into our PC, and installed the included software. To add media files to the LinkTheater's database of playable content, you point the software to the PC-based directories where your video, music, and image files are stored. The software can look in multiple subdirectories for music and video files, but it's limited to just a single directory for image files. Setup would have been more convenient if the software could automatically scour the PC's hard drive to build its library of playable files instead of depending on manual directory selections.
Using the server software on the PC, you can select a directory of photos to display as a slide show whenever music files are playing, or you can choose a music playlist or a directory of tracks to play whenever a photo slide show is active. We would prefer to be able to adjust these slide-show options from the LinkTheater itself, however. The software also imports your Web bookmarks, enabling cumbersome Web browsing with the LinkTheater's remote control.
In terms of 802.11g wireless streaming performance, the LinkTheater was a mixed bag. Playback dropouts were fairly rare, and the unit usually recovered quickly and resumed playback from where it had dropped out. On the other hand, the device frequently took a slow few seconds to load new menu screens, occasionally posting an error message and reverting to the login screen. When the unit streamed audio files from the LinkTheater server software, playback typically started with an irksome crackling sound, but the distortion lasted only a fraction of a second. Music-and-photo slide shows consistently played in tandem without problems. The device did a good job of streaming remote video, including WMV HD and DivX HD files. Your wireless performance mileage may vary depending on a variety of factors such as competing wireless devices in the area and even the construction materials of your home. If you run into serious problems, you can always connect an Ethernet cable to the device's rear-panel port.
As a standard DVD player, the Buffalo LinkTheater gets the job done. Its interlaced (480i) and progressive-scan (480p) video is average; it's good enough to be virtually indistinguishable from that of any other budget DVD player. In CNET Labs' tests, the LinkTheater had problems playing only a handful of our most difficult test discs, such as a nonfinalized DVD-R. Digital photos displayed through the LinkTheater look particularly sharp when shown on a high-def-capable TV that can take advantage of the player's 720p and 1080i output. Strangely, the LinkTheater even passes the DVD video output at these higher resolutions. By accident or design, this is one of the first we've seen that can also upscale DVD video to high-def through component outputs; most upscaling players such as the are limited to DVI or HDMI outputs for HD resolutions.
The LinkTheater's digital media receiver functionality appears to be loosely based on the same engine as , , and the , none of which fared well in testing due to interface flaws. With all of its blemishes, however, the LinkTheater is still the best of the bunch.
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