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Buffalo LinkTheater PC-P4LWAG review: Buffalo LinkTheater PC-P4LWAG

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MSRP: $409.99

The Good Streams movies, music, and photos using wireless 802.11g or wired Ethernet; handles DRM-protected WMAs; reliable wireless streaming performance; capable of outputting multichannel Dolby Digital sound; outputs video and images at resolutions up to 720p.

The Bad No HDMI or DVI output; no 802.11n Wi-Fi; doesn't support Rhapsody or iTunes-purchased songs, nor even non-DRM iTunes tracks; can't play Internet radio streams without using PC as a conduit; its interface is sluggish, sometimes painfully slow; the unit doesn't have rotate or zoom capabilities for digital images and it can't create on-the-fly music playlists; not Mac compatible.

The Bottom Line Although it offers reliable streaming, the Buffalo LinkTheater Wireless-A&G PC-P4LWAG is ultimately hampered by its sluggish navigation, limited feature set, and other quirks.

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6.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6

Network media players are taking off as a product category--thanks to Apple TV--but plenty of people are still put off by price tags that start at $300. The Buffalo LinkTheater Wireless-A&G (also known as the P4LWAG) comes in at a price that undercuts many of its competitors ($250 list, as low as $200 online), and it achieves this by dropping some cutting-edge features--there's no HDMI, DVI, 802.11n, or even Mac support. Even still, there's room for a basic, inexpensive network media player and the omissions might be acceptable if the rest of everything else ran smoothly. Unfortunately, we feel the sluggish interface really hampers the LinkTheater's usability as a network media player. To be fair, this is a 2006 model, and there are definitely plenty of things to like about the LinkTheater--its DLNA compatibility, ability to stream from networked attached storage, exceptionally stable wireless performance, and extensive (but not quite comprehensive) file format support. And while we can't help but think that most users would be better off spending the extra for the Apple TV or even the Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD, the LinkTheater might still have a niche for Windows users who can put up with the sluggish interface, want stable streaming, and don't want to spend a lot of dough.

With dimensions of 1.85 inches tall by 11.02 inches wide by 4.88 inches deep, the LinkTheater Wireless-A&G has a mini-component size and shape. As a result, you can't stack full-size home theater gear on top of it. With the exception of a power button, the unit doesn't have any front-panel controls, nor does it have a front-panel display aside from a translucent segment of the faceplate through which Power/Standby and Link Status indicators shine. This is a common design for digital media receivers, and it's not problematic, because the unit is easily configured and commanded with the remote control and TV-based user interface--but make sure you don't lose the remote. We understand why Buffalo put the USB 2.0 port on the front panel: it makes it quick and easy to swap out devices such as USB flash drives. But the addition of a rear-panel USB port would've enabled keeping a dedicated USB hard drive more neatly connected.

A USB port up front is nice for quick flash drive hookups.

Around back, the LinkTheater Wireless-A&G has dual Wi-Fi antennas, which may contribute to its solid wireless streaming performance. Its assortment of wireless technologies includes 802.11a, g, and b, but not 802.11n, a higher-performance standard for which several digital media receiver manufacturers, including Buffalo, have announced upcoming support--and Apple TV already supports it.

The exact file navigation and playback menus you see in the user interface depend on the PC-based server application the LinkTheater is using. You can browse menus, navigate to different screens, and even hop over to a different server application's menus without interrupting playback, which is a definite plus. We also were pleased with the LinkTheater's ability to pick up on tag information; we had no problem browsing by artist or album.

On the negative side, the unit often froze up for a few seconds while a new screen was loading, particularly when we attempted to scroll long media file lists. The sluggishness in browsing files is almost a deal breaker--there would be times when we'd try to access our music files, and it would take close to a minute before the next screen came up. We didn't experience any similar issues with the Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD or Apple TV in the exact same configuration, so we're confident it's not an issue with our Belkin N1 wireless router or Dell laptop. Another quip: you can't zoom or rotate digital images. We should also note that navigation is strictly by directory when using a USB-connected device as the media source.

The LinkTheater's remote is mostly intuitive, but a bit cluttered.

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