Streaming media from a PC to a TV in the past has generally been left to the elaborate setups of geeky home entertainment enthusiasts. While most new PCs and laptops come with S-Video or DVI ports that are capable of getting video out to your television, they often require a trail of cables running from your study to the living room. If you're have a hoard of movies stored on your PC, a device that can stream the content wirelessly from your hard drive to your TV could be appealing. While media centre PCs are built for this purpose, the cost of upgrading is prohibitive. This is where Buffalo's AU$449 DVD player and network media receiver can be put to good use.
Out of the box, the LinkTheater gives no real hint of its capabilities -- it simply looks like a shiny, silver DVD player, although at 42 x 5 cm x 26cm, there are much slimmer players on the market. On the front on the unit are all the controls you'd expect a DVD player to have: power, eject, play, forward, rewind and stop. Over on the right, however, is a USB 2.0 port, giving us the first glimpse that the LinkTheater isn't your average DVD player.
Around the rear we find composite video and audio outputs, S-Video and component video connections. Optical and coaxial digital audio is onboard but unfortunately there are no DVI or HDMI ports for digital video. Next to these is a single Ethernet RJ-45 jack; the Wi-Fi antenna must be somewhere under the hood as not a peep of it can be seen on the outside.
Aside from the remote control, which looks a bit dated compared to the stylish finish of the LinkTheater, the box contains a composite A/V cable, Ethernet cable, installation manual and a software CD containing the file server software to be installed on any PCs from which you wish to stream media.
At its core, the LinkTheater is a DVD player, and an admirable one at that. It supports DVD+/-RW discs, Video-CDs, SVCDs, CD-Rs and JPEG photo discs.
The vast assortment of file formats it is capable of playing back, via disc, USB or over the network, include MPEG, AVI, DivX, XviD, ASF, MP4 and WMV. The LinkTheater is also one of the only wireless media players we've seen that supports 720p and 1080i high-definition video stored in WMV HD and DivX HD files, but for this you'll need a HDTV capable of displaying these resolutions.
While you're going to get the best performance from an Ethernet connection running at 10 or 100Mbps, the Link Theater also supports up to 54Mbps throughput on 802.11g, and 11Mbps on 802.11b Wi-Fi networks (real world speeds are about half this).
The USB interface on the front of the LinkTheater is compatible with devices such as portable hard drives, digital cameras, iPods, memory keys and card readers. The LinkTheater also integrates with Buffalo TerraStation devices on your network.
Before switching on our review unit, we installed the latest version of Buffalo's LinkTheater software on our test PC. After selecting the folder where we store our Music, Video and Photos, configuration on the PC end was complete. Network setup is also straightforward: select wired or wireless, in the latter case, you'll also need to enter the SSID if your home Wi-Fi network is set not to broadcast. If using WEP security, the key will also need to be entered. Unfortunately, WPA security is not supported. Owners of Buffalo routers with AOSS technology are able to press the AOSS setup button on both devices to bypass manual configuration. Mac OS X and Windows operating systems are supported.
The LinkTheater takes longer to boot than regular DVD players but you should be able to browse files stored on your PC in under 30 seconds -- although there is another slight lag after selecting a video until it starts playing. During our test, we found the firmware on the LinkTheater a little bit shaky. While browsing the menu or looking at files in various folders using the remote control, the system occasionally locked up and would not respond until it was rebooted. High-speed fast-forward and rewind was also a let down, with the LinkTheater struggling to maintain fast scanning through video.
Internet-based services such as an RSS directory containing news and entertainment feeds are accessible with the remote. Jazz, rock and pop Internet radio stations can be streamed to the LinkTheatre and there is a Web browser that can load bookmarks found in IE or Firefox on your PC.
According to Buffalo, a firmware upgrade is on its way, and additional software upgrades for the LinkTheater include more codec support, more DRM-protected content playback, direct downloading/streaming of content through the unit, third-party custom applications, such as iTunes Music Store Top 10. Existing plug-ins, including a Flikr photo sharing, can be found on Buffalo's Web site. To play Windows-based DRM protected content from you PC, Windows Media Connect needs to be installed first.
If Buffalo makes the LinkTheater's firmware more stable, we'd have no problems recommending it. That said, crashes only happened when we were browsing content, not during playback. But this probably isn't enough of an issue to deter an audience set on getting downloaded DivX content onto their TV.
There are a handful of similar products available at the moment such as D-Link's AU$399 MediaLounge DSM-320 wireless player, but this unit also fell over during our performance tests. Zensonic is also set to launch its Z500 wireless media player in December, and demonstrations we've been given on pre-production units look promising.