When we got our D-Link DSM-330, we were genuinely excited. We've long anticipated that media streamers would be a useful thing to have in the home, especially if you have a lot of downloaded content that you'd like to watch away from your PC.
For £130, the DSM-330 carries great promise. For a start it can play Xvid and DivX files, which opens up a lot of possibilities for files from the Internet. It is also reasonably cheap, unencumbered by the expensive -- and for the most part unnecessary -- materials used in Apple TV. Would it fulfill its promise?
The DSM-330 is the tofu of media streamers. While it completely lacks the pizzazz of Apple TV, its squat grey box with a single rear Wi-Fi antenna is small, unobtrusive and functional.
At the front, the DSM-330 continues to keep things simple with a single USB socket and a power button. There's also a light that tells you when it's on, and two others that monitor network traffic -- one for wireless, the other for Ethernet. Regretfully, these lights flicker when you are streaming content, which is ridiculous as it only distracts you while you're using it to watching TV.
If you hunt around the back, you'll find Ethernet, Scart, composite video, S-Video and HDMI sockets. You'll also discover analogue audio outputs, and coaxial and optical digital audio outputs. This treasure trove of connections is exceptional, and means this product is suitable for use with virtually all TVs, no matter how old.
The remote control rounds out this basic but functional package with its useful buttons and comfortable grip. From an overall design perspective, the D-Link may not be flashy, but it's making all the right moves.
At £130, there must be some sort of catch, right? Sort of. The reason for the the D-Link DSM-330's low price is that it doesn't actually handle decoding video. It also doesn't have a built-in hard drive, which would obviously drive -- no pun intended -- up the cost.
Essentially, you're getting an extender for your PC. Because of this, you must run a special piece of software on your PC to make it do anything. This is where the first problem lies, because by relying on the PC to decode video means you need a really fast PC to do so, especially when it's HD video.
The software you need is called 'DivX Connected', and you can download it from the DivX Web site, but finding a link was about as easy as finding a specific grain of sand on a beach when there's a strong wind. Once you get it, it's pretty easy to use and requires very little configuration. All you really need to do is point it towards your photo, audio and video collections.
To test the D-Link DSM-330, we tried two different machines. One was an old Athlon 3200+ with 1GB of RAM with Windows XP as the operating system. The other was a far newer 3GHz, Intel Core 2 Duo with 2GB of RAM with Vista. Try as we might, we couldn't get the DivX Connected software to work on the XP machine. It would install okay, but adding folders resulted in nothing showing up on the D-Link, and the software would forget the folders instantly. Sand, beach, wind -- frustrating. Luckily, the newer Vista machine was happier to cooperate.
Once you have the software installed and the box plugged into your TV, it should find your network. Obviously, a wired connection is easiest, but wireless works fine, too. Indeed, it works a sight better than it does on the Apple TV, which we've never been able to persuade to work with a secure, hidden network.
If you can get off that beach and into the water, it's all really simple. The DSM-330 finds all the media you share via the connected software. It won't accept newer file containers like Matroska (.mkv and .mka) but presumably, this could be fixed with a simple software update.
However, on our Sony 26-inch HD-ready TV with the DSM-330 connected via HDMI, we did notice one important problem. The menu was distorted on the left hand side of the screen. This affected the last column of video icons, and thus prevented us from seeing what those clips were. Funnily, we didn't have this problem when we hooked the machine up to a 4:3 CRT TV from the mid-80s.
Fortunately, we didn't have any problems using either Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet. Wi-Fi won't be able to send HD material, but then you probably won't have much of that anyway. If you did, there's a chance the Connected software won't be able to do anything with it. The DSM-330 doesn't appear to have a buffer, so although video starts playing instantly, if the Wi-Fi gets disrupted, playback will stutter.
When it comes to picture and sound quality we have no complaints. The box can output up to 1080i, but most of the content you'll actually play on it will be lower quality than that. We found on our old CRT TV that the picture looked as good as broadcast TV from our Freeview box.
Sound was good, too. If you hook it up to your 5.1 amp, you might be able to tease 5.1-surround sound out of some files. On most files, this isn't usually present in any form other than Dolby Pro Logic. Still, that's worth having if you have the equipment to decode it.
There are lots of things we think are really cool about the D-Link DSM-330. It's a good idea, but it's a shame you need to have your PC on to use it, as it wastes power. For watching downloaded material on your TV -- in another room -- it does work pretty well.
You could get an Xbox 360 and use it as a media centre extender, but that solution won't work for everyone, and can be somewhat complicated to get working properly. If you want a media streamer at this price, you'll struggle to find much better.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday