We've had a look at a number of media streamers recently, most notably Apple TV and the Linksys KiSS 1600. While each has had its own pros and cons, we've yet to see a product that does everything we'd like to see from a media streamer. For a start, no one product has support for all the codecs commonly found online, which means you'll be limited to a specific type of material.
Freecom is a company mostly known for its external hard drives, so it isn't really a surprise that its media streamer, the 350 WLAN, also contains a 500GB hard drive. It's available now for around £185 online. If you're more interested in the streaming than the storage, you can get cheaper 250GB and 400GB variants, for around £120-£150. There's also a drive-free version that streams from your existing hard disk.
To get the Freecom working over your wired or wireless network you need to install an NDAS driver on your PC and pair it with the 350 WLAN. This is done with a unique identifier code that's printed on the bottom of the unit and the whole process is simple and worked without a hitch. Of course, if you don't want to use it over the network, you can simply copy files onto the drive over USB 2.0, which reduces the hassle to virtually none and increases the speed you can transfer files. In this mode, however, you can't use the Freecom to watch video.
When the NDAS driver is installed, although you're accessing the drive over the LAN, it shows up as a standard drive letter, named 'local disc', so the network aspect is totally transparent. It's then easy to copy over your files to the hard drive, or you can stream media from any connected PC.
Codec support seems decent, we had the 350 WLAN happily playing DivX, XviD, WMV and even HD WMV, at 720p. We didn't have any joy getting it to play Quicktime files however, which may or may not be an issue, depending on what you want to watch.
Picture quality obviously depends heavily on the input file. We tried a variety of material, from samples we downloaded from the Internet, to some DVD-originated material which we had for testing surround-sound systems. Everything looked as it should, but high-definition material in the WMV format looked amazing -- this is obviously a capable unit, despite being limited by its codec support.
There are plenty of outputs for getting sound and video out of this machine. There's DVI, component and composite video out. It also boasts both coaxial and optical digital audio outputs, which are great for hooking the machine up to your AV system.
While we could get the Freecom to connect to our PC, and show up as a drive, we weren't able to get the device to stream from our PC to the TV. When we looked through the list of available streaming computers, ours was listed, but the device couldn't find any folder shares -- we had several set up.
DVI output seemed a little patchy. We could get it to work with a PC monitor, but try as we might, we had no luck using it with a DVI-to-VGA adaptor on a 1080p Samsung plasma. As this is a product designed to be used in the living room, we feel this is a hefty oversight. Especially considering most TVs don't have a DVI input, only VGA.
The Freecom has two USB sockets at the rear, one for connecting the drive to your PC, the other for connecting a USB memory key, or USB host device. This will work fine for most applications, but it won't play high bit-rate video, but if you want to play music or watch photo slide shows, you can do these easily.
The remote is small and compact, which is good, but it's also hard to use and the receiver on the main unit seems to have a particularly rubbish angle at which it will respond to the remote. This means you'll need to point the controller directly at the receiver to get the box to respond.
For £180, this isn't the cheapest 500GB hard drive on the market. But in addition to its file storage ability, you're also getting a machine you can carry around and hook up to any TV you encounter -- if you can get it to work. The outputs are good, and there isn't much this won't connect to. That said, it's fiddly to use, the menus are ugly and unintuitive and the remote control is pretty horrific.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide