Video streaming is the Achilles' heel of most wireless digital media receivers, and jerky video playback is common even with today's faster 802.11g networking standard. The remarkable thing about the Play@TV NMP-4000 is that it provides smooth video using just the slower 802.11b standard. While that's a notable feat, we're left to wonder what the Play@TV ($199) could accomplish if it supported 802.11g, which is now common in competitive devices. A few other drawbacks also snare this otherwise well-evolved device. The slim, silver-and-blue Play@TV unit measures 7.2 inches square and just 1.9 inches high. Its plastic case feels reasonably solid and can sit horizontally or stand vertically in the included base. The remote control has a full array of buttons, including convenient page-up and page-down controls, plus a home key that returns to the start menu from any other screen.
Like Prismiq's lauded , the Play@TV has a PCMCIA slot that will allow upgrades to the latest networking standards--providing Icube ever releases one. The rear panel includes an Ethernet port for people who haven't yet made the jump to a Wi-Fi network. Video connectivity is impressive: in addition to the standard composite and S-Video ports, the Play@TV is the first network media device we've seen equipped with component-video outputs. On the audio side, stereo RCA analog outputs are supplemented by an optical digital output. For DivX and XviD files, the unit's optical output even offers 5.1-channel support when connected to a compatible A/V receiver.
The Play@TV's support materials are relegated to CD-based Adobe Acrobat PDF files. The sheer length (145 pages) is daunting enough that we wish the company would supply a printed quick-start guide explaining setup, configuration, and usage basics. The Icube Play@TV NMP-4000 supports most of the same file formats as the Windows Media Player software. This includes MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, ASF, and WMV video files; JPEG and BMP image files; plus MP3, WAV, and nonprotected WMA audio files. Support for 5.1-channel DiVx and XviD video files can be downloaded. The media organizer software can rip audio CDs to WAV and MP3 formats, as long as you have an installed MP3 encoder. Unlike Prismiq's MediaPlayer, the Play@TV does not have a built-in Web browser.
The Play@TV offers some unique ways to tag and organize files, but taking full advantage of the range of features requires entering some information on a file-by-file basis. For example, you can attach information such as director and genre to video files and can attach place and category tags to image files. Video files can be navigated by user-defined Movie, My Video, PVR, and ETC categories. Whenever you stop a video file, you can mark it to have the unit resume playback from the same point. Image files can be navigated by thumbnail and by user-defined date, category, and album criteria.
You can preselect background music that will play anytime a specific photo slide show is launched, but you can't launch a photo slide show, then select the accompanying music. In a related drawback, if you start audio playback then go to another screen, playback stops. Music can be navigated by artist name, genre, playlist, album, and search but not by track title. A Windows Explorer-like browser mode allows you to navigate your media library. The Icube Play@TV NMP-4000 is Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) compliant, and our test setup was expectedly straightforward. In about 10 minutes, we installed the PC server and media organizer software, inserted the included 802.11b card into the Play@TV's PCMCIA slot, connected the unit to our TV and A/V receiver, and configured it to work on our Wi-Fi network. In fact, the only setup snag was the software's media import wizard; it puts you through a lot of extra effort just to find a portion of your media files. After about 10 minutes of trial and error, we deduced that either using the software's scan files function or simply dragging and dropping files from Windows Explorer was easier and more effective.
While the manufacturer is pledging a firmware upgrade by year's end to enable support for faster 802.11g/a network cards, the Play@TV NMP-4000 is currently locked into comparatively poky 802.11b speeds. That said, the device streams video files much more smoothly than some competing 802.11g digital media receivers, such as SMC's . The Play@TV's wizardry is the result of a customizable buffer and on-the-fly reencoding capabilities. Unlike the SMC, the Play@TV didn't have problems streaming our test files, including a massive 720x480 MPEG-2 file at 29.97 frames per second. Noncompressed WAV and compressed audio files played back flawlessly, sounding crisp and clear even through the device's analog outputs. Photo slide-show playback was similarly smooth.
There weren't any wireless dropouts during playback, but the device occasionally reported that the wireless signal was too weak and refused to play it back. This occurred a handful of times even when we set the device up just a few feet away from our Wi-Fi router. For the sake of comparison, we installed Slim Devices' adjacent to the Play@TV; during the same time frames when the Play@TV couldn't get a strong enough signal, the audio-only Squeezebox worked fine. Like all wireless devices, though, your experience may vary, especially considering our less than ideal Manhattan test bed, which is awash with competing RF signals. We used an AirLink 802.11b PCMCIA card; a full list of compatible hardware is available at the manufacturer's &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Eleadman%2Ecom%2Fplayattv%2Fproduct%2Fnmp4000%2Fproduct5%2Ehtm" target="new">Web site.
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