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Many of the networked-media players we've looked at recently rely heavily on interfacing with Windows Media Center, the digital media hub software that's available on many--but not all--PCs running Windows XP and Vista. Some models, such as the HP MediaSmart Connect, can operate in "WMC Extender mode" or via their own built-in streaming interface. Others, such as the Linksys DMA2200 Media Center Extender, have only a Media Extender interface. It's the same one available on the Xbox 360, and--in our experience--tends to be laggy and not very pleasant overall. After various painful reviews of products that insist on going through that finicky software, we were pleased to get a breath of fresh air with the Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite EVA9150. The Netgear Elite eschews Windows Media Center altogether, and doesn't label itself as an extender. Instead, it allows you to customize the shared directories and files on your PC and stream them to your TV. While it's not perfect and it's a bit pricey, the fact that it plays more media file types than any other device we've seen makes it our favorite network-connected media streamer to date for those who want a relatively easy way to bring their gigabytes of PC and Internet-based photos, music, and video files to their TV.
Measuring 2 inches tall by 17 inches wide by 10 inches deep, the Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite is about the size of a standard DVD or Blu-ray player. It resembles the previous model, the Digital Entertainer HD, but lacks the Wi-Fi antennas. Also, the front of the Elite has a pull-down flap that hides the removable 500GB internal hard-disk drive (which adds a bit of bulk, putting the device at just over 5.5 pounds). Aside from a front-mounted USB port, the face of the Elite is quite plain.
The included remote control is definitely an improvement over the previous model. Everything is laid out logically and is easy to see. You can quick-jump to almost every feature found on the Elite and the remote's rubberized coating felt great in our hands.
On the back of the Elite, you'll find the various connectivity options--pretty much everything you'd expect to see on a standard Blu-ray player. You've got the option of sending out a video signal through composite, S-Video, component, or via HDMI (users can set HDMI output for resolutions up to full 1080p HD). For audio, you can connect via analog RCA ports, digital coaxial, digital optical, and, of course, HDMI as well. There's also an Ethernet port for a wired connection to your network, in addition to the built-in wireless 802.11a/b/g/n compatibility. The Elite's second USB port is also located on the rear panel.
Setting up the Elite was quite easy--which is a downright amazing feat for a network entertainment device. After first turning it on, there are a series of instructions to follow that make for a relatively painless process. After you've connected the device to your TV and your home network, you'll install the included software on your computer to set up file sharing (the Elite supports both Windows and Mac operating systems). We should note here that you don't necessarily need to install the software to use the Elite--networking gurus can share folders through the operating system--but we recommend doing so as it makes streaming much easier.
Your computer should locate the Digital Entertainer Elite on the network and will then ask you to select which directories you'd like to share with the device. Things got a bit cumbersome when it was discovered we'd need to specifically select all subdirectories that contain media as well (unfortunately, the software will not automatically catalog the subfolders and identify the media found within a parent folder you select). That said, once we selected all of our media directories, we had instant access to these files on our TV screen. You may just want to dump all of your media into one folder so you don't have to select countless folders and subfolders manually. The Elite will recognize and be capable of accessing media on most USB storage devices (including flash thumb drives and powered-hard-disk drives, cameras, and media players) via either of its USB ports as well.
The PC/Mac software included with the device will probably need to be updated, so make sure you do so before you get started. The application works well enough, we just had to hunt for a few settings that weren't readily available. For example, in order to control the Elite from your PC, you'll first need to check a series of boxes that can't be accessed from the main menu. Overall, the experience is a bit confusing, but with enough time spent, you should be able to get the Elite performing exactly how you'd like.
The Digital Entertainer Elite's home screen is divided into various channels that separate different media types. From the Home screen you can access the Video, Music, Photos, Internet Media, News/Weather, and PC Access categories. While most of these are self-explanatory, let's dive into a few to see the features offered.
The Internet Media channel allows you to grab RSS feeds off almost any blog and will display photos and text associated with posts. You can even browse video sites like YouTube, including HD video (if your connection can handle it). You'll also be able to grab a Flickr stream as well, and even browse by user. You can stream podcasts and other MP3 file formats directly off the Internet with a custom RSS feed or one of the various preloaded ones. There are tons of Internet Radio stations preprogrammed into the Elite that will stream instantly. You can even keep an eye on BitTorrent files that can be downloaded through a network-connected PC and then you can play them once they've completed downloading. (The big catch here: most torrents are zipped or otherwise compressed, so you'll need to return to the PC to uncompress them before they'll be available to the Digital Entertainer.)
The News/Weather channel provides just that, with the capability to grab news-related RSS feeds. Weather maps and forecasts can also be accessed here, and we were happy with response times for all the media delivered to the unit.
Finally, PC Access allows you to stream a computer's desktop to the Elite, thus viewing it on your TV. While this worked, we really can't see a practical use for it as any motion on our PC's screen was very choppy on the TV. If you were thinking about using this as a way to watch Internet video on sites like Hulu, you're out of luck. That said, YouTube can be accessed via the Internet Channel.
We also want to point out a few interesting features embedded in the interface. Should you have more than one Elite connected in your home, you can actually send onscreen messages to any system. There are a handful of canned messages you can send out instantly or you can customize your own.
The Follow Me mode allows you to continue watching or listening to media in another room, picking right up where you stopped watching on the original Elite box.
File compatibility and media support
Impressively enough, the Digital Entertainer Elite can handle an extraordinary amount of media file types. For video, you can stream and play AVI, DivX, Xvid, WMV, MOV, M4V, VOB, MPG, MP1, MP2, MP4, ISO, IFO, MKV, TS, M2TS, and PS files. On the audio side of things, you've got MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC, FLAC, WMA-Pro, M4A, M4P, AC3, DTS Passthrough, PCM, LPCM, and AIFF. The Elite can display JPEG, BMP, PNG, and TIFF photo files and even read various playlist file formats including WPL, ASX, WAX, WVX, PLS, M3U, and RMP. With this kind of universal compatibility, the Elite is one of the most tolerant media players we've seen across the board. Throughout our entire format testing, the Elite successfully played every file format we threw at it, including ripped DVDs.
As always, the caveat is DRM files--you won't have luck with anything that's copy-protected (such as videos purchased from the iTunes Store). Likewise, online video displayed via Flash won't be viewable on the Digital Entertainer Elite. (The exception is sites such as YouTube, which make a non-Flash feed available.)
You also won't get access to any of the streaming-video services (with the exception of YouTube) that are becoming popular on home video devices, like Netflix or Amazon Video On Demand. Alternative products, like game consoles and Blu-ray players, often offer these features, although they lack the EVA9150's broad file format support. Which is right for you will come down to a matter of taste; the Digital Entertainer Elite is really for the do-it-yourself crowd, while the other devices cater to those willing to pay a little more for the ease of convenience.
Overall performance with the Digital Entertainer Elite was solid. We conducted all of our testing over an 802.11n network and found there to be little-to-no difference in picture quality when streaming wirelessly or with a wired connection. We certainly couldn't say this about other networked-media devices we've tested. During our week of testing, we did run into a few crashes, however, but nothing fatal to the point of having to completely redo our configuration; a simple reboot seemed to set the Elite right.
The Elite's impressive feature set aside, we're still on the fence about the included 500 GB hard drive. While it's certainly a welcome addition, we wonder if the omission of the drive could reduce the overall price. Netgear claims the hard drive allows for quicker buffering of streaming media, and while that's definitely an advantage, we wish the company left that option to the consumer. Maybe chop $100 off the price and then let there be room to bring your own storage device. Surely people who own something like a network storage device will be turned off by the fact that the Elite ships with a large drive. That being said, such a device will work with the Elite as well as long as it's connected to the same network.
You can also use the 500GB for personal storage. You can direct the Elite to transfer media to the drive from the user interface, or you can copy media via a network-connected computer. The drive is user-replaceable, with support for up to 1 terabyte of storage (any standard SATA 3.5-inch desktop hard drive should suffice).
Minor glitches and a few crashes aside, the feature set and enormous compatibility found with the Digital Entertainer Elite gives it a huge leg up over competing models. The fact that it doesn't require Windows Media Center is a big advantage and its easy-to-use interface is a really big selling point.
Priced at $400, it's the most expensive network-connected streamer of the ones we've tested and for that price you may just want to opt for something like a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, both of which offer decent-to-impressive media features (plus disc-based movie playback and gaming). Likewise, anyone whose digital world revolves around the iTunes Store should instead opt for the Apple TV, which offers native compatibility with iTunes-purchased movies and TV shows.
However, if you're looking for any easy way to stream media off your network in addition to some Internet content, the Digital Elite Entertainer should have you covered.