Early media receivers cost more than $1,000 and could stream only audio files. In comparison, today's models are quite affordable and offer extensive multimedia functionality. SMC's EZ-Stream, for example, features wireless 802.11a/b/g network connectivity and can stream audio, video, and photos from a networked PC's hard drive to a TV or a stereo system on the other side of the house. Unfortunately, the EZ-Stream's unrefined design and spotty video quality are reminders that newer isn't always better.
The slim, silver-and-blue EZ-Stream is vertically oriented, so it looks more like a cable modem than a home-audio device. The small, lightweight remote is simple to a fault; there just aren't enough buttons. The lack of page-up and page-down controls, for example, makes navigating long track lists a real hassle.
The EZ-Stream's biggest selling point is its integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless networking. That capability is a complete solution for today's market, but the unit doesn't have a PCMCIA slot, so upgrading to future standards will be impossible. The rear panel does include an Ethernet port for people who haven't yet made the jump to a Wi-Fi network. For audio, you get one pair of stereo RCA analog line outputs but no digital out. Video hookup is limited to composite sources, and there's no aspect-ratio control.
Initial setup of the EZ-Stream was straightforward. In about 15 minutes, we connected it to the TV, the Ethernet router, and the A/V receiver; installed the server software on our PC; and configured the unit to work on our 802.11g network. After we'd disconnected the Ethernet cable and switched to wireless mode, building a library of audio, video, and photo files with the server application's folder-sharing feature was a simple affair. Only Internet radio posed a challenge; programming the EZ-Stream for a handful of stations became a convoluted chore.
The EZ-Stream supports MP3 and the M3U playlist format but not WMA. It accepts MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 video, along with BMP and JPEG still images. By comparison, the similarly priced Prismiq MediaPlayer can handle a wider range of file types and has a built-in Web browser, though that receiver does require a user-supplied adapter for wireless networking.
The EZ-Stream's TV-based interface is clean and uncluttered, but it truncates filenames to just 13 characters. You can navigate by song title, artist name, genre, or playlist, but browsing menus during playback sometimes caused momentary stutters. Even more annoying is how you have to create a playlist to hear multiple music files. If you simply make a selection from a track list, the EZ-Stream will stop after that one song instead of carrying on down the queue.
The EZ-Stream performed well with wireless audio and image slide shows, and unlike some of its competitors, the receiver can handle both simultaneously. But video streaming was subpar. Even low-resolution material came out unacceptably jerky, with erratic frame rates and stuttering audio. Four separate routers--including SMC's own 2804WBR--and two different firmware versions failed to smooth out playback. The results were equally unimpressive in separate home and office environments where competing devices performed admirably.
Disappointing video performance and weak file compatibility undermine the EZ-Stream's impressive built-in wireless support. Rather than wait for SMC to correct the unit's shortcomings with firmware upgrades, choose a media receiver from the growing list of more-polished competitors.