Editors' note: The Ziova CS510 is virtually identical to the Ziova CS505, except the CS510 lacks a built-in DVD player. This review is a modified version of the CS505 review, but it accurately reflects the capabilities of the CS510.
As more people become interested in streaming media from their PC to their living room, more products that promise to do exactly that pop up. In addition to devices from established brands such as Netgear, Apple, and Microsoft, a growing number of network media players from little-known manufacturers such as Mvix, Tvix, and Helios are popping up. The Ziova CS510 is part of the latter group, and it offers upscaling and network media streaming for a ton of file formats. Unfortunately, we felt the CS510 looked a lot better on paper than in use. The interface looks slick at first glance, but it quickly becomes bulky and sometimes just plain slow. On the upside, streaming was mostly stable, and the CS510 delivered on its promise to stream a ton of formats, although enthusiasts will lament the lack of H.264 support. Overall, the CS510 shows a lot of promise, but it's hard to recommend with the current firmware; perhaps a future update will smooth out some of the reliability issues.
The CS510 looks like a throwback to an earlier era, before glossy black supplanted silver as the preferred color of home electronics. Head-on, the CS510 is boxy and looks like it would be more at home mounted in a hidden equipment rack than on display in a home theater. The brushed-metal look may not be the most attractive, but it gives the receiver the appearance of having solid build quality. To the far left, there's a hard-power on/off switch; if you turn it off, the CS510 won't turn on when you hit the power button on the remote. In the center of the unit is the LED display and further right is a USB port. Note that there are no front-panel controls, so you have to use the remote to control the CS510.
The remote is a little below average, but it's passable. The biggest misstep is placement of the Play, Stop, Fast-forward, and Rewind controls at the bottom of the remote--far from the central navigational pad--so we were constantly moving the remote around in our hand. We did appreciate the dedicated volume and page up/down rockers, but once we got into the user interface, we noticed that the page up/down function didn't actually work, it just moved one item down instead of skipping a whole page. Of course, you can replace the included clicker with a good universal remote, but that still probably won't solve the page up/down issue.
The main page of the user interface of the CS510 is promising. The graphics look pretty slick, and the choices are simple: Music, Videos, Pictures, Settings, and Extras. Past that point, the simplicity ends. For example, if you select Music, the next screen asks you to select a source, leaving you with choices of USB, Windows Network, Web Radio, and Media Servers. To access music on your PC, you'll select either Windows Network or Media Servers, then the name of the PC you want to browse, then the folder you want to browse--there you can sort by artist, genre, and so on. Not only is it convoluted, but the interface sometimes wasn't quite as quick as we'd like, which only compounded the frustration. We understand that it's hard to pack a lot of functionality into a simple interface, but we thought the Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD did a better job. And the Apple TV has an even better interface but offers less functionality.
The other problem we had with the interface is that the CS510 could occasionally get bogged down. This often happened when we wanted to switch from one media type to another, from Music to Videos for instance. You have to go back to the main menu to do this, and there's often a substantial wait time--up to 15 seconds. We wished there was a "mixed media" option so we didn't have to go to the main menu so frequently. We also ran into long wait times when waiting for our list of files to populate. Granted, we have a large file library, but it still puts a damper on the experience. While the CS510 can be speedy going between some menus, the occasional slowdowns became frustrating.
One of the biggest selling points of the CS510 is its extensive file format support. For video, it supports MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX/Xvid, WMV, and WMV HD, as well as TS folders and ISO files from ripped DVDs. This extensive file format support is a major advantage over the Apple TV, which is generally limited to iTunes-friendly MPEG-4 and H.264 files. The lack of H.264 support on the CS510 is the biggest omission, as it is quickly becoming one of the more popular codecs for high-definition video. Also note that support for ripped DVD TS folders isn't complete; we were unable to navigate the menus on the discs, just play the individual files. On the other hand, you can easily surf the menus on ISO files.
Audio support is impressive too, with support for MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG, FLAC, and WAV files. Audiophiles will particularly enjoy the support for the lossless FLAC format, as it makes it relatively easy to back up all your CDs and stream real CD-quality music from a large hard drive on your PC. Of course, you won't be able to play any DRM-protected songs you've purchased on iTunes--as you can with the competing Apple TV and Netgear EVA8000--but the Ziova will work fine for the DRM-free AAC iTunes Plus songs that are now available.
You'll also notice that the CS510 lacks the ability to play any sort of DRM-protected content, be it audio or video. That's disappointing, as many competitors offer support for at least one type of DRM (such as Plays For Sure, Zune Store, or Rhapsody). On the other hand, if you like to lead a DRM-free lifestyle, you won't notice it's missing.
Photo support is standard, with the CS510 handling JPEG, BMP, GIF, and PNG file types.
The CS510 is capable of streaming using either a UPnP (Universal Plug-and-Play) server or standard Windows file sharing (aka SMB). The CS510 comes bundled with two UPnP server apps, Windows Media Connect and TwonkyVision. We certainly appreciated the inclusion of TwonkyVision but were disappointed when we actually got it installed; it includes version 2.9, and TwonkyVision is currently up to version 4.3. The older version is missing some key functionality, and you'll have to pay for an upgrade to 4.3, although there's a 30-day free trial. After several hours of tinkering, we were finally able to get SMB file sharing working on the CS510. We loved the ability to browse our files using SMB, but unfortunately this feature was too buggy to be reliable. Sometimes we could access it, and sometimes we couldn't. And sometimes we'd access it but halfway through, all our shared folders would disappear.
There's also an additional feature, weather, in the Extras section of the main menu. Even though you can get weather pretty much everywhere these days, we liked this feature, and it worked like a charm. You can't get more info (like, say, an hourly forecast), but it's still nice for a quick glance to see if you need to take an umbrella.
Connectivity is pretty good on the CS510. For video, the highlight is the HDMI output, which can upconvert your video to 720p, 1080i, or 1080p resolution. Component, S-Video, and composite ports guarantee the ability to connect to older analog TVs as well. Audio can be carried using the HDMI connection, but there's also both optical and coaxial digital-audio outputs, along with a 5.1 analog multichannel output and (of course) a stereo analog audio out. On the front panel, there's also a USB port that can be used for quick flash drive hookups or other USB mass storage devices (though it doesn't work with iPods). For networking, there is an Ethernet port with wireless 802.11b/g connectivity. Unfortunately, it lacks the latest 802.11n, aka Draft N, speed that the Apple TV has, which allows for faster speeds and is especially useful for high-definition video. Also note that there's no WPA wireless security, so you'll have to downgrade your whole network to the less-secure WEP format to use the CS510. These days, there's really no excuse for that.
We definitely liked the way the CS510 handled aspect ratio control with nonanamorphic DVDs we ripped. Some HDTVs, such as the HP LC3760N and the Philips 42PF9831D, do not have aspect ratio control when fed high-definition sources, so it's nice to control on the network media player. This is not an issue for movie files taken from most high-quality DVDs, which are anamorphic, but movie files from nonanamorphic wide-screen discs will look distorted unless the player correctly recognizes them.
We tested this using a movie file from the original nonanamorphic Carlito's Way DVD, and the CS510 automatically put it in the correct aspect ratio, although it was window-boxed with black bars on all four sides of the screen. To compensate, we were able to use the CS510's zoom function, which lets you zoom in or out in .05 increments. This level of flexibility is really nice, and we were easily able to fill the screen using the 1.25 zoom without cutting off the picture.
Streaming performance was decent using the wired Ethernet connection. We had no problem streaming DVDs and FLAC files to the wired Ziova using either a wired laptop or a wireless (802.11g) laptop. High-definition material was another story, as it was barely passable using a wired laptop (still too many dropouts), and definitely not passable using the wireless laptop. We can understand the wireless dropouts, but wired connectivity should be solid. We tried playing the same high-definition files from a USB flash drive, and we still didn't get solid playback, which leads us to believe that the CS510 might not be capable of smoothly playing some high-definition video files, regardless of network speeds.
Wireless performance was better. Of course, we couldn't stream high-definition content, but we had a good experience streaming movie files from ripped DVDs with our laptop wired and the CS510 connected wirelessly. When we had both the laptop and the CS510 wirelessly connected, we couldn't stream ripped DVDs without some major hiccups, but at least FLAC and MP3 music files streamed without any stuttering.
Ultimately, our biggest annoyance was overall stability. For example, under SMB sharing, we'd get an error trying to play one MP3, but then it would work under UPnP sharing. One time we were playing a FLAC file, and it wouldn't let us adjust the volume. Another time we were streaming a DVD with both the CS510 and the laptop connected wirelessly, and it froze, requiring us to reboot. Another issue is that changing settings often requires a reboot of the CS510, which takes almost a minute. While any one of these isn't a deal breaker, altogether it hampered our enthusiasm for the CS510.