Editor's Note July 27, 2010: Our performance update with a fresh unit as supplied by Astone has been appended to the bottom of this review. As the functional details of the unit are still the same, our comments on the design and feature set remain as they were.
We've commented before that most small media player boxes all tend to look a bit similar. In the Astone Media Gear AP-360T's case, we feel we've hit a tipping point. If it wasn't for the Astone logo on the front of this bleak black box, we wouldn't be able to tell you who made it, or why, but we'd have a pretty good guess as to what it did. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the epitome of simple but dull design. There's a blue light on the front to indicate that it's on, type A and B USB ports on the front for connecting up remote storage, and component, composite, HDMI, Ethernet, USB A and SPDIF and optical audio-out on the rear.
The Astone Media Gear AP-360T's remote control looks fairly generic and busy, but the layout works well enough. The remote control itself is another matter, which we'll address a little further on.
The AP-360T joins that rapidly growing army of little black boxes that tick multiple boxes in any survey of what your home AV gear can do. It's a digital set-top box with a single tuner. By adding a hard drive to it, it becomes a PVR. Either via an optional Wi-Fi dongle or via direct Ethernet connection it'll handle media playback from any UPnP source. Via USB you can play back directly connected files, or use a B type USB cable to connect to your PC for the same task. It's worth noting that you can't run both front USB connections at once.
In terms of media playback performance, the AP-360T supports MPEG-1 (DAT/MPG/MPEG), MPEG-2 (MPG/MPEG/VOB/ISO/IFO/TS/TP) MPEG-4 (MP4/AVI/MOV), DivX 3/4/5/6, XviD (AVI/MKV) H.264 AVC (TS/AVI/MKV/MOV) VC-1 (TS/AVI/MKV/WMV), WMV 9 (WMV), Real Video HD 8/9/10 (RM/RMVB) and FLV (FLV) video files at up to 1080p quality.
Performance: Original test unit
Setting up the review model of the AP-360T was a little more involved than most PVR solutions, because the unit we got came without any onboard storage. The price quoted above includes a 1TB drive, but it's interesting to note that the full colour instructions supplied with the AP-360T make upgrading or installing a drive quite a painless procedure. Even those who've never installed a hard drive before should manage that with a minimum of stress.
That's because the stress with the AP-360T is almost entirely concentrated on the user experience. Based on our testing, to say it's unstable might be something of an understatement. We quickly settled in to a routine of crashes, frustrating menu glitches, crashes, missed EPG recordings, crashes and, just in case we forget to mention it, crashes.
Special mention has to be made of the Astone Media Gear AP-360T's remote control. Not because of the layout of the remote, which is easy enough to learn. Not because of the fact that it obviously shared a lot of remote codes with other gadgets in our lab, which randomly switched on and off when certain buttons were pressed, because that's not exactly the AP-360T's fault. No, we'll make mention of the remote control because it's quite insane, especially on the current firmware. Any time we pressed the "up" button on our review sample, it would dump us in a folder view menu — the same folder view menu — irrespective of what we were doing. Thankfully most of the menu commands scroll from bottom to top, so it was feasible to just use the down button. It doesn't stop there, however. Coming out of a fast forward or rewind from a pre-recorded file brings up an onscreen menu, and the only way to back out of that to a clear picture is to go into a further sub-menu. On more than one occasion, trying to pause live TV rebooted the entire unit and wiped all channel listings and timer settings.
We figured this may be something of a firmware issue, but checking Astone's Web site revealed that not only were we running the latest firmware, but that we were far from alone in hitting these kinds of problems.
It's a huge pity, as the flexibility of being able to add your own storage overcomes the issues inherent in having only a single available tuner, and if the AP-360T fulfilled the expectations of its specification sheet, it would be a fantastic unit.
Updated Performance: Testing a replacement unit
We took Astone's claims that the problems we'd had with a review unit were entirely firmware related based on face value, although we had checked that the original unit was running the most up to date firmware available for it. Astone sent us a replacement unit with a 500GB hard drive installed and they assured us that the problems we faced no longer existed at all for any user. Having checked Astone's forums for the product we weren't entirely sure that this was necessarily the case, but if a product is improved with firmware updates over time it's fair enough to reappraise it, and with that spirit in mind we unpacked and installed the newly supplied unit.
Based on Astone's claims, we were expecting much less fuss.
But to put it bluntly, that's not what we got. Out of the box and installed, we hit exactly the same issue with the up button on the remote as we hit in the original review. Any time we hit up in any menu, even when it was needed, we would instead be dumped into a folder view of folders we couldn't even access. All we could do was hit the menu button to exit out to the main menu. Over a number of days of testing we did encounter fewer crashes than on the original unit, but still had at least one daily crash. One of those crashes wiped the timers we'd set up, and if we hadn't been watching it closely for exactly that kind of behaviour and were using it as a regular PVR, we only would have realised this when it didn't record anything. Media streaming from a NAS worked, but some files inexplicably and randomly stuttered, even when we ensured that the rest of the network was unhindered by other traffic.
Our original conclusion stated:
Astone's web page for the AP-360T describes it as "An ultimate HD 1080p media player, DTV receiver and HD video recorder for your digital home". We beg to differ. Buy something else.
Having tested two units provided by the vendor with the latest firmware, we'd still stand behind that conclusion. As with anything, firmware could make changes to stability, but at the time of writing, that clearly isn't the case with the AP-360T.