The HD N1 is a media streaming box, but it's also a cup of coffee. Or, in the words of Dvico's own media notes, a "Cup of Digital Media Time", whatever that actually means.
Not a literal cup of coffee, however. That could be messy, what with the crema interfering with the delicate electronics inside, and the surging electricity messing up the delicate flavour of the beans. Instead, the N1's more "inspired" by a cup of coffee, or more realistically a mug. Dvico's been down the road of whacky round media streaming designs previously with the Dvico TViX 5130 PVR, a design that looked to our eyes like a home-brewing kit.
The N1's mug shape would certainly stand out next to your TV in a way that an ordinary black box wouldn't, but whether that's a good or bad thing is a matter of personal taste. The "handle" of the mug is where the N1's output controls are located, with a single light on the front indicating whether the N1's powered up or on standby. The top of the unit bears a TViX logo, but beyond that it also hides a USB port and SD/MS/MMC card reader underneath a flap. Clicking down on the flap also acts as a power switch. Again, an odd design decision that some will love for being quirky, and others will hate.
The N1's remote control is the exact same model we've seen in other Dvico products. It's not flashy, it's not backlit, but it does cover the major features of the N1. Naturally, as there's no buttons beyond power on the N1 itself, if you lose or break the remote you're in for a world of hurt.
The N1's primary function is media streaming. It'll handle video at up to 1080p in AVI, MPEG-1/2/4(XviD), IFO, ISO, VOB, DAT, WMV, ASF TP, MKV with H.264/VC-1/WMV-9, RMVB-HD and FLV formats and music in MP3, OGG, WMA, AAC, WAV (PCM) and FLAC (Lossless) formats. You can either directly connect your media via USB or SD/MS/MMC, or from a network connection via the 10/100 Ethernet port on the back.
In terms of output, the N1 supports composite, component, HDMI and optical audio output. Internet video is supported, but like previous TViX models, you're limited to the in-built video sources, which in the N1's case comprise YouTube, YouKu, PPS, Gougou, ThunderVOD, Sina TV and CNN podcasts.
For a system that doesn't boast any internal storage that it has to fire up, the N1 certainly takes a while to boot. Once it does, it presents the same semi-slick interface that we saw on the M-6600N, with plenty of gloss on the main carousel display, but a much more primitive menu system underneath that.
Media streaming from a UPnP/DLNA server worked quite well in terms of pure video quality, but we were constantly struck by exactly the same problem we've had with previous TViX units. They like to crash. A whole lot. We had crashes while streaming video. We had crashes while browsing folders on a shared drive. About one in every three remote control button presses simply did nothing. The whole point of a media streaming box is to simplify your couch potato time and allow you to relax, but the N1's performance woes meant we spent more time stressing and a lot less time relaxing.
In terms of internet streaming, the N1 certainly promises a lot, but fails to deliver in several key areas. Most streaming boxes support YouTube, but the N1 is the only box we've hit that has YouTube support but no function for searching within the YouTube application itself. Instead you've got to exit from YouTube and use a separate — and very ugly — search application. Then, if our experience is any guide, half the videos will refuse to play. The other half of the time, the N1's too busy crashing to notice.
Outside YouTube and CNN you may not be familiar with the other services the N1 offers. We certainly weren't. Our ad-hoc testing was admittedly done with no knowledge of the underlying language, instead using the tried and tested method of clicking on things to see if they'd work. Mostly they didn't, and the majority of the time the N1's response to being asked to play back video from other sources was quite predictable. If you guessed "it crashed", award yourself a gold star.
The N1 promises a big steamy cup of digital media in a pleasant shape, but beyond the whacky design, it fails to deliver on every possible level. Imagine a cup of coffee. Not a good cup of coffee, mind you. A bad cup. A cup that's gone cold. And had salt rather than sugar added to it. Also something that you fervently hope is only vinegar. Trying to get the N1 to work is that cup of coffee.