Updated: Since the original review six months ago we've had a chance to look at the EVA8000 with newer firmware, and while stability has improved markedly and the interface is considerably more slick, it still suffers from a few problems.
With the surge of digital media content being downloaded, ripped or stored on home PCs and networked devices, Netgear's HD Digital Entertainer EVA8000 provides a way to take videos, music and photos from the confines of your computer and into your living room. The Digital Entertainer HD is a streaming media device designed to plug into your high-definition television -- although it will connect to standard TVs, too -- allowing you to enjoy your videos and listen to music, including Internet radio, from the comfort of your lounge.
Compared to others in its class, the EVA8000 in terms of design sits somewhere between the elegant Apple TV and the geeky Zensonic Z500. It's a rather banal blue-grey box with dimensions similar to a slimline DVD player (51mm by 432mm by 254mm), although there is no disc tray at the front. A USB input (for ad-hoc connection of storage drives), headphone jack and infrared receiver are the only things visible on the front of the unit; two rotatable wireless antenna rise like fingers from the back. It should fit easily into most cabinets, although if you want to use wireless try to clear some room above to optimally position the antenna.
At the back are the A/V connections, which include enough options for beginners right through home entertainment enthusiasts. Composite video, S-Video, component, SCART (for European TVs) and HDMI are all onboard, which let you use the EVA8000 with a regular or HD TV, while audio connections include analog stereo, optical and co-axial. If you've got your living room wired for home networking there's also an Ethernet jack as an alternative to the built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi.
The remote control is laid out reasonably intuitively with shortcuts for all of the main menu features and frequently used functions given prominent positions, but there are some oddities -- like the eject button being used solely for rotating pictures. For text entry it's used sort of like a mobile phone, with the numbers on the remote able to cycle through specific letters -- but nowhere on the remote or in the manual is it mentioned that the "1" and "0" buttons are used for punctuation like underscores, which could confuse first time users.
The on-screen set-up wizard guides you through the slightly tedious installation process. Using the EVA8000 remote, you choose a language, set the TV resolution, verify your Internet connection (wired or wireless) and select your country and city. Security options for Wi-Fi include WEP, WPA-PSK and WPA2-PSK.
You're prompted next to install the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD for Windows on the PC hosting your media files. This doesn't take too long; it searches your computer for audio and video files then lets you select which folders to share and sets the security privileges accordingly. Mind you, if you update your firmware you'll be prompted through the whole mind numbing process again.
Once the network is configured and the software is installed on a Windows XP or Vista PC, the main menu gives you the option of TV/Video, Music, Photos, Schedule Recordings, Internet media and News from RSS feeds. Current weather conditions for your city are shown on the right -- and despite the manual stating only US cities can be shown, an update has clearly enabled the feature for us Australians.
Like its predecessor, the EVA7000, files can be filtered and sorted accordingly -- you can browse video by actor, folder and genre, photos can be sorted by album or date and music by album, artist, folder, genre or playlist, and you can quickly filter out filenames by entering text through the remote for quick access in a long list.
File format support is decent -- you can stream MPEG1, MPEG2 (and will interpret .VOB, .IFO and .TS files), MPEG4, AVI, WMV, DivX and Xvid on the video side, and MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC, FLAC music. It'll even open .ISO files, so long as the video format contained within is playable. The recent beta firmware would also play the video of MKV files but with no sound, and OGM support is nowhere in sight. It also crashed when you altered the volume in a .TS file, and wouldn't recover gracefully from the screensaver -- but given we're talking about beta firmware, this is understandable -- the stable software exhibited no such issues.
Playlists are also supported and a wide range of pictures can be shown (JPEG, BMP, PNG, TIFF). HD WMV files up to 1080p are also viewable, but we'd suggest using the Ethernet connection as 1080p struggles to stream over your average 802.11g Wi-Fi network.
The HD Digital Entertainer is also configurable through a Web browser, allowing you to set your favourite Internet radio stations, add your own RSS news feeds and configure network settings.
The Netgear EVA8000 can stream music protected by Apple and Microsoft's Digital Rights Management (DRM). This means you can play songs purchased for Windows Media Player (eg. BigPond Music, Destra, HMV) and from iTunes (but only from a Windows PC). The EVA8000 also supports streaming DRM-protected music from Intel Viiv certified media servers -- a big tick here for these options.
If you have multiple HD Digital Entertainers set up, a feature called Follow Me allows you to move rooms and have the content stream to another, or all, device(s).
Not so amusingly, transferring the device from one network to another caused it to freak out, starting an endless loop of "Access denied" screens, rather than allowing us to change network settings. A factory reset was required to get back on track.
The first thing we noticed was that the EVA8000 chugs through the start-up process, taking over a full minute before the menu screen is ready to go. Fortunately after the first time, hitting the power switch forces it into a sleep mode instead of turning completely off, allowing start-up in around five seconds. To completely turn the machine off, you'll have to hold the power button on the unit down for five seconds, or pull the plug from the wall.
Streaming high-res photos to Pioneer's 50-inch plasma looked absolutely stunning during our tests, although there was a lag time of a couple of seconds between images -- mind you, these were 10-megapixel photos taken on a dSLR.
Browsing Flickr photos has improved since we last used the EVA8000 -- after entering an appropriate username or a tag you want to search for you can browse photos, with a preview appearing on the right. Unfortunately the player gets confused if it's loading one preview and you skip to the next entry, and fails to update the preview to the new image.
Similarly YouTube videos didn't look very impressive on our HD set, although the novelty of browsing the latest Top 25 clips from your couch is fun and compelling. YouTube videos take around 5-10 seconds to buffer before they begin to stream. As expected, quality is exceptionally poor -- no fault of the Netgear EVA8000, however, as YouTube was designed as a low-bandwidth, low-resolution video site. After watching a clip, you can add the video or user to your favourites list, or browse other videos by the user or videos with the same tags. Take in mind this function needs a connected PC however -- the EVA8000 doesn't seem to understand YouTube by itself.
While improved since we last saw it, the interface is nowhere near as clean as Windows Media Center, Apple TV, or even XBMC -- although it is generations ahead of Zensonic's Z500. Fortunately our stability issues have been resolved, with only one crash occurring when the player didn't fully understand a file format. Unfortunately, for a device that's been on sale for around a year it still feels largely unfinished, and is still slow and clunky.