Many of the networked media players we've looked at recently rely heavily on interfacing with Windows Media Center, the digital media hub software that's available in Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate. Some models, such as the HP MediaSmart Connect, can operate in "WMC Extender mode" or via their own built-in streaming interface. Others, such as the Linksys Media Center Extender DMA2200, have only a Media Extender interface. It's the same one available on the Xbox 360, and — in our experience — tends to be laggy and not very pleasant overall.
After various painful reviews of products that insist on going through that finicky software, we were pleased to get a breath of fresh air with the Netgear EVA9150 aka Digital Entertainer Elite. The player eschews Windows Media Center altogether and doesn't label itself as an extender. Instead, it allows you to customise the shared directories and files on your PC and stream them to your TV. While it's not perfect, the fact is it plays more media file types than any other device we've seen, making this our favourite network-connected media streamer.
Measuring 431.8x254x50.8mm, the Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite is about the size of a standard DVD or Blu-ray player. It resembles the previous model, the Digital Entertainer HD, but lacks the Wi-Fi antennas. Also, the front of the Elite has a pull-down flap that hides a removable 500GB hard disk drive (which adds a bit of bulk, putting the device at just over 2.5kg). Aside from a front-mounted USB port, the face of the Elite is quite plain.
The included remote control is definitely an improvement over the previous model. Everything is laid out logically and easy to see. You can quick-jump to almost every feature found on the Elite and the remote's rubberised coating feels great in the hands.
Setting up the Elite is quite easy. After first turning it on, there are a series of instructions to follow that make for a relatively painless process. After you've connected the device to your TV and your home network, you'll install the included software on your computer to set up file sharing (the Elite supports both Windows and Mac operating systems). Do note that you don't necessarily need to install the software to use the Elite — networking gurus can share folders through the operating system — but we recommend doing so as it makes streaming much easier.
Your computer should locate the Digital Entertainer Elite on the network and will then ask you to select which directories you'd like to share with the device. Things got a bit cumbersome when it was discovered we'd need to specifically select all subdirectories that contain media as well (unfortunately, the software will not automatically catalogue the sub-folders and identify the media found within a parent folder you select). That said, once we selected all of our media directories, we had instant access to these files on our TV screen. You may just want to dump all of your media into one folder so you don't have to select countless folders and sub-folders manually. The Elite will recognise and be capable of accessing media on most USB storage devices (including flash thumb drives and powered hard disk drives, cameras and media players) via either of its USB ports as well.
The PC/Mac software included with the device will probably need to be updated, so make sure you do so before you get started. The application works well enough. We just had to hunt for a few settings that weren't readily available. For example, in order to control the Elite from your PC, you'll first need to check a series of boxes that can't be accessed from the main menu. Overall, the experience is a bit confusing, but with enough time spent you should be able to get the Elite performing exactly how you'd like.
The Digital Entertainer Elite's home screen is divided into various channels that separate different media types. From the Home screen you can access the Video, Music, Photos, Internet Media, News/Weather and PC Access categories. While most of these are self-explanatory, let's dive into a few to see the features offered.
The Internet Media channel allows you to grab RSS feeds off almost any blog and will display photos and text associated with posts. You can even browse video sites such as YouTube, including HD video (if your connection can handle it). You'll also be able to grab a Flickr stream as well, and even browse by user. You can playback podcasts and other MP3 file formats directly off the internet with a custom RSS feed or one of the various preloaded ones. There are tons of Internet Radio stations pre-programmed into the Elite as well.
The News/Weather channel provides just that, with the capability to grab news-related RSS feeds. Weather maps and forecasts can also be accessed here, and we were happy with response times for all the media delivered to the unit.
Finally, PC Access allows you to stream a computer's desktop to the Elite, thus viewing it on your TV. While this worked, we really can't see a practical use for it as any motion on our PC's screen was very choppy on the TV. If you are thinking about using this as a way to watch internet video, you're out of luck. That said, YouTube can be accessed via the Internet Channel.
Impressively enough, the Digital Entertainer Elite can handle an extraordinary amount of media file types. For video, it supports AVI, DivX, XviD, WMV, MOV, M4V, VOB, MPG, MP1, MP2, MP4, ISO, IFO, MKV, TS, M2TS and PS files. On the audio front, you've MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC, FLAC, WMA-Pro, M4A, M4P, AC3, DTS, PCM, LPCM and AIFF. The Elite can display JPEG, BMP, PNG and TIFF photo files and even read various playlist file formats including WPL, ASX, WAX, WVX, PLS, M3U and RMP.
On the back of the Elite, you'll find the various connectivity options — pretty much everything you'd expect to see on a standard Blu-ray player. You've got the option of sending out a video signal through composite, S-Video, component video or via HDMI (up to 1080p). For audio, you can connect via analog RCA ports, digital coaxial, digital optical, and, of course, HDMI as well. There's also an Ethernet port for a wired connection to your network, in addition to the built-in wireless 802.11a/b/g/n compatibility. The Elite's second USB port is also located on the rear panel.
Overall performance with the Digital Entertainer Elite was solid. We conducted all of our testing over an 802.11n network and found there was little to no difference in picture quality between a wireless or wired connection. We certainly couldn't say this about its rivals we've tested. During our week of testing, we did run into a few crashes, however, but nothing fatal to the point of having to completely redo our configuration; a simple reboot seemed to set the Elite right. Additionally, the Netgear successfully played every file format we threw at it, including ripped DVDs.
As always, the caveat is DRM files — you won't have luck with anything that's copy-protected (such as videos purchased from the iTunes Store). Likewise, online video displayed via Flash won't be viewable on the Digital Entertainer Elite (the exception is sites such as YouTube, which make a non-Flash feed available).
Minor glitches and a few crashes aside, the feature set and enormous compatibility found with the Digital Entertainer Elite gives it a huge leg up over competing models. The fact that it doesn't require Windows Media Center is a big advantage and its easy-to-use interface is a really big selling point.