Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite EVA9150 Review
At a Glance
Netgear's Digital Entertainer Elite is the most versatile example to date of a rare breed: set-top media players that can be used by "the rest of us." With their terminal-like interfaces that only a geek could love, most such boxes seem to appeal mainly to the file-sharing/hacking crowd, but the $400 Entertainer makes it painless to connect your TV to your PC or Mac, and to the Internet at large.
Without reading the manual, or even looking at the foldout quick-setup sheet, we were quickly watching videos streamed from our PC and YouTube. You simply connect the box to your TV via a cable--HDMI, component, or composite--then run through a quick on-screen setup procedure using the included remote control.
It asks for your TV's maximum resolution (up to full 1080p is supported) and your zip code (for program guide information, as well as things like traffic and weather), then hooks up to the Internet, which can be wired or wireless. If you are using Wi-Fi, 802.11n is recommended.
After going through these basic setup screens, the TV tells you to go to your PC or Mac and install the software from the CD. (An advanced install mode for using a Netgear ReadyNAS or other network storage drive is included, but we did not test this.) It takes a few minutes to install the software, which first finds all media files on your disk, then asks which folders you want to share with the Entertainer (we chose our Videos, Music, and Pictures folders).
At that point, the Entertainer and the PC connect with each other--the TV screen tells you that setup was successful and directs you straight to the main navigation screen, where you can start streaming. I clicked TV/Video, and my PC-based videos were immediately available and playable, less than 15 minutes after opening the box.
PC videos played promptly and smoothly with hardly any lag, using either ethernet or a strong (same-room) 802.11n connection. Netgear warns that 802.11g will not be good enough for glitch-free HD streaming, and they were right.
I tried ethernet, HomePlug AV, and Wi-Fi g and n connections. Ethernet and HomePlug AV gave perfect results when streaming HD from my PC, as did 5GHz 802.11n with a strong connection. At longer range, even 802.11n proved susceptible to dropouts, and 802.11g was unwatchable.
Internet video is a little less satisfying, since YouTube and other videos take a few seconds to start playing, but playback is still light-years ahead of Netgear's previous Entertainer, thanks to the built-in 500GB hard drive that allows buffering. Once buffered, playback was generally smooth and glitch-free.
Even better, watching Web content does not depend on a PC, since the Entertainer can connect directly to the Internet. Out of the box, the Entertainer Elite supports playback of YouTube, Internet radio, RSS feeds, podcasts, and Flickr photos.
YouTube videos looked good, but they are confined to a box in the corner of the screen unless you choose full-screen mode. Video in that mode is very pixelated, but that's to be expected on a 50-inch HD screen. YouTube options like captions are not supported.
The Netgear also has a BitTorrent client for downloading files directly to the hard drive, a feature that will appeal to the movie-downloading crowd. However, it presently lacks support for Netflix Instant, CinemaNow, or Amazon video streaming.
Netflix and Hulu are coming soon, though. At press time, Netgear provided us with a beta firmware update for MediaMall's PlayOn media server. With the PlayOn server ($40) installed on your PC, you can stream anything supported by that software to the Entertainer, including Netflix, Hulu, CBS, YouTube, CNN, and ESPN. PlayOn is a game changer that can truly liberate you from monthly cable bills, but the downside is that you'll need to have your PC running to use it. We hope Netgear will also add direct support for Netflix and Amazon.
Still, the Entertainer Elite's real strength is its kitchen-sink video playback ability. It can handle virtually any video format, whether downloaded or from your camcorder, including MPEG (-1, -2, or -4), Xvid, H.264, VC1/WMV, AVI, MKV, VOB, MOV, DivX, ISO, and more.
You also have the option to view your PC screen on your TV, which can be handy for Web surfing in the living room, but don't expect to watch Netflix Instant or Hulu via this method: The screen seems to refresh only a few times per second or even less often, making video unviewable. The other problem with controlling your PC in this mode is the on-screen keyboard, which takes forever to enter a search term or URL.
Aside from the lack of a keyboard (the alpha mode on the number pad is unusable since you can't even see the miniscule faint letters), the remote control is very good. I had to get accustomed to the somewhat nonstandard use of menu and back buttons, but the layout otherwise was familiar and usable even in a darkened room.
Other handy features include a simple software utility that lets you copy files from your PC to the Entertainer, remote control of the Entertainer from your PC, and the ability to access content from multiple Entertainers. You can use multiple Entertainers to set up a whole-house audio network, for example, and the Entertainer can even play protected iTunes content from a PC with iTunes installed.
While we still wish for direct Netflix and Amazon support, the addition of PlayOn makes the Digital Entertainer Elite a must-buy for the well-equipped HDTV. Even without them, it's by far the most user-friendly and versatile media player we've tried.