Netgear NeoTV NTV550: Strong Media Streamer Is Weak on TV Services
At a Glance
NETGEAR NeoTV NTV550
The NeoTV NTV550 is a solid high-def media streamer for media on your local network, but suffers from lack of Internet media support.
The Netgear NeoTV NTV550 ($170 as of March 28, 2011) can track down and play most media anywhere on your home network, and stream it to your HDTV in any resolution from standard definition to 1080p high definition. It supports numerous media formats, including some copy-protected schemes that other streamers can't play, and it streams music, video, and photos from a handful of Websites, most notably YouTube.
Unfortunately, the absence of integrated Wi-Fi and the unit's inability to handle major commercial movie and TV services such as Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and Vudu are major drawbacks. Cheaper boxes such as the WD TV Live Plus support Netflix; and the $199 Boxee Box Boxee Box offers Wi-Fi plus Hulu, Netflix, and many, other Web video services.
In size, the NeoTV falls somewhere between the petite Roku and WD TV streamers and the larger Logitech Revue with Google TV and Boxee Box. Though you need to connect it with an HDMI or component cable to enjoy high-def content, Netgear doesn't provide either; instead you get a composite video cable and an ethernet cable to connect the unit's 10/100 ethernet port to your home network. (The NeoTV does support Netgear's optional USB Wi-Fi adapter if wireless is a must, but you may run into interference and other problems that make wireless problematic for streaming media.)
Though stingy with cables, Netgear lavished lots of care on the full-size remote, which has a complete set of video and audio playback controls, a numeric keypad, a navigation wheel, quick access to settings such as video mode or media type, and lots of extras such as a time-seek button (to identify the length of a media file and how far you are into it).
Once I hooked up an HDMI cable, made the ethernet connection to my network (through a HomePlug AV powerline switch), and plugged in the AC adapter, the NeoTV's home screen appeared. It presents your media by type (video, photo, music), and provides additional navigation options such as a file browser; links to YouTube and the dozen or so other video services; and settings. (There's also a 'Streaming TV and Movies' menu item on the home screen, but--at this point--clicking it produces a message saying that the associated features will be coming in the future.)
During setup, you can specify where the NeoTV should look for media; and the media it finds will appear under the appropriate home-screen category (photos, videos, music)--an organizational feature that can be useful if you leave media files scattered on various computers and storage devices. The NeoTV also surveys any media connected to its two USB ports (one on the front, one on the back), SD Card slot, or eSATA port. One of the NeoTV's best features is its support for playback of copy-protected formats, including iTunes music. On the other hand, though the NeoTV saw videos I had purchased on iTunes, it could not play them back.
Netgear offers many playback settings, including some transition effects for slideshows. It also includes Blu-ray options if you happen to have a Blu-ray drive that you can connect directly to the NeoTV, though you can't transfer prerecorded Blu-ray movies over a network.
I liked the NeoTV's ability to play many YouTube videos at full-screen size; a high-def video of "Bills, Bills, Bills" from a recent episode of Glee, for example, looked and sounded terrific. You can access your video favorites by entering your YouTube user ID (no password is required, but you can't designate favorites either). Some video don't play at all, however; according to Netgear's online documentation, the NeoTV plays only H.264 YouTube videos and can't support videos in an older FLV/Sorenson format.
Aside from YouTube, the NeoTV's Internet Media list at this writing includes Flickr, RadioIO/Shoutcast, RadioTime (in beta), content from various news sites, and weather maps.
The NeoTV comes with Windows software that you can install on a PC to help with media detection. You also get a file copier, for moving content to storage directly attached to the device, and a tagging tool that you can use to associate various types of metadata, such as thumbnails of album covers, with media files. In my tests, the art often showed up on screen without my intervention.
Overall, the NeoTV NTV550 shapes up as a first-rate media streamer, but only for content on your own network and for YouTube videos. Without support for popular commercial movie and TV services, it faces a tough fight against competitors that deliver content from Netflix, Vudu, and the like.