MediaBeam review: This ultra-cheap streaming stick isn’t worth the money
By Lincoln Spector
TechHiveJul 14, 2014 2:00 pm PDT
At a Glance
Inexpensive at $30
Easily sends media from Android device to HDTV
Streams password-protected Vimeo videos
Very buggy on iOS and Windows, with some features simply missing or not functional
Can’t stream Netflix or Hulu
MediaBeam works OK with Android, but its buggy EZCast software feels unfinished, and doesn’t provide a good experience across platforms. We can’t recommend this over more capable streaming sticks.
Just what the world needs: another HDMI dongle to compete with Google’s Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick. Like those popular devices, Ematic’s MediaBeam plugs directly into one of your HDTV’s HDMI ports in order to stream content.
But the MediaBeam is unique in three important ways. First, at $30, it’s a bit cheaper than the $35 Chromecast and considerably less than Roku’s $50 stick. Second, the MediaBeam emphasizes local media—the photos, music, and videos stored on your PC, phone, or tablet—rather than content streaming from the Internet. And finally, it’s rough, difficult to use, and buggy, as if Ematic rushed it out too quickly.
The basics and initial setup
Like Google’s and Roku’s devices, the MediaBeam is small and gets its electricity through a microUSB port, allowing you to plug it into either a wall socket or a USB port on your HDTV. And like the other two, it uses Wi-Fi to get instructions and media from your local network and the Internet. Unlike the other devices, it has an external antenna—which could be an advantage if your TV is in a room with poor Wi-Fi.
You need an EZCast app to use the MediaBeam. The apps are available for Android, iOS, Windows, and OS X. I tested it on all of these except OS X, and found that the MediaBeam worked best with Android.
The MediaBeam broadcasts its own Wi-Fi network, and your device has to be on that network for it to work. This caused no problem in Android; whenever I launched the EZCast app, my phone switched to the MediaBeam network. But in iOS and Windows, I had to manually change networks with the operating system’s tools every time.
To compare, the Chromecast only creates it own Wi-Fi network for setup, and then once you give it your home network credentials, it uses the Wi-Fi network your phone is on all the time. When you set up MediaBeam, you do give it access to your home network, but as far as I can tell, it only uses that for Internet access. It uses its own network to access your device, and your device still has Internet access while it’s on the MediaBeam’s network.
Plus, every time you load EZCast, even in Android, you have to tell it to connect and select the device you want it to connect to. In fact, if you go to another app, then return to EZCast—without even closing it—you still have to tell EZCast which device to use.
In Windows 7, EZCast proved to be anything but a benign program. My laptop spends most of its time in a docking station, which connects to—among other things—a large monitor. After installing EZCast, it often had trouble getting the right resolution on that external monitor. An Ematic spokesperson told me that “This is a bug that we are currently working to fix.” I fixed the problem myself by uninstalling EZCast and doing a System Restore.
Streaming from the local network
Once you successfully get your PC, phone, or tablet in sync with the MediaBeam, the EZCast home screen, with its attractive, easy-to-read icons pops, up on your device. In Android and iOS, these icons include Photo, Music, Video, Documents, Web, and Cloud Video.
All of these worked on my Android phone, and the photo tool was particularly impressive. Taping Photo took me to my gallery. When I selected a photo, it appeared on the TV screen. I could even draw over pictures as they’re displayed on the screen—a useful tool if you’re giving a illustrated lecture. The Music tool wasn’t as well thought-out. I could select only by artist. Albums, genres, and playlists seemed to be unknown.
EZCast on my iPad was a little harder to use. When I tapped Photo, nothing happened until I enabled Location Services in the iOS Settings app, and I wish the app could have told me that setting is under the Privacy section. But once I found and fixed that setting, the worked fine.
Oddly enough, the Windows version lacks most of the buttons, including photos. Videos worked fine, but again the Music selection was primitive, this time allowing me to browse only by folder. It was like looking for a song in Windows Explorer.
Other ways to view local media
A DLNA icon at the bottom of the screen offered another way to send photos, music, and videos to the MediaBeam. The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) standard, when handled right, can make it very easy to stream media from a PC or portable device to a television.
DLNA requires server software on the PC, phone, or tablet, and EZCast doesn’t qualify. You therefore need a separate DLNA server app. The MediaBeam documentation recommends Skifta—a program that has been discontinued—for both Android and iOS. Instead, I succeeded with BubbleUPnP for Android, and ArcMC Lite on my iPad.
Windows comes with its own DLNA server, Windows Media Player, and setting it up is actually quite simple—at least under normal conditions. But the EZCast instructions could intimidate a professional.
Speaking of things that didn’t work, the Android and iOS programs have an icon next to the DLNA icon, called EZMirror in Android and EZAir in iOS. It’s supposed to put whatever is on your device screen up onto the TV screen. I couldn’t get EZMirror to work in Android—apparently my Droid RAZR MAXX HD doesn’t support the required Miracast technology. When I tried it on my iPad, EZAir told me that I needed to update the MediaBeam’s firmware. But when I tried to update the firmware, I was told I had the latest version. So the problem was clearly something else, but again EZCast was no help.
Watching from the cloud
Like all Wi-Fi-enabled HDMI dongles, the MediaBeam can stream Internet video. But it doesn’t stream much. This is the only streaming device I’ve ever seen that didn’t offer Netflix. And the first in many years without Hulu Plus. Nor does it offer a single pay-per-view service. The best-known services it offers are YouTube, Facebook, and Vimeo. Others include CBS News, Sport Diver, and Rotten Tomatoes.
When you watch a video, your phone or tablet stays on, which gives you easy access to the navigation buttons, but also runs down your battery. You can manually turn off the screen to save power, but you without any navigation buttons on the lock screen (which Chromecast apps provide, for example), you have to unlock your device to pause the video.
As a streaming device, the MediaBeam has one advantage over almost every other streamer. It’s the only device I’ve seen, aside from a full computer, that can play password-protected Vimeo videos. That’s a big help for me personally (I review a lot of independent films that way), but probably not a major selling point for most people.
If you have a strong need to send photos and home videos from an Android device to an HDTV—and especially if you need to take your show on the road—the MediaBeam might be worth the $30. But aside from that, at least in its current form, it’s not worth the flaws and the bugs. The Chromecast is only $5 more, and while it’s aimed at streaming video from the Internet, apps like AllCast and PixoCast can stream local media just fine.