MP3 music; MPEG and DivX/XviD movies; digital photo collections--these manifestations of the digital age have entered most of our lives through our PCs, not our home entertainment centres. But recognising that many people want to access their digital files from the comfort of the lounge, vendors have been trying to find ways to let us do just that, without setting up a dedicated Media Centre PC in our living rooms.
- Space efficient, plays music and displays photos well
- Buggy software, difficult for a novice to set up, poor video playback
The D-Link is not yet suitable for the home entertainment buff who wants a plug-and-play device that will deliver streaming audio, pictures and video without fuss.
Price$ 399.95 (AUD)
D-Link's DSM-320 Wireless Media Player is one of the first of these devices to seriously attempt to add video into the mix. There are plenty of 802.11b devices around for stream music to your stereo and display photos on a TV, but the DSM-320 uses the higher bandwidth of 802.11g to offer real-time streaming of video from your PC to your TV, via a wireless or wired network. That's an attractive inducement for people who want to create fully digital entertainment systems, but unfortunately it isn't all plain sailing.
The DSM-320 is designed to fit into your entertainment setup, being a thin, flat unit that does not look out of place sitting on top of a DVD player or receiver. There's not much to see from the front: an on switch, power light and lights to indicate it is receiving data. Round the back you'll find the wireless antenna, and a switch to toggle between NTSC and PAL. Audio output connectors are for coaxial, optical and composite audio, while your video connection options are composite, S-Video and component. Finally there's an Ethernet port in case you are going to connect the DSM-320 to your network the old-school way and forgo all this newfangled wireless stuff.
If you have an existing 802.11g wireless network, then setting up the media player is as simple as installing the Media Server software on your PC and connecting the DSM-320 to your entertainment system. With the server software running on the PC, the device will detect the wireless network, get an IP address from your DHCP server (your router), locate the media server and you're away. If you are running WEP encryption on your network, you simply use the device's remote to enter the WEP key, via an onscreen keyboard on your TV.
On the PC, you choose media folders to share. The software scans the folders and creates a database of content within them. The DSM-320 supports a wide range of picture, audio and video formats. MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and XviD are all supported. Audio formats supported include MP3, WAV and WMA, and you can view JPG, TIFF, JPG2000, GIF, PNG and BMP images.
There were a few issues is our tests. When I went to share my music folder, the software crashed repeatedly, a flaw which was likely generated by a file with a higher sample rate than the maximum supported (192Kbps). At that point, I went searching for firmware and software updates. The system, when connected to your network, will search for, download and install updates itself, but you'll need to download updated versions of the Media Server Software and install them on your PC to be able to use the DSM-320 with its updated firmware.
I hooked up the DSM-320 to my home network using a D-Link DWL-2100AP access point. The DSM-320 had no problem with my music files (once I'd successfully shared the folder), spooling my MP3 over to the receiver with no skips or stutters. Likewise, it let me display my photos with no problems, running slide shows while music played. You can browse music according to standard tags--genre, album, artist and so on--or via folders. You can also access playlists (m3u and pls playlists are supported). With images, you can browse via a folder. The media player also allows for playing Internet radio, but the only option available was the commercial www.live365.com service.
Then I tried video. I immediately ran into problems. I initially tried playing MPEG-2 files created from home movies. The DSM-320 technically supports MPEG-2 up to 8Mbit/s, but the best I could manage with files at this bit-rate was a stuttering slide show. The wireless connection was incapable of reliably transmitting data at that rate, I then resampled the videos, dropping the data rate to 6Mbps, and applying more MPEG compression. This was more successful, although after several minutes of playback the file began to stutter again. It was only by increasing compression further that I got smooth playback for an extended period, at which point the visual quality was degraded to a noticeable degree.
The DSM-320 has a built-in wireless signal strength monitor, which told me that the signal strength it was receiving was a rather pathetic 30% to 40%. To try and increase this, I attached a long Ethernet cable to my router and installed the access point in the same room as the player. But I was surprised to find signal strength increased only marginally, to 50% at best. A trip to the Web found that my experience of the DSM-320 having poor reception was not isolated. An unofficial DSM-320 users' forum was full of posts on the same subject and, thankfully, the rather surprising solution to the problem, which involved ripping the unit open, locating the internal connector for the aerial, and shifting it from the "primary" connector to one marked "aux". Users who tried this reported a dramatic increase in signal strength received and no more stuttering videos. But it is a warranty-voiding procedure and some users reported breaking internal connectors in the process. Ouch.
Ultimately, while the DSM-320 shows promise, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that it is not yet fully realised. It certainly appeared to have problems receiving a strong wireless signal, even when the access point was sitting not 3m away. You can connect it via Ethernet, but that means running cable under or around your house, unless you want to put it next to a PC, which kind of defeats the purpose. And while it does a decent job with music and videos, you need to put in some effort to organise folders and create playlists on your PC. All of which makes it not yet suitable for the home entertainment buff who wants a plug-and-play device that delivers streaming audio, pictures and video without fuss.
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