Digital media adapter: ShowCenter

After being unimpressed with the SMC Networks EZ-Stream, we were curious to see how Pinnacle’s ShowCenter would match up. Although they’re both designed for the same task — transporting media files from your PC to wherever you’d prefer to enjoy them — the ShowCenter proved to be an altogether more effective product.

Unlike the EZ-Stream, the ShowCenter is not an 802.11g Wi-Fi product. In fact, it has no native wireless capabilities so you’ll have to add your own separate 802.11b PC card. A future revision will support the 802.11g standard and also be able to control a TV tuner card. In the meantime, the absence of 802.11g compatibility means that if you do go wireless you’ll be limited to a transfer rate of around 5Mbps. You can avoid this by plugging the ShowCenter into your hub’s 10/100Mbps Ethernet port or using the supplied 5m crossover cable to connect it directly to your PC.

The most obvious difference between the ShowCenter and every other DMA (digital media adapter) is that it looks good, with an uncluttered, brushed aluminium fascia that’s unlikely to jar the aesthetics of your home. Behind this pretty face you’ll find an impressive brain in the form of Sigma Designs’ EM8551 chipset. This not only handles the video and audio decoding routines that are key to any DMA, but also takes care of the user interface and an array of output options. Although DMAs such as the EZ-Stream are limited to JPEG stills, MP3 audio and MPEG-1/2 video, the ShowCenter can also decode MPEG-4 files. You can watch DivX or XviD AVIs without having to convert them, although DivX files that use advanced options such as QPel are not supported.

The ShowCenter handles MPEG-2 video from copyright-free DVDs, allowing you to play back any DVD VOB files you have created. It’s also more than capable of handling the maximum 10.04Mbps bit rate of the DVD movie standard, assuming your network has the bandwidth. In fact, it was only when we took it past 12Mbps on a cabled network that the decoder started to show evidence of dropped frames.

Another advantage of the ShowCenter is its software, which scans, compiles and organises existing media files on your hard disk. The intuitive front end lets you quickly set up playlists and import material from audio CDs and digital cameras, as well as create watched folders that monitor any new media you add.

Where this differs from other DMAs is that it looks for files that aren’t supported by the Sigma EM8551 chipset, such as Windows Media, GIF and PNG stills as well as DV25 AVIs. To allow these files to be played back on the accompanying hardware, the ShowCenter converts them into JPEG, MPEG-2 or MP3 files. The end result is two copies of the file in different formats. The quality of the transcoded file will not be as good as the original, but it’s better than not being able to play it back at all. Thanks to the background rendering engine found in Pinnacle’s video editing products, you’ll hardly notice it happening.

Installation was relatively painless. The server software automatically picked up the unit on our test networks and the remote control’s mobile-phone-style text input made manual configuration a faster process. However, although the remote control has a logical interface and clearly marked options, it’s sluggish when streaming files and you can’t browse other on-screen menus during playback.

The ShowCenter can be hooked up to just about anything you have in mind, with SCART, component, composite and S-Video outputs sitting alongside digital audio outputs (S/PDIF and TOSlink) as well as the more conventional RCA stereo ports. If your network is hooked up to the Web, you can also use it to browse with your TV.

In brief: Pinnacle ShowCenter

Minor points aside, we’re pretty impressed with the ShowCenter. Until the promised 802.11g update arrives, you’ll need a wired network to get the best from it. However, if you can’t wait to see what other manufacturers have in the pipeline, this should be high on your list.

Price: $599

Distributor:Lakopacific

Phone:1800 657 601

URL:www.lakopacific.com.au

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