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- - - - - - - - - - - -=[ Friday, October 08, 2004 ]=- - - - - - - - - - - -

REVIEW: Gateway Connected DVD Player

Engadget recently pointed us to a great deal (~$100) on the Gateway Connected DVD Player, a progressive scan DVD player with .11g connectivity (courtesy of the included .11g PCMCIA card), which gives it the ability to play back pictures, audio and video stored on your PC.

DVD Player

Aside from dutifully executing its role as a CE-looking, progressive scan DVD player (DVDs look noticeably better in 480p on an HDTV), this player (and other connected digital media adapter devices like it) are the first steps for TV/PC convergence for those of us that don't wish to have a PC in the family room.

PC Server Software

After installing the server software (in this case provided by middleware vendor Digital 5) on the PC, it scans the PC for media and places that which the player can play natively, or which the server can transcode on the PC, into the server library. This includes the vast majority of popular picture music and video types, with the notable exception of MPEG4 and various DRM-protected media.

This is also where the first kinks in the user experience start to show as the media library can only be described as inferior in capability and flexibility to top notch commercial jukebox apps (WMP, MMJ, iTunes, etc.). In addition, media selection can be flaky, as we were able to read many DivX and Xvid encoded files into the library, but were patently unable to get our own home movies encoded using Dr. DivX to be accepted. Although this is likely a freak occurrence, we also had an instance of the media server's database becoming corrupted, which hung the application and required not only re-installation of the software, but deletion of the database.

Getting on the Network

With the PC set up, we returned to the DVD player, inserted the included .11g PCMCIA card and fired up the player. It launched without a hitch and miraculously got on the wireless network, found the PC, and the media server on the PC without any intervention.

User Interface

Before you proceed to pictures, music in video, however, it becomes evident that the user interface of the connected DVD player is lacking some serious polish, with overlapping visual elements and almost complete lack of style. While perhaps not important to many users, it's notable to point out in these 1st generation devices (the Gateway Connected DVD player is certainly not alone in this category in sporting a sub-part user interface).

Pictures and Music

With everything in place we proceeded to put the connected media through its paces, and had no problems accessing the pictures (which look great on the 480p connection, although not as good as they would through a 720p or 1080i connection from the connected media adapter by Roku Labs) and music with absolutely no hick-up from the wireless network.


Video is a slightly more mixed picture. Although highly dependent on placement of the player and the Gateway .11g card's lack of an external antenna), any video streams in excess of 3-5Mbps would stutter. This is primarily only an issue for personal content which you are encoding at high bit rates to preserve quality, as most video obtained over the Internet is rarely encoded at over 1.5Mbps, and the evolution of .11a home networks (see our earlier post about Linksys' new home gateways and Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 rumors, as well as the pointers to Linksys' new Media Center Extender), and possibly even powerline networking will substantially reduce any remaining interference or bandwidth issues.

It's in the area of video that the player, although not fully successfully, sheds the most light on what is possible. The ability to bring Internet video, whether obtained via RSS Enclosures, Bit Torrent, or the like, or whether it's v-blogs, news, commentary, movies or television shows, to the TV via a PC and a connected device, is a compelling new functionality not unlike your first experience with a PVR.

Although picking up copies of The Animatrix, or Hellboy over Bit Torrent takes an enormously long time and is a video quality gamble, the network is capable of delivering the video, and courtesy the 480p connection, the quality is very watchable. While hick-ups on audio sync when using the fast-forward feature, keep the experience from being broadly consumable by end users, you can see the future from here.

BOTTOM LINE: This product is not ready for primetime, but it makes an interesting toy for the tweaker, and a very compelling case for all of us about what the very near future holds for home media. There can be little doubt that with the introduction of Windows XP Media Center 2005 and the evolution of these connected devices and the legitimate IP-based services that will use them, the UI quality, networking reliability and legitimate premium content availability will be resolved starting this year, and reaching maturity for Holiday '05.

ps: For another great review, and much in-depth forum discussion, of the Gateway Connected DVD player, visit Matt Haughey's review at PVRblog.

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