Geeks.com sent us for a review an external hard drive enclosure case, the “TVisto Series 3.5” Multimedia HDD Enclosure” (2.5″ series also available). But this is not just another hard drive enclosure, but also a multimedia jukebox. And it’s running uCLinux, an embedded version of Linux.The Hardware Aspect
The enclosure is made from aluminum on the sides and plastic on the front and back. On the front you will find buttons that control the software side of the device. On the back you will find two FW400 ports, one mini-USB 2.0 one, one A/V out proprietary jack, an on/off power switch and an SPDIF digital audio jack. On the box you will also find a plastic stand for the device, a remote control, FW and USB cables, a power supply, a digital audio cable and an A/V & S-Video cable. Available from MacPower are also HDTV, SCART and VGA cables to be optionally purchased.
Geeks.com also sent us an 250 GB IDE ATA-133 hard drive to test the TVisto with (up to 500 GB drives are supported). To place the drive inside, you must open one of the the aluminum sides by removing 3 screws and force the door open after you do that. Connecting the drive to the internal power and IDE connectors was easy, although we had to place the drive to “cable select” to make it work as it wouldn’t as “Master” (even if the TVisto manual specifically says that the drive must be “Master”).
We tested the drive with both its USB and Firewire connections and it worked very fast and reliably with both. It only took a few seconds copying a 400 MB DivX movie to it. We tested with Linux, Mac OS X and Windows; all three correctly recognized the drive. At the end, we decided to format it as NTFS instead of FAT32 or HFS+ (all 3 file systems are supported in read/write mode) because FAT32 doesn’t support file sizes of more than 4 GBs each and that would pose a problem if we were to test with backuped DVD disks.
The Software Aspect
To start using the device with your TV you must manually create 4 folders on the root of the newly formatted drive, named Firmware, Movies, Pictures and Music. Then, you just drag-n-drop in it your multimedia files, or simply other files you want stored on the hard drive. The device came with the latest version of the firmware (from September 15th 2005) so no upgrading was needed (although it’s easy to upgrade).
The device supports mpeg1/2/4 (avi, vob, iso dvd, divx, xvid/vod, mpg) with subtitle support for video, jpeg for pictures (up to 8 megapixel resolution) and wave, mp3, aac, wma, ac3 and ogg for audio with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround support.
We connected the A/V cable to our 55″ Sharp HDTV for testing. The device loads its main screen on TV in less than 5 seconds from power up. There are 4 icons to select for using the nicely layed-out remote control; one for each media kind and one for Settings. On the Settings screen you can switch between composite sources, select PAL or NTSC, language, upgrade the firmware, etc.
I have reviewed over 5 multimedia devices this year and I must say this for the record: The TVisto is the most file-format compatible device of them all. It played all kinds of DivX and mpeg video files I threw at it (almost all encoded differently). All the other devices I have reviewed would either not support B-Frames, or they wouldn’t support a particular encoding, or it wouldn’t support the audio encoding that would accompany the video. The TVisto played them all without a hitch (except an HD 1080i divx clip which was documented in the first place as not supported). TVisto doesn’t know how to down-sample videos so make sure your videos are encoded at 720×480 or below.
Music playback worked very well too, we tried various differently encoded WMA, mp3 and ogg files. However, you will have to create folders and subfolders of your music and place your files in the right ones. I did the “mistake” of drag-n-dropping all my 240 music files to the “Music” folder and so I then experienced a very slow response. When clicking on the Music icon it would take up to 8 seconds just to load the folder with its 240 files and this is very annoying. My iPod doesn’t seem to have this problem and we should not forget that the iPod uses a much slower drive. Other than that, file compatibility was great, and after 5 minutes a screen saver (with a customized message) would popup to the screen to make sure that the TV screen won’t “burn”.
Picture viewing was very pleasant, as rotating, zooming and panning were supported. The TVisto was able to even read two “weird” jpeg files I have among my collection, image files that some devices fail to read. Yet again, the TVisto proved its great compatibility.
If you are in search for a mobile storage solution that is presentable and pretty light in weight, this is a good buy. And the fact that you can store and playback video on any TV is a great plus. If there are two problems with the device then it’s the lack of an ethernet jack with an SMB server (for easy copying of files over LAN) and the slow reaction of the UI on folders with long file lists (it’s pretty fast otherwise).
Many readers would compare the TVisto with a PC-based similar solution running an XP or a Linux-based solution like MythTV, Freevo, gbPVR and MediaPortal. The difference is that TVisto is a mobile storage solution first and foremost and a multimedia device secondly. It can’t record or work as a Tivo, but it can playback content with the help of a simple interface and an easy put-together storage solution. On the other hand, the PC-based solutions are more expensive as they require special supported video and TV cards and fast-ish x86 CPUs to manage recording. And the worst part is that putting together a (Linux-based) software PVR requires expertise to properly install and configure Freevo or MythTV. TVisto comes pre-configured and requires very little time to put together. At the very end, it all depends how much your time is worth or what kind of features you truly need.
What were they thinking? If it had a network jack I would consider getting one, but I’d hate to have to this thing to my desktop just to load up the files.