Apple is working furiously to get their ITV product into market early next year. However, this type of product is not a new idea. There have been a number of similar remote multimedia products since 2003, most based off the Syabas software stack. Geeks.com were very generous sending us over ADS’ MXL-581 Media-Link Entertainment Receiver for a review, a Syabas-based device that’s using the uCOS-II real-time kernel (introduction [.pdf]). Check inside for our review and many screenshots of the system.In the box you will find the actual receiver, the user’s guide, a Media-Link Software CD, an 802.11g PCMCIA wireless card (can be handy for laptops too), a remote control, two AAA batteries for the remote control, an audio/video cable, a CAT5e Ethernet cable and the AC adapter (100-240V, 50/60 Hz). The device has a DVI connector, Y/Pb/Pr video out, S-Video, Composite-out, Left/Right audio out, S/PDIF, RJ-45 Ethernet portm 5V DC power jack and a PCMCIA slot for the WiFi card. While this device is supposed to sit in the living room it does not have the standard HiFi width to stack on top of your VCR or DVD box: it’s a bit smaller and very light.
The ADS MXL-581 comes with its own Windows XP application (download latest version here) that feeds the device via your PC’s ethernet or WiFi connection. If you want to use the device with Linux or Mac OS X you must install an alternative, open source user interface and server software: SwissCenter, running atop mySQL and the Simese web server. Instructions how to make the alternative server software work on Linux and OSX, here and here, respectively.
The official Media-Link application for XP takes about 30 MBs of RAM and another 40-50 MBs of RAM are used when streaming. The open source alternative does that in about 50 MBs overall (most of the RAM goes away to mySQL, if the project decides to use another, embeddable DB, they can go down to 20 MBs of RAM usage in the server). There are a few bugs in the OSS version of the client UI, I found the Media Link working a bit better. If you decide to use the OSS UI, you must edit the file /Simese/Data/base/capabilities.php (that comes with the SwissCenter package) in order to add PLS, MOV and OGG filename support — otherwise these files won’t show up in the media listings. Towards the middle of the capabilities.php file, it must read like this:
return explode(',' ,'avi,mpg,mpeg,vob,wmv,asf,divx,mov');
return explode(',' ,'mp3,wma,ogg,pls');
The ADS MXL-581 can connect to your network and server computer either via Ethernet or 802.11g. Unfortunately, only WEP or unencrypted networks are supported, even after upgrading the firmware to the latest version (dated from Dec 4 2004). I found Ethernet to be a better idea, because it never drops connection and it’s overall faster and more reliable. The remote control is easy to use, although we found that you must very precisely aim the device otherwise it won’t register the click. Through the remote control you can also input numbers (e.g. for the WEP key) and characters (e.g. for URLs).
You simply aim the server application to a specific media folder, and then the application will “share” this folder to the client to read the media. The device supports DivX/XVid videos (not all of them though, depends how they were encoded), MPEG-1/MPEG-2/MPEG-4 video formats, it supports MPEG Audio layer 1 & 2/MP3/WMA/OGG audio formats and JPEG/BMP/GIF/PNG photo and graphic formats. It is also able to play .mov files that use the plain mpeg4 format (not h.264). We successfully played back internet .pls radio too (from www.di.fm)! There is no WMV support.
My favorite feature in the device is the micro-browser! You can surf the internet via your TV and personally I am a sucker for such gadgets. By using an S-Video cable you can go to higher resolution with an HDTV and check out your favorite web sites without horizontal scrollbars!
In conclusion, this is a nice system. It has some minor problems (e.g. interface is a bit slow because each screen is being pulled from the server every time) and the WEP-only encryption won’t play nice with most modern WiFi networks, but the device does what it’s supposed to do. It can deliver high-resolution DivX video to your TV without the user having to burn DVDs, or copy files manually. If you are a movie freak, this is a device for you, at a fraction of the cost of Apple’s upcoming iTV.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Next week come back to read our review of a similar Linux-based system!