Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/5129/2011-media-streamer-roundup-netgear-ntv550-acryan-playonhd2-and-the-boxee-box



In the last year or so, three major SoC manufacturers vied for market share in the media streamer market. While Intel's CE41xx took the high end path with design wins in the Logitech Revue and Boxee Box, Sigma Designs and Realtek continued to retain design wins with their existing customers. Sigma's customers used SMP 8642/8643/8655 while Realtek customers migrated from RTD 1073 / RTD 1283 to RTD 1185. We have had media streamers based on these SoCs in-house for quite some time now. Almost all of them have been touched upon in one piece or the other. However, a comprehensive comparison piece was never published.

Today, we will summarize the media streaming capabilities of some of the media streamers which vied for consumer attention over the last 1 year. Representing Sigma's platform is the Netgear NeoTV 550 (based on the SMP 8642). From the Realtek side, we have the A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 based on the RTD 1185. In our original Boxee Box review, we had indicated that a second look would be coming soon. We will see whether firmware updates have improved the capabilities of the Boxee Box since we last looked at it.


With Intel exiting the media streamer market, only Sigma Designs and Realtek have introduced SoC updates for their customers. Sigma Designs adopted a three-pronged approach, introducing one set of SoCs for the premium Blu-ray player market (SMP 8646/8647), another for IP set top boxes / OTT media players (SMP 8670/8671) and yet another one for the premium media players sans Blu-ray capabilities (SMP 8656/8657). Realtek delivered just one updated SoC, namely, the RTD 1186 which added Blu-ray 3D capabilities without the BDA certification hassles. Starting last month, devices based on the updated SoCs have also started appearing. In this situation, it is conceivable that the last gen models are going to be available at attractive prices in the coming months. This review should be able to serve as a guide for your purchase of one of those models.

Starting with this review, we are streamlining the presentation of our test suite results. In the first two sections, we will discuss hardware impressions (including build quality) and the user interface / jukebox capabilities. The bulk of our test suite results will be presented in the following five sections. An overview of the streaming services available will also be presented. Miscellaneous issues such as networking capabilities and power consumption profile will be covered in the final section.



We had an initial look at the A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 back in February. The Boxee Box was reviewed in detail last November. Both the pieces had coverage of the hardware features in detail. In this section, we will look at the internals of the NTV550 in detail. Following this, we will have a comparison of the build of the three units and some notes on the remote controllers.

Netgear NTV550 Specifics

Upon initial unboxing, the NTV550's industrial design appears a bit unwieldy. The bulging top with a ventilation slot doesn't seem to quite fit in a home theater setup. Thankfully, a vertical mounting aid is also provided. A little bit of vertical clearance is needed. Once set in this configuration, the unit blends in quite nicely (except for the white coloured USB port which sticks out in the middle of the front panel). The gallery below presents selected unboxing pictures and some shots of the internal board.

The NTV550 is fanless and the board is well laid out (no clustered components). The ventilation slots directly above the SMP8642 make sure that the unit doesn't get unduly hot. The remote controller is the best part of the whole package. We will discuss that in detail in a later subsection.

Build

Out of the three units being considered today, only the A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 has an internal 3.5" hard disk slot. This make the unit slightly bigger than the rest. We have seen comments on the build quality of the A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 and the Boxee Box in previous pieces. In this subsection, we will take a look at the units in one place.

 

The Boxee Box stands out for its odd-ball design. A small fan running at high speed inside it also made the unit the noisiest of the three.

The PlayOn!HD2 needs a fan because of the internal hard disk. However, the fan is not as small as that of the Boxee Box. The A.C.Ryan unit can also act as a DAS (with USB 3.0 connectivity) and a NAS (thanks to its Ethernet port).
    
The NTV550 can expose the USB drives connected to it as shares on the network. It has a SD card slot, 2 USB 2.0 ports and an eSATA port. The Boxee Box has a SD card slot and 2 USB 2.0 ports.

All the three units use a plastic chassis and the finish is nothing to write home about. In terms of distracting front lighting, the A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 is the most at fault. The front panel of the unit has a ring of light below the logo. In standby mode, this is red. In active operation, it is white. Since the remote controller needs direct line of sight, this ring of light is indeed distracting. The Boxee Box has the Boxee logo on one side of the heptahedron. This side can be fully turned away from the line of sight. If necessary, the unit can also be completely hidden inside a closet because the remote controller is not IR based, but RF. The Boxee logo lights up in bright green when the unit is active. In sleep mode, the intensity of the light goes down quite a bit. The NTV 550 has a small LED at the bottom right (when placed flat on its base) / top right (when placed vertically)  beneath the power button. It is green when active and amber in standby mode.

Remote Controller

The remote bundled with the Boxee Box tends to elicit varied responses from users. While some people love the remote with the mini keyboard at the back, others hate it for the lack of buttons tied to specific functionality (like choosing subtitle or audio tracks).

The remotes bundled with the PlayOn!HD2 and the NTV550 are more in line with what consumers are already used to. However, that is where the similarity stops. While the NTV550 remote is ergonomic and feels solid in the hand, the PlayOn!HD2 remote feels cheap. The keys are flimsy and the layout is not intuitive.

 

Thankfully, each screen in the GUI has pointers on the functionality mapped to different keys. In addition to these drawbacks, the keys are way too sensitive, and a single key press often translated into multiple ones. Like the NTV550, one has to rely on the virtual on-screen keyboard for typing share names / passwords / search for videos on YouTube etc. with the remote. This is one drawback that the Boxee Box seems to have solved well, in our opinion.

The NTV550 remote further earns our praise for having an automatic 'backlight' mode for usage in environments where the display is often the only source of light.

IP Control

Many media streamers with networking capabilities offer some sort of web remote / IP control capability. All three streamers being considered today have some flavour of control over an IP network. For the Boxee Box, we have an Android remote that replicates the functionality of the hardware remote. Control of the unit over a web browser is also possible. Unfortunately, the Boxee Box's IP control mechanisms don't offer any additional advantages over the hardware one.

The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 has a rudimentary web interface which can reached at http://<IP of the POHD2>:1024. It offers all the capabilities of the hardware remote over three different screens. In addition to that, we also have a playlist view and information on the internal hard disk / attached USB drives. This web remote can also be viewed on smartphones / tablets which are on Wi-Fi and connected in the same LAN. Just like the hardware remote, the IP remote is also pretty cluttered. We have seen better web remotes for Realtek units (for example, the web remote of the TViX Slim S1 was much better).

The NTV550 also has a web remote which can be reached by accessing the IP of the unit over the web browser. The interface is not as good as the hardware remote, but it does offer nice additions such as the ability to choose the next item to be played from the library. This way, it can be used as a music player without having to turn on the display. Another important advantage of the NTV550 is the availability of a TCP remote interface for home automation uses. These codes have also enabled creation of an iOS remote.

The NTV550 is simply one of the best built / equipped media streamers we have seen in our labs. Can it build upon the favourable initial impressions we have? We will see in the remaining sections.

 



After the initial unboxing, the consumer encounters the setup and user interface of the media streamer. It is essential that the setup process be simple and straighforward. Both the A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 and the Netgear NTV550 are quite painless to setup. The Boxee Box requires an Internet connection as well as a Boxee account to complete the setup process. The general feel of the user interface and the various available options in each of the streamers are given in the three galleries below.

It is also necessary for the streamers to support jukebox capabilities for the user's media collection. Most streamers go for the local scraping option in which some PC-based scrapers (like YAMJ or Media Center Master or ID3 TAG tools) generate the metadata for the media files. The streamer accesses this metadata either during normal browsing or in a special jukebox mode. The Boxee Box handles scraping on its own. Therefore, no media library setup was necessary. The automatic scraping tool wasn't always correct in determining the correct title. However, we also have support for local NFO files. Using Ember Media Manager, it is possible to ensure that the correct titles and metadata are picked up. Unless the user specifically browses to the 'Files' section, the default browsing mode is the Cover Art mode. Some screenshots of the jukebox in action are provided along with the user interface screenshots above.

The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 and the Netgear NTV550 adopt the PC scraping strategy. A.C.Ryan relies on YAMJ for its jukebox capabilities. They carry an official user guide (PDF) for this purpose. Omertron's site also has PlayOn!HD specific directions. Unfortunately, my experience after creating a YAMJ database for a sample media library on a NAS was not as expected. Using the Jukebox option in the main menu, I navigated to the index.html, only to be presented with a blank jukebox despite all the necessary metadata files being present. This is apparently a documented bug in the official forums. However, resetting the filters to browse titles alphabetically did work. I am sure many users might have got the jukebox to work for all the titles in one screen, but, in my limited testing, it has not lived upto its promise.

The Netgear NTV 550 has a couple of jukebox solutions. One of them involves the Tag Tool supplied in the bundled software CD. There are other tag tools listed in the support site. For the purpose of this review, I used Ron Chernich's TAG Maker and Editor for the EVA and NTV devices. There is no dedicated jukebox mode in the NTV550, but, the Cover Art browsing mode works well as a replacement. Users need to press the Info button to get the full details about the video in question. This is not the greatest of jukeboxes in existence, but it actually works seamlessly with the existing user interface.



Beginning with this review, we are changing the presentation of our media streamer test suite results. We have updated the suite with 3D streams and also added full Blu-ray disc backups in ISO and folder format. The first aspect we will cover is container compatibility. In the tables below, it is evident we have put more stress on Blu-ray ISOs and folder structures compared to DVDs. DVD menu and folder support is pretty mature in almost all media streamers. However, Blu-rays are a different story altogether. New features (such as 3D support) keep getting added to the core specifications. In order to understand the Blu-ray rows in the tables below, we will first look at the different types of Blu-rays in existence.

Blu-ray Profiles

The earliest Blu-rays all conformed to Profile 1.0. These contained the main movie in HD and some optional extra features accessible through the main menu. Starting in November 2007, Profile 1.1 Blu-rays added Bonus View to the mix. These Blu-rays included PiP (Picture-in-Picture) streams. The rise of network enabled Blu-ray players came about due to the introduction of Profile 2.0 Blu-rays which included BD-Live capabilities. With BD-Live, users could watch downloaded content related to the Blu-ray movie (including trailers of upcoming movies from the studios) and also interact with other watchers over the Internet. Local storage is also necessary for Blu-ray players supporting this profile. 3D Blu-rays have started gaining traction over the last couple of years. Despite have a separate profile (Profile 5.0), not all 3D Blu-rays seem to fall under this profile. My general observation has been that Blu-rays which indicate an MVC encoding in their jacket fall under Profile 5.0, but 3D Blu-rays which just indicate AVC tend to not care about the profile supported by the player.

Another irksome aspect of media players supporting BD-Lite or some other similar form of Blu-ray support is the unpredictable behavior of titles with seamless branching. In this case, multiple versions of the movie are spread over multiple M2TS files and different playlists have different orderings set up to represent the multiple versions.

The table below summarizes our Blu-ray test suite:

Blu-ray Test Suite
Aspect ISO Folder Structure
Profile 1.0 What's Up Doc? Step Into Liquid
Profile 1.1 The Hangover Band of Brothers (Disc 1)
Profile 2.0 2012 Public Enemies
Profile 5.0 Alice in Wonderland 3D Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs 3D
3D (Non-Profile 5.0) Coraline 3D Monsters Vs. Aliens 3D
Seamless Branching A Bug's Life Avatar Collectors Edition

The entire test suite was run off a hard disk connected directly to the streamer. For the A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2, this disk was put in the internal slot. For the Netgear NeoTV 550, we connected the disk over eSATA. For the Boxee Box, the disk was conenected as an external USB drive.

Container Compatibility Details
A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2
Firmware Version v9.5.3.r5440
Container Notes
DVD Menus Supported
ISO Supported
Folder Structures Supported
Blu-ray ISO Selectively Supported (Refer Profile Limitations Below)
Folder Structures Selectively Supported (Refer Profile Limitations Below)
BD Profile 1.0 Supported with Menus (if BD-Lite option is turned on)1
BD Profile 1.1 (Bonus View / PiP) Plays with No Menus, PiP Unavailable1
BD Profile 2.0 (BD Live) Plays with No Menus, BD Live Unavailable1
BD Profile 5.0 (3D) Plays in 2D without Menus1
Non-BD Profile 5.0 3D Blu-rays Play in 2D without Menus1
Seamless Branching Doesn't Work (Longest Playlist Chosen unless Profile 1.0 BD)
MKV Supported Video Codecs: H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 (DivX / XViD)
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, DTS, DTS-HD HR2, FLAC, AAC, MP3, LPCM
Supported Embedded Subtitles: SRT, ASS/SSA (PGS Not Supported)
Multiple Video Tracks Supported
Multiple Audio Tracks Supported
Multiple Subtitle Tracks Supported
Chapters Supported (Chapter Names Not Supported)
Header Compression Supported
MKV3D (Stereoscopic Flag) Not Supported
Half SBS / TAB 3D Plays Back with Manual TV Mode Change
M2TS Supported Video Codecs: H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-HD MA, DTS-HD HR, LPCM
Supported Embedded Subtitles: PGS
AVI / DivX Supported Video Codecs: MPEG-4 (XviD / DivX), MJPEG
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, MP3, PCM
SBS 3D AVIs Don't Autoswitch
MP4 / M4V Supported Video Codecs: H.264
Supported Audio Codecs: AAC
Miscellaneous Containers DVR-MS Not Supported
TRP Supported
WTV Not Supported
MTS and TS Supported
M2V Not Supported
1 Audio tracks sometime go silent when playing ISO or folder structure, but navigating to the M2TS file and playing that is flawless
2 HD Audio support in MKV is very unreliable, and doesn't work most of the time (especially when HDMI Audio is set to passthrough for bitstreaming)

 

Container Compatibility Details
Netgear NTV550
Firmware Version 3.2.16NA
Container Notes
DVD Menus Supported
ISO Supported1
Folder Structures Supported1
Blu-ray ISO Selectively Supported (Refer Profile Limitations Below)
Folder Structures Selectively Supported (Refer Profile Limitations Below)
BD Profile 1.0 Supported with Menus
BD Profile 1.1 (Bonus View / PiP) Plays with Menus, PiP Available
BD Profile 2.0 (BD Live) Plays with Menus, BD Live Available2
BD Profile 5.0 (3D) Doesn't Play
Non-BD Profile 5.0 3D Blu-rays Play in 2D with Menus
Seamless Branching Works Perfectly
MKV Supported Video Codecs: H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 (DivX / XViD)
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, Dolby Digital Plus3, Dolby TrueHD3, DTS, DTS-HD MA, DTS-HD HR, FLAC, AAC, MP3, LPCM
Supported Embedded Subtitles: SRT, SUB, PGS, ASS/SSA
Multiple Video Tracks Not Supported
Multiple Audio and Subtitle Tracks Supported
Forced Subtitle Tracks Supported (with manual selection)
Named Chapters Supported
Header Compression Supported
MKV3D (Stereoscopic Flag) Not Supported
Half SBS / TAB 3D Plays Back with Manual TV Mode Change
M2TS4 Supported Video Codecs: H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-HD MA, DTS-HD HR, LPCM
Supported Embedded Subtitles: PGS
AVI / DivX Supported Video Codecs: MPEG-4 (XviD / DivX)
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, MP3, PCM
SBS 3D AVIs Don't Autoswitch
MP45 / M4V Supported Video Codecs: H.264
Supported Audio Codecs: AAC
Miscellaneous Containers DVR-MS Supported
WTV and TRP Not Supported
TS and MTS Supported
M2V Not Supported
1 Many of the ISOs and folder structures in my media library played without issues, but our test suite ISO and folder structures failed to play back correctly (the menu title took us back to the main screen)
2 Usage of BD Live features sometime tend to lock up the system requiring a hard reboot
3 Support for some of the HD audio codecs in MKV containers is not reliable. Works sometimes, sends static to the AV receiver on other occassions.
4 The M2TS splitter has some issues with H.264/AC3 content as described in this bug reported against another Sigma based media streamer.
5 Many of the MP4s in my media library played without issues, but one of the MP4s in our test suite played back with audio only (blank video)

 

Container Compatibility Details
D-Link Boxee Box
Firmware Version v1.2.2.20482
Container Notes
DVD Menus Supported
ISO Supported
Folder Structures Supported
Blu-ray ISO Selectively Supported (Refer Profile Limitations Below)
Folder Structures Selectively Supported (Refer Profile Limitations Below)
BD Profile 1.0 Plays without Menus
BD Profile 1.1 (Bonus View / PiP) Plays with No Menus, PiP Unavailable
BD Profile 2.0 (BD Live) Plays with No Menus, BD Live Unavailable
BD Profile 5.0 (3D) Plays without Menus
Non-BD Profile 5.0 3D Blu-rays Play in 2D without Menus
Seamless Branching Doesn't Work (Longest Playlist Chosen)
MKV Supported Video Codecs: H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 (DivX / XViD)
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-HD MA, DTS-HD HR, FLAC, AAC, MP3, LPCM
Supported Embedded Subtitles: SRT, SUB, PGS, ASS/SSA
Multiple Video Tracks Not Supported
Multiple Audio and Subtitle Tracks Supported
Forced Subtitle Tracks Supported
Named Chapters Supported
Header Compression Supported
MKV3D (Stereoscopic Flag) Not Supported
Half SBS / TAB 3D Plays Back with Manual TV Mode Change
M2TS1 Supported Video Codecs: H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-HD MA, DTS-HD HR, LPCM
Supported Embedded Subtitles: PGS
AVI / DivX Supported Video Codecs: MPEG-4 (XviD / DivX), MJPEG (upto SD Resolution)
Supported Audio Codecs: AC3, MP3, PCM
SBS 3D AVIs Don't Autoswitch
MP4 / M4V Supported Video Codecs: H.264
Supported Audio Codecs: AAC
Miscellaneous Containers DVR-MS Supported
TRP Supported
WTV Supported
TS and MTS Supported
M2V Supported
1 The M2TS splitter has some issues with H.264/AC3 content as described in this bug reported against another Sigma based media streamer.

 



H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-1/2/4 are the most commonly supported codecs in today's media streamers. Realtek media streamers also have RMVB enabled. But, even within these supported codecs, there are certain encoding tweaks (with H.264, in particular) that are not supported in all media streamers. In this section, we will address these factors.

Video Compatibility Details
A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2
Firmware Version v9.5.3.r5440
Codec Notes
H.264 Improper Support for 1080p60 Level 4.2 Camcorder Streams / Level 5.1 User Encodes(Drops Frames)
Maximum Frame Size of 1920x1080 (Full SBS / Full TAB 3D Streams Not Supported)
Maximum of 5 Reference Frames Supported
Improper Support for 10 bit H.264 Encodes (Blocking Artifacts)
Erroneous Bitstream Recovery OK
Upto 60 Mbps H.264 Streams Play OK (from internal SATA drive)
VC-1 Supported
720p60 / 1080i60 (Interlaced Streams - Advanced Profile) Also Supported
MPEG-2 Supported
MPEG-4 (DivX / XviD) Supported (upto 1080p24)
Global Motion Compensation with More Than 2 Warp Points Not Supported
Real Media Video Supported upto 1080p24
Miscellaneous Codecs WMV8 Not Supported
VP6 Not Supported
VP8 Not Supported
Theora Not Supported
MPEG-1 Supported

 

Video Compatibility Details
Netgear NTV550
Firmware Version 3.2.16NA
Codec Notes
H.264 1080p60 Level 4.2 Camcorder Streams / Level 5.1 User Encodes Partially Supported1
Maximum of 16 Reference Frames Supported
Maximum Frame Size of 1920x1080 (Full SBS / Full TAB 3D Streams Not Supported)
10 bit H.264 Decoding Not Supported (Blank Video Screen)
Erroneous Bitstream Recovery OK
Upto 70 Mbps H.264 Streams Play OK (over eSATA)
VC-1 Supported
720p60 / 1080i60 (Interlaced Streams - Advanced Profile) Also Supported
MPEG-2 Supported
MPEG-4 (DivX / XviD) Supported (upto 1080p24)
Global Motion Compensation with More Than 2 Warp Points Not Supported
Real Media Video Not Supported
Miscellaneous Codecs WMV8 Not Supported
VP6 Not Supported
VP8 Not Supported
Theora Not Supported
MPEG-1 Supported
1The 1080p60 camcorder clip in MP4 played back with artifacts and had stuttering issues

 

Video Compatibility Details
D-Link Boxee Box
Firmware Version v1.2.2.20482
Codec Notes
H.264 Improper Support for 1080p60 Level 4.2 Camcorder Streams / Level 5.1 User Encode (Drops Frames)
Maximum Frame Size of 1920x1080 (Full SBS / Full TAB 3D Streams Not Supported)
Maximum of 16 Reference Frames Supported
10 bit H.264 Decoding Not Supported (Blank Screen)
Erroneous Bitstream Recovery OK
Upto 70 Mbps H.264 Streams Play OK (over USB)
VC-1 Supported
720p60 / 1080i60 (Interlaced Streams - Advanced Profile) Also Supported
MPEG-2 Supported
MPEG-4 (DivX / XviD) Supported (upto 1080p24)
Global Motion Compensation Supported
Multiple Warp Points Supported
Real Media Video Supported upto SD Resolution
Miscellaneous Codecs WMV8 Supported
VP6 Supported
VP8 Supported Upto SD Resolutions
Theora Not Supported
MPEG-1 Supported


The extent and nature of support for various audio codecs decide where the media streamers can be used. For example, in most setups, AVRs are available only in the main home theater location. The streamers used with bedroom TVs are usually directly connected over HDMI. In this context, we need to understand the three important aspects of audio codec support.

Bitstreaming: This refers to the ability of the player to send out the audio track in the media file directly through HDMI to the next device (usually AVR) in the output chain.

Decoding: This refers to the ability of the player to decode all the channels in the audio track and send out the LPCM version through HDMI or output all the audio tracks through the analog audio output ports (if available).

Downmixing: This refers to the ability of the player to decode all the channels in the audio track and combine them in such a way as to output stereo audio (2.0) over HDMI or the analog audio output ports.

Other audio aspects which get covered in this section include support for ISOs of SACDs, DVD-A and BD-Audio, playlist support, gapless audio support and sampling frequencies.

Audio Compatibility Details
A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2
Firmware Version v9.5.3.r5440
Codec Bitstream Decode Downmix
AC3 (Dolby Digital) Yes Yes (upto 2.0) Yes (down to 2.0)
DTS Yes Yes (upto 2.0) Yes (down to 2.0)
Dolby Digital Plus No Yes (upto 2.0) Yes (down to 2.0)
DTS-HD HR Yes Yes (Core) (upto 2.0) Yes (Core) (down to 2.0)
Dolby TrueHD Yes Yes (upto 2.0) Yes (down to 2.0)
DTS-HD MA Yes Yes (Core) (upto 2.0) Yes (Core) (down to 2.0)
WMA Pro No Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
AAC Not Tested Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
MP3 Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
FLAC Not Tested Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
Cook (Real Audio) Not Applicable Yes (upto 2.0) Not Applicable
Vorbis Not Applicable No No
APE Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
AIFF Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
DVD-A Partially Supported (AC3 Version)
SACD Not Supported
BD-Audio Supported with bitstreaming
Playlists M3U with Relative Pathnames Supported, PLS Support is Spotty
Gapless Audio Not Supported
Sampling Frequencies Faithful Decoding to LPCM upto 192 KHz for non-HD Audio Codecs, 48 KHz maximum for Decoded HD-Audio Codecs

 

Audio Compatibility Details
Netgear NTV550
Firmware Version 1.03.10
Codec Bitstream Decode Downmix
AC3 (Dolby Digital) Yes Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
DTS Yes Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
Dolby Digital Plus Yes Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
DTS-HD HR Yes Yes (Core) (upto 5.1) Yes (Core) (down to 2.0)
Dolby TrueHD Yes Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
DTS-HD MA Yes Yes (Core) (upto 5.1) Yes (Core) (down to 2.0)
WMA Pro No Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
AAC Not Tested Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
MP3 Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
FLAC Not Tested Yes (upto 5.1) Yes (down to 2.0)
Cook (Real Audio) Not Applicable No Not Applicable
Vorbis Not Applicable No No
APE Not Applicable No No
AIFF Not Applicable No No
DVD-A Partially Supported (AC3 Version)
SACD Not Supported
BD-Audio Supported with bitstreaming
Playlists M3U and PLS files with relative pathnames show up in the library, but don't play back
Gapless Audio Supported
Sampling Frequencies Faithful Decoding to LPCM upto 192 KHz for non-HD Audio Codecs, 48 KHz maximum for Decoded HD-Audio Codecs

 

Audio Compatibility Details
D-Link Boxee Box
Firmware Version v1.2.2.20482
Codec Bitstream Decode Downmix
AC3 (Dolby Digital) Yes Yes (upto 5.1)1 Yes (down to 2.0)1
DTS Yes Yes (upto 5.1)1 Yes (down to 2.0)1
Dolby Digital Plus Yes Yes (upto 5.1)1 Yes (down to 2.0)1
DTS-HD HR Yes Yes (Core) (upto 5.1)1 Yes (Core) (down to 2.0)1
Dolby TrueHD Yes Yes (upto 5.1)1 Yes (down to 2.0)1
DTS-HD MA Yes Yes (Core) (upto 5.1)1 Yes (Core) (down to 2.0)1
WMA Pro No Yes (upto 5.1)1 Yes (down to 2.0)1
AAC Not Tested Yes (upto 5.1)1 Yes (down to 2.0)1
MP3 Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
FLAC Not Tested Yes (upto 5.1)1 Yes (down to 2.0)1
Cook (Real Audio) Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
Vorbis Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
APE Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
AIFF Not Applicable Yes Not Applicable
DVD-A Not Supported
SACD Not Supported
BD-Audio Supported with bitstreaming2
Playlists M3U and PLS With Relative Pathnames Fully Supported
Gapless Audio Not Supported
Sampling Frequencies Decoded Formats Downsampled to 48 KHz
1 Decoded / Downmixed Formats Downsampled to 48 KHz
2 HD Audio Streams Suffer from Dropouts

 



Subtitles are an important part of the media experience. However, media streamers have been guilty of only including rudimentary support for SRT and SUB formats. With the rising popularity of Blu-ray backups and anime content, consumers have started looking for PGS support in various containers and also support for stylized subtitles (with karaoke effects, for example). In this section, we will explore the extent of subtitle support in the three media streamers.

Subtitle Compatibility Details
A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2
Firmware Version v9.5.3.r5440
Format Notes
PGS Supported only in M2TS (MKV Not Supported)
Forced Subtitles in MKV Not Supported
SRT External Subtitles Supported for All Formats
MKV Muxed Subtitles Supported
No Issues with Automatic Subtitle Encoding Detection (All Tested Languages Worked Fine)
SUB/IDX Supported with VOB in DVD Folder / ISO
MKV Muxed Subtitles / External Subtitles Not Supported
ASS / SSA Rudimentary Support (No Stylization)

 

Subtitle Compatibility Details
Netgear NTV550
Firmware Version 3.2.16NA
Format Notes
PGS Supported in both M2TS and MKV
Forced Subtitles in MKV Supported
SRT External Subtitles Supported for All Formats
MKV Muxed Subtitles Supported
Automatic Subtitle Encoding Detection Fails / Some Languages Don't Work (Vietnames, Thai, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi and Japanese Don't Display Properly)
SUB/IDX External Subtitles Supported for All Formats
MKV Muxed Subtitles Supported
ASS / SSA Supported with Stylization (Stylization Effects Could be Smoother)

 

Subtitle Compatibility Details
D-Link Boxee Box
Firmware Version v1.2.2.20482
Format Notes
PGS Supported in both M2TS and MKV
Forced Subtitles in MKV Supported
SRT External Subtitles Supported for All Formats
MKV Muxed Subtitles Supported
No Issues with Automatic Subtitle Encoding Detection (All Tested Languages Worked Fine)
SUB/IDX External Subtitles Supported for All Formats
MKV Muxed Subtitles Supported
ASS / SSA Full Support with PC-Like Stylization

 



Media players are often used to display slideshows of photo albums and other pictures. Most media streamers specify a list of supported codecs, but users are often frustrated with slow photo loading times. In this section, we will present some analysis of the image formats support of the three media streamers.

Image Formats Compatibility Details
A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2
Firmware Version v9.5.3.r5440
Format Notes
JPG Tested Upto 40MP ; Takes less than 3s On Average To Decode and Scale to 1920x1080
GIF Supported (Animated GIFs Show First Frame Only)
JPS Not Supported
Miscellaneous Formats MPO Not Supported
DNG Partially Supported (18MP Recognized, 37MP Tagged as Invalid File)
TIFF Supported (Multipage Files Display First Page)
PNG Supported

 

Image Formats Compatibility Details
Netgear NTV550
Firmware Version 3.2.16NA
Format Notes
JPG Tested Upto 40MP ; Takes 8s On Average To Decode and Scale to 1920x1080
GIF Supported
JPS Not Supported
Miscellaneous Formats MPO Not Supported
DNG Not Supported
TIFF Supported (Multipage Files Display First Page)
PNG Supported (>20 MP PNGs failed to display)

 

Image Formats Compatibility Details
D-Link Boxee Box
Firmware Version v1.2.2.20482
Format Notes
JPG Tested Upto 40MP ; Takes 5s On Average To Decode and Scale to 1920x1080
GIF Supported (Animated GIFs Display First Frame)
JPS Not Supported
Miscellaneous Formats MPO Not Supported
DNG Supported
TIFF Supported (Multipage Files Display First Page)
PNG Supported

 



Over-the-top (OTT) media services are very popular in the US. Netflix's plans to expand to other countries is bound to result in demand for media streamers to support such streaming services. In addition to premium content, consumers also want to enjoy freely available media like YouTube videos and TuneIn radio stations. In this section, we will take a look at the variety of streaming services supported by the three media streamers.

Streaming Services Compatibility Details
A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2
Firmware Version v9.5.3.r5440
Service Notes
Netflix Not Supported
YouTube YouTube / YouTube XL Twin Interfaces
1080p Supported
Miscellaneous Video / Podcast Services Mediafly
Miscellaneous Apps Twitter / Facebook / Flickr / Picasa / Shoutcast / Yahoo! Finance, News & Weather / Instant Messaging / Muzee Network TV & Music
Developer Support for Custom Channels No

 

Streaming Services Compatibility Details
Netgear NTV550
Firmware Version 3.2.16NA
Service Notes
Netflix Not Supported
YouTube Custom Interface
Max. Resolution of 360p Supported
Miscellaneous Video / Podcast Services Custom (NBC / CBS / ABC / CNN / PBS / BBC / Wired / Engadget / Gizmodo)
Miscellaneous Audio Services RadioTime, TuneIn and ShoutCast Supported
Miscellaneous Apps Flickr / Weather / ReadyNAS Photos
Developer Support for Custom Channels No

 

Streaming Services Compatibility Details
D-Link Boxee Box
Firmware Version v1.2.2.20482
Service Notes
Netflix No Support for 1080p or DD+
Adaptive Streaming Implemented
YouTube Leanback Interface
1080p Supported
Miscellaneous Video Services Amazon VoD Not Supported
VUDU HDX Supported
Crackle Supported
Miscellaneous Audio Services Pandora Supported
Spotify Supported
Web Browser Supported with Custom Adobe Flash Build / No Silverlight
Miscellaneous Apps Revision3, MKB.TV, Justin.TV, CrunchyRoll etc. [ Apps List Video ]
Developer Support for Custom Channels Exists [ Developer Page ]

 



In addition to the major media aspects covered in the preceding section, there are a number of other factors which need to be touched upon (but don't deserve a full section by themselves).

DLNA

Except for the Boxee Box, the other two media streamers have the ability to act as DMRs (Digital Media Renderers), compliant with the DLNA specifications. This makes it quite easy to push media from a PC onto these devices and through them to the display (with the Play To functionality). However, the DLNA capabilities are quite limited. For example, NTV550 users have ended up being disappointed with the DLNA features of the unit. PlayOn!HD2 also has DLNA DMR support which can be enabled or disabled by the user. It can also act as a uPnP server. I am personally not a big fan of DLNA support. It is good when it works, but, more often than not, I have seen consumers end up getting disappointed.
    
Networking

In this subsection, we present the results of our experiment to determine the efficiency of the networking stack in the media streamer. We restrict ourselves to wired Ethernet connections (even if the unit possesses wireless support). Various test clips with bitrates ranging from 20 to 110 Mbps were streamed from the Western Digital MyBook Live.
    
The NTV550 has a built-in network test option for the configured shares. Initially, I obtained very poor transfer rates (10 - 20 Mbps) with the NAS. A quick search on the forums revealed that the NTV550 networking stack puts the entire onus of 802.3x flow control on the router / switch. Fortunately, my network infrastructure supported it. After performing the requisite configuration, I managed to consistently hit 75 - 85 Mbps in the network test for the MyBook Live shares.

The table below presents the maximum bitrate of the clip which played back without stuttering in our network transfer rate test suite.

Media Bitrate Limitations over Wired Network
Streamer Max. Bitrate
A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 42 Mbps (over both SMB and NFS)
Netgear NTV550 50 Mbps (SMB), 55 Mbps (NFS)
D-Link Boxee Box 50 Mbps (SMB), 70 Mbps (NFS)

The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 can act as a NAS device if an internal hard disk is installed. Despite have a GbE port, I could hit up a max transfer rate of only 13 MB/s (and that too, over FTP and not SMB). The USB 3.0 performance in DAS mode is limited only by the transfer rates of the internal hard disk. I was able to regularly hit 70 - 80 MB/s over USB 3.0 to an ASRock CoreHT PC.

Cinavia

Out of the three media streamers being considered today, only the Netgear NTV550 has the ability to play protected Blu-rays, and that too, only with a special 'bdallow' hack. Cinavia detection doesn't exist in the currently available firmware for the NTV550. Netgear initially planned to obtain BDA certification for the unit, but things didn't go according to plan. Without the BDA certification, I am fairly certain that there should be no firmware updates with Cinavia enabled coming around when Cinavia becomes compulsory next February. In any case, all firmware updates for the NTV550 are completely optional.

Since the A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 and the D-Link Boxee Box are not AACS licensed, the case of Cinavia doesn't arise.

Blu-ray Region Locks

Region locks are applicable only to BDA certified players, and at first glance, it appears that none of the players should have this problem. Certainly, for the PlayOn!HD2 and the Boxee Box, there are no problems since they can't play back commercial Blu-rays. However, my experience with the NTV550 was a bit strange.

The NTV550 acts like a licensed Blu-ray player even without the bdallow hack in this respect. There are only 5 allowed region changes. Even when a folder backup of a Blu-ray from a different region (with AACS / BD+ protection removed, but region lock not removed) is played, the region lock message is triggered. Of course, this is not a show stopper issue.

Image and Video Quality / Characteristics

All the three media streamers being covered today have support for dynamic refresh rate changes depending on the media being played back. The NTV550 terms this as 'Auto Refresh Rate'. With this enabled, the end user is able to watch the media file without any frame drops / repeats (subject to display support). 23.976 fps videos play back at 23.976 Hz, 24 fps videos at 24 Hz, 25 fps videos at 50 Hz, 29.97 fps videos at 59.94 Hz and so on.

The Boxee Box and the PlayOn!HD2 have support for 23.976/24 Hz only. If you are in NTSC land, and you wish to watch a PAL video, you might be out of luck with respect to matched refresh rates even if your display supports both NTSC and PAL.

It doesn't make sense to run the full HQV benchmark set on any of these media streamers since the knobs to test many of the processing algorithms are simply absent in the options. That said, we did run the cadence detection and denoising clips through the units. The Netgear NTV550 drew a blank in both departments. The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 had options to enable or disable denoising, and it achieved the desired results (though the amount of denoising couldn't be controlled). It failed all cadence detection tests (except for 3:2, which is the most important pattern, anyway). The Boxee Box has the best video post processing capability amongst all the considered streamers. It was able to pass all the cadence detection tests (including esoteric cadence patterns such as 6:4 and 2:3:3:2).

None of the media streamers being covered today offer a native resolution mode. This means that the output is always upscaled by the player itself. The colour space conversion also takes place within the player. All the players allow upto 36bit setting for HDMI deep colour. Output can also be set to RGB Limited / RGB Full / YCbCr 4:2:2 / YCbCr 4:4:4.

The BT.601 vs BT.709 colour space issue is another aspect which needs to be handled properly by the streamers. By default, SD videos are supposed to use BT.601 and HD videos are supposed to use BT.709. Sometimes, the videos are not flagged properly. So, an unflagged HD video should be assumed by the streamer to be using BT.709. If not, the user is bound to see some colour differences as shown in this post. Of the three streamers tested today, the Netgear NTV550 fails this test. The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 and the Boxee Box handle the case of missing flags without any problem.

General Stability

Everything we have seen about the NTV550 so far makes it appear to be the ultimate media player. However, it is in general stability that it flunks the test. Even in stable firmware versions, I often encountered UI freezes (thankfully, the frequency has gone down in the recent version) and lock ups on playing some Blu-ray ISOs and video files. My biggest complaint about the NTV550 is the HDMI output behaviour when the device enters sleep mode (or after the display is turned off without the NTV550 being put in standby). Most of the time, the HDMI output just dies out. Some times, it is possible to regain the output by cycling through the TV Modes, but, at other times, it needs a hard power reset. Such problems don't contribute to a good home theater experience.

The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 is similar to the NTV550 with respect to general stability. In addition to the unit locking up (particularly when something is being played from the internal hard disk and it is also accessed over the network simultaneously), the menus and the remote are a pain to use. My biggest complaint about the unit is that the internal hard disk doesn't get recognized some of the time (usually after getting out from USB slave mode) and a power cycle is necessary for the hard disk to get recognized and the NAS services to start.

The Boxee Box came out to be the most stable of the three media streamers under the scanner today. I didn't experience any lock-ups (Except in cases where the network connection was not stable enough -- but the unit did eventually recover). My biggest complaint about the Boxee Box is the audio dropouts issue over HDMI. Fortunately, the problem seems to have been root caused and a patched firmware expected to appear in another 4 or 5 months.

Power Consumption

The three media streamers being considered today have varying power consumption profiles due to different reasons. The NTV550 came out to be the winner in this department. Being fanless and avoiding the internal hard disk slot has enabled the device to operate between 6.5 and 8.1 W.
    
The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2, on the other hand, is let down by the power consumption of the internal hard disk and the fan. Without the internal hard disk, the unit only consumes 6.8 W when streaming videos over the wired network. However, adding the internal hard disk increased this to 13.4 W.

The Boxee Box is let down by the inefficiency of the Intel CE4100. Conuming more than 10W of power in sleep mode is entirely unacceptable. Just for the record, the device consumed between 11.1 W and 13.8 W when streaming videos over the wired network.

Future Support

None of the three streamers considered in this review can be termed perfect as of today. In this situation, can the user expect firmware upgrades in the future? Will they help the unit become better / resolve bugs? In this respect, the Boxee Box is at the forefront. Not only are they quite transparent about the bugs being addressed, the firmware updates have also been more frequent compared to the other two units. A timeframe has already been provided for the HD audio dropouts (which is one of the most glaring issues plaguing the unit), and one is assured of new firmware releases at least till end of Q1 2012. A new Live TV add-on is also scheduled to appear in January 2012. Hopefully, DVR support should follow.
    
The NTV550 comes in next, with beta firmwares turning up once every two months or so. The beta firmwares / test builds are not publicly announced, and I have also found them to resolve only a few bugs at a time (while breaking existing stuff). I think there will probably be a couple of more firmware releases, and I am afraid they will not be able to fix all the issues with the unit.

The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 seems to have the least issues in terms of actual playback ability (even though the unit may not be the easiest to use). The firmware updates have also been quite spread apart. There are still pending bugs to fix, but, with the A.C.Ryan Veolo slated to start shipping next month, I don't think users are going to see a lot of firmware updates for this unit.



We have come to the business end of the review. After having analyzed the pros and cons of each of the units, it is quite difficult to select one of them as an outright winner. In fact, with all the pending issues, it is actually hard to recommend any of these players as the perfect media player.

All three of the players we have covered today should be available at reduced prices soon. For example, the NTV550 was recently on Amazon for $110. At this price, it can be definitely recommended in many usage scenarios. In the same way, the Boxee Box was available for $90, and at that price, it is a very good deal. The A.C.Ryan PlayOn!HD2 combines media player functionality with NAS and DAS capabilities in a single package. Consumers looking for such a package may find it an attractive proposition for CAD 170.

At this stage of the game, it is very clear that there is no such thing as an ultimate media player. Devices with a good OTT capabilities disappoint in the extent of support for local media playback. On the other hand, streamers with Blu-ray menu capabilities (such as the NTV550) and other such local media goodies have disappointing (or almost non-existent) support for online media services. Our quest for the ultimate media streamer continues.

Updates / Manufacturer Responses:

I will use this subsection to update the piece with responses from the manufacturers.

A.C.Ryan sent us this update:

...would just like to inform you that solutions have been found to some of the issues you have raised, namely for SUB/IDX subtitles and the YAMJ jukebox. The SUB/IDX issue is only with our latest r5440 firmware. We expect both to be updated on the next official firmware release.

I notice under Streaming Services that there is no mention of the Video Podcast service available in the Internet Media menu of the Playon!HD2.

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