A computer is a terrific tool for storing your music, photographs, and videos, but the home office usually isn't the best place for family and friends to enjoy the show. The better room is where you have the comfy seats, good speakers, and big-screen TV. At least that's the argu-ment behind all those media receivers that are vying for the at tention of any one who has a wired or wireless home network. One of the newest is the Media-Link Entertainment Receiver from ADS Tech.
SETUP AND BASIC OPERATION The squat silver receiver comes with a remote control, batteries, an Ethernet cable, a Wi-Fi PC Card (802.11g), an A/V cable, and software for use on a networked Pentium III (500 MHz or faster) PC running Windows 98SE or above. I installed the software on the Windows XP desktop machine in my home office and attached the receiver to my TV and network router in the living room. (Later, I detached the Ethernet cable and slid the Wi-Fi card into the side of the receiver to tap into my wireless network.)
The Media-Link software on your computer points to the My Music, My Photos, and My Videos folders in Windows, but you can change those preferences. The setup menu on the Media-Link receiver automatically finds any computer on your network running the Media-Link software. In a Wi-Fi setup, you must also identify the name (SSID) of your network. Once setup is complete, the main menu lets you access videos, music, and photos (all stored on the server), or the Internet.
PERFORMANCE Media-Link managed to do some tricks that I hadn't seen any media receiver perform before. First, it's not only compatible with MPEG-1/2/4 files, but you can play the videos with five slow-motion and four fast-forward and reverse speeds. You'd take these tricks for granted in a DVD player but not when the movie is streaming from your home network. Video playback was superb, as was Media-Link's infinite zooming and panning capability with photos.
As a jukebox, Media-Link plays MP3, WMA, and WAV files, but you can't scan within a track. You also can't start playing music from the TV and then switch to a slideshow - the music just stops playing.
For Internet radio, Media-Link lists 84 streams ranging from 24 to 160 kilobits per second within nine musical genres. Because Media-Link also lets you browse the Internet from your TV and recognizes bookmarks you've saved in Internet Explorer on your computer, I was able to switch to other stations (such as WNYC in New York ) that I'd designated as favorites without having to enter the URL. Still, as a vehicle for cruising the Internet on your TV, Media-Link is more difficult to navigate and handles fewer online formats than any computer. RCA's MSN TV 2 media receiver (reviewed on page 67) does a much better job of making the Internet usable on your TV.
Media-Link's weakest link is its crowded, confusing remote. Since there isn't a wireless keyboard, entering a Web address from the TV means multiple presses from the dual-purpose number pad to get a letter into the address field. And then there's no way to save the site as a favorite. That's why you really need to get your ducks in a row on your PC before moving over to the TV.
BOTTOM LINE Although the screen interface, user's guide, and remote are all in dire need of makeovers, ADS Tech packs a lot of aptitude into its little set-top receiver. While its Internet browser is mediocre (except for the clever leveraging of its server's bookmarks), when it comes to handling content over a home network, Media-Link is one of the most format-friendly receivers I've used. Its DVD-like control of PC-stored video is astonishing. And considering that both a wireless card and Ethernet cable are included in the box, Media-Link is simply a great value, especially for the tech-savvy.
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