About a month ago I started looking for a networked media device to join my home theater setup. I loved the Home Media Option in my Series 2 TiVo, espeically for playing music downstairs in my home theater system, but I switched to a DirecTiVo system recently that lacked HMO support.
I started my search by combing the landscape. My wishlist called for music, photo, and movie streaming on my wireless network and good audio and video connections to my home theater. After checking out what was available, I eventually settled on either the KiSS DVD with ethernet or the Gateway Connected DVD. When I found out the Gateway had recently added DivX streaming support, I decided to buy one (it was also about half the price of a KiSS DVD player).
First off, I started out by using a tip someone once told me. If you ever see a coupon code box in a checkout page, do a quick google search for "company name coupon code." Using this method, I found a "$20 off every purchase $199 or more" code, making my Gateway DVD player $179 at checkout.
Setup and Hardware
The unit showed up days later and consisted of a short, wide player in silver and chrome, with a remote and a laptop wireless card that slid into the appropriate slot on the back.
I installed it with S-video and optical audio connections to my home theater receiver. It also offers progressive scan connections if you've got the equipment for it.
The controller is OK, offering a pretty simple point and select pad in the middle that was easy to use without having to look down. The network functions all reside along a column on the upper left side, which is fine but the main "connect" button is the only way to access network features and is buried in the next middle row. Since I use the connect button more than the DVD features, I wish it was bigger and located in a more prominent location. Another unfortunate design choice was making the forward/reverse seek buttons the same size as the forward/reverse chapter buttons, and putting them next to each other. This means if I want to jump back ten seconds I have to look down to find the correct rewind button. It would have been nice if they were special shapes and different in size so one could use the buttons by feel.
Since I run an open wireless network at home, setup was a snap. I started the unit up, checked the network setup and noticed it found my wireless access point upstairs and joined it. If I had a WEP password, this is the screen I would have entered it. Unfortunately, the Gateway doesn't support typing network names in directly, so if you're not broadcasting your access point ID, the gateway won't be able to find it (this is how I had my wireless network setup, security through obscurity).
The server software installed easily on my Windows XP box and let me direct it where to find my music, video, and image files. At first I was surprised to see it ignored all my DivX movies, but I later found out my unit shipped with the latest firmware on the DVD player, but the server software was out of date. If you want to be safe, download the server software from this Gateway Support Page (which required quite a bit of digging on their site to find, as it's not listed under support files for the device). Once I had the new software my DivX movies were all added to the list. I set a schedule to do a nightly re-index, but I did find it a drag that it couldn't keep track of my music directory automatically. If I ripped a new CD, I'd have to tell the software to re-index my collection to see the new files.
Once all my mp3s were indexed, I started listening to music whenever I was downstairs doing chores (making dinner, doing dishes) or relaxing without the TV on.
Once you've got 3000 songs by hundreds of artists in a database, it's often a challenge to find and listen to music. The programs I typically use on my desktop, iTunes and Winamp, handle the problem in different ways but both do a good job of making and managing playlists and letting you listen to all music on random. Since the Gateway is limited in interface and controls over a PC, I found it to be a bit cumbersome to find certain artists or randomize large chunks of my collection. Near as I can tell it isn't possible to play all your songs randomly, so I usually would pick an artist and listen to all their music, or pick a genre and listen to all tracks within it. I found the next problem being if I wanted to hear "Pink Martini", I had to scroll through the 10-15 artists listed on each screen all the way down to number 370 of my 440 artist collection (that's where the P's started). The scrolling was quite slow and the only shortcut is to guess a number in the list that it should jump to.
Playlist files are supposed to be indexed but I didn't notice any in my library. The only playlists I could get to work were the ones I made with the Gateway server software, which was easy (it was very iTunes like, you name a new list then drag tracks to it), but lame that it ignored my existing lists. Once I had a few good playlists created for each mood I found myself using the playlist feature most of all.
The number of images on my hard drive is about the same as my mp3 collection, with thousands of loosely organized (by directory name) images downloaded from digital cameras. I quickly found out the server software's scanner was a bit too good at finding images, and would grab any gif or jpg on the drives I pointed it to, including all the incidental little files within software applications.
Once I weeded out all the photos except for my digital camera output, I still had the same problems negotiating thousands of items with a simple remote. It did have a nice feature where it automatically grouped photos found in a directory as unique, but playlists seemed the way to go when browsing a specific set of images. Slideshows were pretty basic though I didn't notice any controls for setting how long images show up, and although I didn't expect it, it would have been nice if I could listen to music and watch a slideshow.
The Gateway Connected DVD player supports MPEG 1 and 2 and offers some DivX support though it isn't certified (also, the divx support requires the latest version of the server software).
I don't have that many movies stored on my PC, aside from a few DVD backups I made for plane flights. I set out to find content to test this player against and downloaded every movie and tv show I could find on underground networks. From playing around with a variety of sources, I found that almost anything played fine over the 802.11b network. About the only problem files were those with errors or truncated file headers (movies that could barely play on my PC).
I was amazed at the quality and that my network could handle it. I've got a 802.11g network in the house that I use for all computers (including my PC desktop). The access point is directly upstairs above the TV in the living room, and I was worried all those walls and the entertainment unit would affect network performance. The Gateway docs say it can handle up to 3Mb/sec video and I couldn't find a single file anywhere that was encoded at a higher bitrate.
The visual quality of downloaded movies did vary. While DivX did a great job making large movies small filesizes, the videos did usually show compression artifacts (blockiness like a jpeg) that reminded me of TiVo's lowest quality recordings. Higher bitrate MPEGs looked fantastic, with some approaching DVD quality. For research purposes (heh), I went in search of every hollywood blockbuster I could find, to see if the experience of watching movies at home was better than going to a theater. For the films that were ripped from screener DVDs, the quality was great and the experience close to DVD. For shaking camcorder recordings done inside a theater, the experience was mostly crap, with overexposed images and lousy sound.
I was kind of bummed to see that it didn't support quicktime video, since that's what my digital camera records and everything I make in iMovie outputs as quicktime. It would have been nice if it supported that.
It's easy to forget this thing plays DVDs too, and the DVDs in my collection all seemed to play fine. The controls seemed a bit sparse compared to my older DVD player this replaced, as I found I couldn't quickly swap audio tracks while a movie played (maybe I haven't found the exact keystroke for it yet). The fastforwarding for both DVDs and Video playback leave something to be desired, espeically if you've used a TiVo. There aren't easy ways to jump forward quickly aside from chapters in DVDs. My old player worked more like a TiVo, with three levels of fastforwarding and tick marks you could jump to.
Overall, I really like this unit and it fills the void left by giving up the Home Media Option nicely, and adds video support to boot. I was really surprised to see the 802.11b card keep up with video playback through a couple walls and only found network problems on a couple occasions when I was also downloading large files in another room. If you've got a big mp3 collection on your computer and a good speaker system in your home theater, there are few better ways than this unit to hear your music at home. As for movies, this thing reminds me of how an ipod makes mp3s useful. I never saw the point of downloading movies if you had to watch them at your computer. With this setup, I could watch them how they were meant to be shown and I found a whole new appreciation for the underground world of TV and movie traders (while I waited a couple weeks to get my DirecTV setup, I got to catch missed episodes of the Simpsons and The Daily Show). Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America once called the VCR the "boston strangler" when he tried to kill the technology in the early 80s, and when his MPAA folks catch wind of devices like this, I have no doubt they will call them something like "Osama Bin Laden in a box" to their industry.
The downsides aren't too numerous or too bad. Even though I already had an ok DVD player, this was a great replacement, and if you are in the market for a new progressive DVD player, this is a great option to have. The remote control could be improved and I found it somewhat limiting to scanning ahead in DVDs or jumping around among hundreds of listings in music. I thought 802.11b would be too slow for my needs, but it worked fine (and I hear you can drop a 802.11g card in and it'll work fine though I wish Gateway would explicitly support it). It seemed to work fine on all my mp3s, jpegs, mpegs, and divx files, though it isn't officially certified for DivX support (Joe from DivX pointed out the KiSS DVD player is certified).
It'd be nice if the unit could read more video formats though the ones it does support work great. Be sure you get the latest software and firmware when running the unit, so you get all the features you can out of it. One big downside is that there is zero mac support, as the software requires a PC running win2k, winxp, win98, or winme. Another missing feature was the ability to read media from networked or mapped drives on my PC. Since it didn't have mac support, I hoped it could see my mac's music and image folders that were mapped on my PC, but it could not, only seeing physical drives. It doesn't support streaming mp3 from radio stations as far as I can tell, and it doesn't support Apple's encrypted AAC files bought at the iTunes music store. The last lacking feature I can think of is the support for inputing access point names into the network settings. There's no reason why a quick firmware upgrade couldn't let people not broadcasting their SSID connect manually.
Overall, I'd rate this unit very highly as a capable network media device. With a simple setup and easy operation, it was painless to use all the files from my PC on my home entertainment center over the wireless network. I expect to keep using this unit for a long time and hope Gateway continues to refine the desktop server software and player firmware. After using this for week, I went out and bought a 250Gb hard drive to add to my PC, so that I could have all my files in one place for this unit to play, with plenty of room to grow.