Reviews

Jan 24 2014

Review - Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) D54250WYKH - "H" is for 2.5" HDD Mount

When Intel brought out their Haswell Next Unit of Computing (NUC), inclusion of features like SATA made it clear that they had bigger things in store for the little system. They were honest that some of this promise will require 3rd party case OEMs to fully realize, but Intel quickly announced that they would be creating their own chassis with 2.5” drive support a bit later. Providing this feature is interesting to two groups of users: those who have, or want to leverage a 2.5” SSD instead of mSATA or anyone who wants local, rotating, storage in the NUC. As it happens, now is the time, and when I sat down with Intel at CES to talk NUC they had one of the new 116.6mm x 112mm x 51.5mm enclosures for me to take back and run through the paces.

Dec 16 2013

Review - NETGEAR R7000 Nighthawk Smart AC1900 Wi-Fi Router

Nothing can deliver the raw capability of Gigabit Ethernet when it comes to pushing large amounts of data around the home. Unfortunately, in many homes it just is not practical to pull Cat-6 through the walls, so other methods must be found to enable the demands of a fully functional media consumption network. Where many other low-installation-effort home networking technologies have failed, 802.11AC’s 1300Mbps of theoretical bandwidth is tantalizing. With more than enough headroom to deliver stutter free streaming it holds tremendous promise, but whether the technology can really deliver was still open even after our first look. Today we have another chance to examine it however – this time with NETGEAR’s $199 Dual-band AC1900 R7000 Nighthawk Smart Wi-Fi Router. The R7000 is particularly interesting not only because its dual-core 1GHz processor and USB 3.0 support represents the current state-of-the art in Wi-Fi appliances, but because the underlying Broadcom 4709 Communication Processor (which makes that possible) marks a shift from MIPS to ARM for this market segment. Of course that change is only meaningful if the R7000 can deliver the stability, feature set and performance demanded by the home media enthusiast.

Dec 11 2013

Review - Fractal Design ARC MINI R2 Micro-ATX Mid Tower Chassis

Fractal Design ARC MINI R2
Over the last few years Fractal Design has cultivated a reputation for delivering intelligent, quiet, and well-built PC cases that do not require breaking the bank. With solid steel construction, ample storage options, and three hydraulic bearing  Silent Series R2 fans (2x 120mm, 1x 140mm) included, we should expect the ARC MINI R2 Micro-ATX case to continue this tradition. However it is natural to wonder if Fractal Design can deliver the innovative features of its larger, more expensive, chassis at the smaller enclosure’s $99 price point. Let’s find out.

Nov 12 2013

Review - Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201 Bluetooth Bookshelf Speakers

We reviewed the previous generation Grace Digital Internet Stereo System over two years ago, and while we loved it then, the world of audio has continued to evolve as users grow more and more attached to their mobile devices. That's where the GDI-BTSP201 Bluetooth Bookshelf Speakers come to play, offering a standalone left and right stereo experience while still supporting Bluetooth and direct audio, all for under $250. 

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Let's take a look at the exact specifications of the Grace Digital Bookshelf Speakers:

  • Full Range High Fidelity 36 Watt Powered Stereo Speakers
  • 1” Soft Dome Tweeters, 3.5” Composite Cone Woofers and Rear Port
  • Dynamic Frequency Range from 50 Hz to 20,000 Hz
  • Wireless Bluetooth 4.0 Connection allows Music Playback from any Bluetooth Device
  • Utilizes CD Quality Wireless Transmission with Integrated aptX Technology
  • Supports SBC, AAC, and aptX codecs and A2DP and AVRCP Profiles
  • Premium Leatherette Wrapped Case
  • RCA Auxiliary Audio Input to listen to Wired Audio Sources
  • Connects to TV’s, Computers, Smartphones, Tablets, MP3 Players
  • Supports Charging Smartphones via the USB Charging Port

Some notes from the above--the 36 watts is combined. Each individual speaker has 18W of power. The speakers support Bluetooth 4.0 which features support for the aptX codec, designed to produce better sound, and the speakers were tested utilizing a Samsung Galaxy S4 which does offer compatibility (sorry iPhone users, you're out of luck for now). 

Nov 04 2013

Review - Fractal Design DEFINE XL R2

When one is considering what chassis to use for their home theater or server build, a lot of factors come into play. In the past a traditional home theater PC build contained a small or desktop (horizontal) style chassis to help blend in with the AV stack, but that has evolved as the demands for storage and silence--as well as big screen PC gaming--has grown in importance. The Fractal Design Define XL R2 does not fit under the SFF category, as it is a full size ATX with tons of bells and whistles. The attraction for our needs is that the Define XL R2 does not sacrifice noise nor aesthetics to achieve its mission. Suitable for either the living room or closet (although what a shame that would be as it is quite attractive), we will be analyzing the merits of it to see if it is suitable of a person with more than your average HTPC needs.

 

Oct 23 2013

Review - 3M Streaming Projector Powered by Roku - SPR1000

There are many scenarios where a portable projector can be very useful – for business and for play. Providing a reasonably priced option, 3M Streaming Projector Powered by Roku (SPR1000) can tick both boxes, promising to make it easy to host an impromptu outdoor movie night or presentation using this highly portable, battery powered, 480p projector. Also, because it includes a Roku Streaming Stick in the box all of the over-the-top (OTT) goodness that service provides is available in a just-add-Wi-Fi experience. At $189 ($299 SRP) it almost seems too good to be true; let’s see where this little projector + streamer shine and where it is lacking.

Oct 09 2013

Review - ASUS RT-AC66U AC1750 Wireless 802.11AC Router

ASUS RT-AC66U

When you cannot install Ethernet throughout your house there are a few options available, but none tantalize the same way as 802.11AC’s promise of Gigabit-esque bandwidth with ease of wireless installation. Admittedly the recent trend in marketing routers by summing their potential speed is a bit confusing, but given the chance to redefine the home networking landscape we can forgive a lot. With a pair of ASUS’s RT-AC66U Dual-Band Wireless-AC1750 on hand we have the opportunity to explore this exciting new standard in depth. Can this $189 802.11AC multifunction home networking appliance deliver, or will it simply join the list of “not good enoughs” when it comes to meeting our most demanding media streaming needs.

Oct 04 2013

Review - Intel NUC Kit D54250WYK

Intel NUC Kit D54250WYK

For home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts the news that Intel was leaving the retail motherboard market cut deeply. After all, many of the features we have come to expect, like an Intel network interface card (NIC), consumer infrared (CIR), and outstanding stability along with innovations specific to our market, such as the custom solutions (aka HTPC) header, looked likely to slowly fade away. Fortunately--at least for now--these concerns have proved meritless because the output of that decision, the Intel NUC Kit D54250WYK contains each of these features along with something that was previously unattainable to DIY – a 15W TDP integrated processor graphics (IPG). Running $342 in bulk, the cost of the 1.3-2.6GHz Intel Core i5-4250U makes up much of the $360 (estimated SRP) we expect the D54250WYK barebones to retail for. While not cheap, it certainly appears a good value if the Haswell iteration of the NUC can deliver the perfect client HTPC.

Sep 24 2013

Review - Fractal Design Node 304 White SFF Chassis

Fractal Design has made themselves a reputation for quality and attractive chassis that can serve as capable as a gaming system just as it would in your living room as your home theater PC (HTPC). With the Node 304 White enclosure, Fractal Design is offering a small form factor chassis with a lot of storage flexibility and still the ability to have a full size video card, all for under $90. The challenge with the living room is the acoustics play as critical a role as the aesthetics, so that will all be considered as we evaluate the Node 304.

Sep 16 2013

Review - Ceton InfiniTV6 PCIe Digital Cable Tuner

Ceton InfiniTV6 PCIe Digital Tuner Cable Card

Six is a good number – even better when it is equated to the number of tuners in your current HTPC. Obviously it is possible to get by with less, but after considering EPG overlaps, a couple children and the spouse – what was an impossible luxury not that long ago quickly becomes a celebrated necessity. With ClearQAM disappearing and ATSC difficult to master in some markets, it is hard to argue with the simplicity that a single Digital Cable Tuner (DCT) provides. Ceton InfiniTV6 PCIe Digital Cable Tuner card includes the ability to use an M-CARD CableCARD to record any channel you subscribe to from your Cable TV Provider. Ceton already released a four tuner PCIe, four tuner USB, and most recently an Ethernet six tuner device, missingremote.com review-- they knew they were missing something for the HTPC crowd. Following a very easy setup for the hardware and software and you will be off and recording copious amounts of TV, movies and commercials you will feel like your own media company. You may hear, “Back in my day we only had four channels to watch,” but to those older people I say, “Welcome to TV of today!”

Sep 13 2013

Review - Wren V5AP Airplay Speaker

When it comes to selecting a mobile device wireless speaker box, there are many to choose from—with options from companies as large as Sony, Bose, Jambox and Beats, to smaller ones such as Supertooth. Wren is hoping to capture some attention on this market with a rather unique offering, with their Wren V5AP speaker box. Besides the usual speeds and feeds which the speaker touts, providing crisp and clear audio to your room, the Wren speaker pitches itself as a piece of art, adding style alongside sonic substance—an expensive one at that, coming in at $399. Let’s examine what this gets you—as with any category filled with competition, there will always be pros and cons to each.

Sep 03 2013

Review - NETGEAR AV+ 500 NANO SET (XAVB5601) Powerline Networking Adapters

NETGEAR XAVB5601 Review

When pulling Cat 6 Ethernet cables through the walls is out of the question there are a few options for enabling a high-bitrate-media capable network. MoCA is usually a reliable source of the 100Mbps required, but limited to existing cable infrastructure. New kid, wireless 802.11AC shows significant promise, but won’t come home for anywhere near the price where Powerline networking claims 500Mbps of bandwidth. Historically, Powerline technology has over promised and under delivered--with actual performance falling below the number on the box. With a NETGEAR AV+ 500 NANO SET (XAVB5601) available, it is time to address the technology’s viability again. Asking $110 (£60) at retail, the kit is reasonably priced, has receptacle pass-through offering a solution to a common Powerline gripe, and with 500Mbps to play with, one would expect to have plenty of bandwidth headroom even as distance and environmental load are varied.

Aug 12 2013

Review - ASUS WL-330N 5-in-1 Wireless-N150 Mobile Router

ASUS WL-330N 5-in-1 Wireless-N150 Mobile Router

The myriad of network permutations encountered when traveling with multiple devices is so diverse that covering them all seems impossible. Wired only access, web based authentication or per-device access charges? The ASUS WL-330N 5-in-1 Wireless-N150 Mobile Router has it covered, offering five discrete operating modes: NAT firewall router, access point, repeater, Ethernet adapter or [the almost magical] hotspot. Naturally, packing this many features into a small, USB powered, $45 dongle requires some trade-offs – mostly paid in setup convenience.

Jun 24 2013

Review - Intel HD 4600 - madVR Performance

Intel Haswell CPU

As many in the home theater PC (HTPC) community are aware, madVR produces an unparallelled level of flexibly and performance. Producing results that rival some of the best dedicated video processors available in the market. It was not that long ago that utilizing this advanced video renderer was limited to those with a high-end discrete graphics processing unit (GPU) and a penchant for mixing PC usability with HTPC use cases. Time and Moore's Observation (er... "Law") has changed this with the feature available through 10' friendly user interfaces (UI).

The previous generation HD 4000 GPU found in Intel integrated processor graphics (IPG), "Ivy Bridge", was the first Intel graphics solution to combine decent coverage for this feature and modern CPU performance. It was hoped that the 4th generation "Haswell" IPG would finally unlock the full capability of madVR, but as was mentioned in our first look at the Intel Core i7-4770K the HD 4600 could not. Having spent more time with the platform, it was time to revisit this issue and provide a more detailed look at what is, and is not, possible.

Jun 20 2013

Review - Intel Quick Sync: Examining Haswell Performance

Intel Quick Sync

In the recent release of 4th generation (Haswell) Intel Core integrated processor graphics (IPG), Intel placed significant focus on changes made to Quick Sync transcoding technology included with the HD graphics portion of the chip. As the review developed, it became evident quite quickly that this aspect of the Intel Core i7-4770K warranted specific coverage outside of the more general platform/system/performance characteristics that are usually covered. The detailed why and how of Quick Sync, or specifically what has changed versus the previous generation is beyond the scope of this discussion; this somewhat because Intel has already published a reasonably detailed whitepaper on the topic for those with academic interest, but mostly it is because results matter more than technical diagrams. In the pursuit of this goal the differences in Quick Sync speed and quality between 3rd and 4th generation Intel Core IPG will be detailed as well as how it compares with x264 when it matters the most - archiving high-bitrate material.

Jun 05 2013

Review - Ceton infiniTV6 Ethernet

When it comes to Digital Cable Tuners (DCT), time has been extremely generous to the home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiast. What was once $200 per tuner is now just $50. With multiple options for connection and tuner count per device available, the market appeared complete, though obviously it was not with Ceton still holding an additional card to play - the $299 six(!) tuner infiniTV6. While Ceton cannot claim to be the first to put six tuners into a single chassis, they are the only ones to do it with a single Multi-stream CableCARD (M-CARD) – marking the realization on the technologies’ full potential and saving users some coin by reducing the number of M-CARDs required to push past four tuners. With the PCIe variant still “coming soon,” we examine the [much more interesting] Ethernet model--Ceton’s first native network-attached CableCARD tuner. 

Jun 01 2013

Review - Intel Core i7-4770K (Haswell) / Intel DZ87KLT-75K and Intel DH87RL Motherboard - First Look

For home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts, the 4th generation Intel Core “Haswell” family of processors has been greatly anticipated. Expectations have been set both for its GPU performance, and that the long-standing issue with refresh rate accuracy will finally be put to rest. Unfortunately time with the new integrated processor graphics (IPG) was limited to just a few hours, but a significant amount of information was gleaned in the available window, with the high-end Intel Core i7-4770K and two Intel motherboards, the DZ87KLT-75K and DH87RL, provided for testing. Of course, because this is a desktop IPG “high-end” speaks only to the CPU half of the chip. Unlike previous generations, Intel’s GPU breakdown is much more complex this time around with the high-end “Iris” graphics not available on the i7-4770K; it provides only Intel HD 4600 graphics. This will limit our ability to truly examine how far 4th generation graphics have come, hopefully something that can be addressed at a later point as the lineup widens. Now let’s get into our first look.

Apr 24 2013

Review - Intel Next Unit of Computing - DC3217IYE

DC3217IYE

With a 17 watt integrated processor graphics (IPG) in a four-by-four inch chassis, Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC) is of obvious interest to home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts. This footprint and low-power consumption, coupled with Intel HD 4000 graphics, promises to deliver an incredibly capable client system. It is small enough to hide away, or place discretely next to the other little-black-box content consumption devices; its laptop CPU doesn’t  make much fuss either. This does not come cheap however, with the commanding a $300 MSRP for what is essentially a “bare-bones” system. You will need to add RAM, an mSATA SSD, and, strangely, a power cable to make it go; let’s find out if it lives up to the potential or ends up just an expensive curiosity.

Apr 09 2013

Review - Yale Real Living Electronic Touch Screen Deadbolt with Z-Wave

Yale Real Living

Even those without a Home Automation (HA) system can appreciate the value in a keyless entry option for the home, but the real value for a lock like the Yale Real Living Electronic Touch Screen Deadbolt is realized by leveraging Z-Wave to integrate it in a HA system. After doing that, it unlocks a wide array of actions that simplify home security; offering features like: conditional access, short term key codes, and automated responses to lock and other device events. Other Z-Wave locks offer the same automation features, but the YRD220-ZW full numeric touch screen and excellent build quality set it apart. The additional features demand a premium versus competing devices; let’s find out if it is worth it.

Mar 12 2013

Review - NETGEAR NeoTV MAX (NTV300SL) Media Streamer

NETGEAR NeoTV MAX

After experiencing NETGEAR’s previous generation NeoTV NTV200, with solid function, value and distinction as one of the only media streamers with HDMI CEC support it was genuinely exciting when the NeoTV MAX (NTV300SL) arrived with a dual-sided QWERTY remote, full VUDU 3D and Netflix multichannel audio with subtitle support--that NETGEAR only asks $70 (MSRP) for the device was gravy. With the NeoTV MAX also promising 24p and continuing the tradition of seamless integration into a HDMI CEC controlled ecosystem it seems likely that NETGEAR would deliver the perfect Over the Top (OTT) streamer for the most demanding users.

Jan 17 2013

Review - Ceton - My Media Center

Ceton My Media Center

Earlier today a new Windows 8 "Metro" version of Ceton's suite of applications for managing Windows Media Center joined the existing lineup of Andriod, Windows Phone and iOS companion apps priced at $4.99. As part of this effort they were rebranded from "Ceton Companion Apps" to "My Media Center". All the great functionality for browsing recordings, managing series and scheduling, and browsing the guide is still there, but this time Windows 8 tablet and desktop "Metro" users can also join the party. We had a chance to take an early spin through the updated UI, let's dig in.

Jan 02 2013

Review - Intel Core i3-3220 v. Intel Core i3-3225

Intel Core i3As interesting as the third generation of Intel Core integrated processor graphics (IPG) were when they arrived in April, as home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiasts it was disappointing that the more applicable two core/four thread models were not available. We gleaned what we could about the minor processing improvements and major changes to the graphic processing unit (GPU) from the Core i7-3770K / Core i7-3770S, but as those were overkill for this space there are still many unanswered questions around how the six execution unit (EU) HD 2500 compares to sixteen EU HD 4000 and, perhaps more importantly, how 22nm Ivy Bridge (IVB) CPUs compare against the previous generation of Sandy Bridge (SNB) IPG with similar power requirements. To achieve these goals two 3.3 GHz, 55W Core i3s were tested; with only the GPU separating them – at least on the specifications sheet – let’s dig into the Intel Core i3-3220 and Intel Core i3-3225 and find out which is the better option for your next HTPC.

Nov 29 2012

Review - Ceton Echo Windows Media Extender

Ceton EchoFor Windows 7 Media Center (WMC) users the Xbox 360 has long been the only actively produced choice to extend the experience to multiple TVs--until the Ceton Echo Extender for Windows Media Extender (MCX) hit the market. When we first saw the Echo it was a very different device, driven by an Intel Atom based system on a chip (SoC), and subsequently a larger and hungrier device than what we have today. The form factor has changed significantly as well, to a sleek device around the size of most modern home theater “streamers,” but the functionality promised (i.e. small, quiet, efficient MCX) when used with WMC has not. This is an important point to note when examining the Echo on its own, because much of the previous coverage also included mention of Ceton’s Q (a TiVo like device) which, had it survived the summer, could have provided additional capability beyond what is possible from the standard MCX experience.  With firmware releases bringing new functionality and fixes every few days it has proved difficult to nail down a definitive snapshot of the Echo’s long term capabilities; as retail availability is now upon us it is time to build on our first look and provide a current state update for the device.

Nov 26 2012

Review - Kingston Hyper-X Genesis LoVo Power Use Comparison

Kingston Hyper-XIn the quest to build the perfect low power home theater PC (HTPC) it is natural to select low voltage memory under the assumption that it will reduce consumption – lowering your power bill, and producing a greener system. To test this theory three Hyper-X Genesis LoVo memory kits from Kingston were put to the test in three different HTPC systems to determine not only what 1.35V versus 1.5V nets at the wall, but also how scaling up RAM affects consumption.

Nov 02 2012

Review - First Look - Ceton Echo Windows Media Extender

Ceton EchoThe XBOX 360 has ruled the Windows Media Center (WMC) extender market since it killed off third-party completion with the release of Windows Vista, but for many the brutish gaming console’s size, appetite for electricity, and unpleasant noise levels made it unwelcome in the A/V stack. With a lithe chassis, miserly power consumption, and a modern system-on-a-chip (SOC) offering the potential for proper HD file support the Ceton Echo could be just the thing to breathe fresh life into Microsoft’s aging platform. Our sample just arrived so it has not been run through the wringer yet, but since the hardware is set and pre-orders starting it is worth taking a look to getting a basic understanding of what the Echo has to offer. Check back later for our full review when the software is finalized.

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