Windows Media Center never really took off the way Microsoft and the numerous OEMs wanted. The reasons for this are greatly disputed but once Microsoft started down the path of making concessions to cable providers and giving OEMs preferential treatment the DIY crowd pretty much lost interest. At the same time MCE was dying, DVR set top boxes from cable and satellite companies started gaining market share with their ease of use, customer service and on demand features proved to be too much for PC OEMs to overcome.
The cable companies set top boxes did lack one aspect that die hard DIY PC users had already gotten a taste of, freedom. Freedom to listen to internet radio, check email, watch ripped movies from NAS servers, YouTube, MotorTV, CNET TV, Photobucket and countless other online media served up via the touch of the remote. The truth is the old men in suits have no idea what this generation wants because they can't think outside of their profit driven world that is limited to DRM, pay to play, funk infected garbage that bills you by the minute.
The stop gap between cable company tyranny and expensive OEM Windows Media Center PCs is the media player. These devices are small, compact yet powerful enough to play full HD content from across a network or their built in hard drive. Some can double as small NAS server and pull music, movies, pictures and more from multiple computers in your home. For many functions setup is as easy as turning the power button on and selecting what you want to watch. The entertainment is controlled by the simple remote sitting in the palm of your hard, true control, no compromise - satisfaction.
Today we are looking at the Icy Box IB-MP309HW-B Network Media Player, a small device that is stacked with lots of features and the ability to function on your TV or via your web browser.
Specifications, Availability and Pricing
The brain of the unit is a Sigma Designs SMP8635 processor that runs at 300 MHz. After researching similar devices it appears that this is a very common processor for On Top Box (OTB) media players.
The Icy Box Media Player connects to your network via a 10/100 Ethernet connection or you can purchase a USB WiFi dongle that plugs into any of the available USB ports on the system. To get the maximum functionality out of the Media Player we requested one of the WiFi dongles to be shipped with our sample. In the testing portion of the article we will discuss this further.
The system has room for a single 3.5" form factor SATA hard drive and just about every manufactures drives are supported. The specifications list up to a 1.5TB drive is supported.
The front of the unit is where the only USB ports on the Media Player are located.
The back of the Media Player has more A/V inputs than you can shake a cable at. The only two things that are missing that I can think of are USB and a coax cable input. The Icy Box Media Player does not have a TV Tuner of any kind which was very disappointing. Users will have to think of the device as being more like a DVD player instead of a set top box that is able to record your TV shows.
Icy Box claims that 99% of the available media formats are supported and I was not able to find a single media file on my NAS server that the Media Player couldn't play. The Apple TV and Microsoft Media Extenders have been neutered in this area thanks to compliance they needed to follow with the cable companies.
Pricing and Availability
After a brief search I was able to find the Icy Box Network Media Player for 264.00 USD from Gizmodaddy.com. Further searching showed that the Network Media Server is available all over Europe but only a small number of US e-tailers carried the unit or hand them in stock. The good thing is that it only takes one for your to get yours.
The packaging is very retail friendly; this is a product I could see on the shelves of Best Buy or Fry's. What the front of the box lacks in text is made up for in images of the product.
The side of the box lists the formats that the unit is able to play back.
The back of the box has the same information in several different languages.
The final side of the box lists the exact same information, this time in English.
Here we see the packaging and product placement inside of the box. It appears that RaidSonic has done a really good job keeping the media player away from the edges of the package.
The RaidSonic Icy Box IC-MP309HW-B Media Player
Here we see the front of the unit. On the left side there are two USB 2.0 ports and on the right side is the IR sensor as well as the status LEDs that show the power and HDD activity.
Both sides of the Network Media Player look the same and have two screws on each side. You remove these screws to remove the top cover to access the HDD installation bay.
The back of the unit is where all of the action is. The layout was thought out very well with the power connector kept as far away from the analog connectors as possible. Most users will only need an HDMI port to send audio and video to other components but the many older technologies are also supported. If you look on the right hand side there is a fan on this system that will aid in keeping your hard drive cool. This fan was very quiet and not audible at more than two feet away.
The top of the box has a logo but other than that is plain just how we like it. You can tell in the pictures that it does show finger prints but after you have everything setup you can wipe the case down and never need to touch it again.
The bottom of the case has four rubber feet that will dampen any vibration from your hard drive.
Moving to the inside you can see that the system uses a SATA HDD. The SATA signal is converted to an ATA ribbon cable. At first I thought there may be an issue with my hard drive being set for native SATA commands but this was not the case and my Seagate 7200.11 HDD worked perfectly in the Network Media Player.
Shown here is the accessories package.
The entire manual collection and software disk are shown here.
Processors: AMD Opteron 2356 (2.3GHz Quad-Core) x2
Motherboard: Tyan S2915-E (Supplied by Tyan)
Memory: Kingston KVR667D2S4P5/2G x4 (Supplied by Kingston)
Graphics Card: XFX 8800 GTX (Supplied by XFX USA)
Enclosure: Lian Li V2000
Cooling: Noctua NH-U12DO (Supplied by Noctua)
SATA Controller: Areca ARC-1231ML (Supplied by Areca)
SAS Controller: Areca ARC-1680i (Supplied by Areca)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate X64
The above test system was used to benchmark the RaidSonic Network Media Player's NAS capabilities.
For the subjective audio portions of the tests I used my Sony DA4ES receiver that I keep in my computer room for drive my neighbours crazy. This system is attached to 5 Klipsch desktop speakers and a JBL 800 watt, 12 inch subwoofer.
Audio testing was also conducted in my living room via HDMI on a Pioneer Elite VSX-91 THX receiver attached to Klipsch RF7 main speakers, RC7 centre channel and RF7 surround speakers. The Subwoofer was a Klipsch RSW-15 with a peak power rating of 2400 watts driving a massive 15 inch Cerametallic cone.
Visual testing was performed on a Hitachi UltraVision 55 inch plasma television running at 720P. Images for the article were taken on a ViewSonic 37 inch LCD also running at 720P.
Once you turn the system on you are greeted with a load screen that takes around a minute and a half to complete.
Audio / Video Setup Page
Network Share is where you add folders that you would like to share across your network.
DVD and Audio CD setting page
The Maintenance page is where you can update the firmware to the system. This can be done automatically through the internet in two easy steps.
Given all of the features of the RaidSonic Icy Box Network Media Player the setup is surprisingly easy. Many setting can are set to AUTO from the factory and the system will detect your maximum video display size and audio settings when connected to HDMI.
The network settings are automatically pulled from your router as well. Just like everything else, you can go in and manually set your system up but for the most part the system will set everything for you.
Browsing for media to play is very easy after you get use to the interface. It does take a little getting use to since you enter what can only be called menu hell. Pages with subpages are all over the place. To play a video file you will need to choose a video icon even though you can navigate to an audio folder after selecting a video format to browse for. It just takes a little while to get use to but once you have the basics down the frustration eases and the menus start to click in your mind.
There are two distinct areas for browsing, local and online content. Here we see the Web Services portal that gives us access to three unique area of online content.
The Media Service Portal allows us to look at several mainstream channels.
MSP Community adds additional channels that have been added by the user community.
Finally Saya TV lets us watch internet broadcasts from the Saya network.
I am going to paint with a broad brush with the term local content. For this article it will refer to media on the Network Media Player and media over the network.
Here we see the home page of the system. It is set to play content from the hard drive that you installed in the system. You can choose Movies, Music, Pictures or a different view of the menu list. In the list the sub category Downloads is also added so you can access your Bit Torrent downloads.
For our example I choose to look at Music.
The music option gave us another menu.
And another menu...
Finally we were able to choose a song and begin to rock the house.
Audio and Video Quality
The above image was taken in less than ideal settings and should not be used to judge video quality. This is a picture taken from a low quality video downloaded off of the internet. The video appeared on my TV the same way as it would on my PC monitor. Higher resolution movies appeared much cleaner but given the fact that we are taking a picture of a TV you will just have to take my word for it. The system is able to display video all the way up to 1080P and the quality of the image depends greatly on the media it is playing. At the highest resolution and best highest quality content the system is able to display an image rival to the Playstation 3.
The above image was taken while the system was rotating through a picture folder. The image was very crisp and clear.
I don't consider myself to be a pure audiophile these days but I do like to hear my music the way I want to hear it. Given my age and reckless regard for the bad thing that happen to you while standing in front of huge speakers at concerts, some frequencies are simply not audible to me anymore. With that said the Network Media Player produces above average sound that is at least DVD quality but not like what you hear from a Super Audio CD or DVD Audio disk.
I played a Stone Temple Pilots CD, Lossless CD Rip and DVD Audio of the same album and was able to tell the difference between the DVD Audio disk coming from a Pioneer Elite player and the Network Media Player.
NAS Performance and Remote
You are not going to want to use the Network Media Player as a NAS server due to its poor network performance. The player has just enough bandwidth to stream data but I wouldn't even attempt to use it to store file on to watch on other computers. For comparison a single drive in the new QNAP TS-809 Pro averages around 60 MB/s. I really can't see why Raidsonic didn't make sure the 10/100 Ethernet was a Gigabit connection.
The remote control is the mechanism that gives you control over the Network Media Player and depending on how you look at it the remote could be considered the most important part of the kit. It is certainly important enough to make a benchmark out of its performance.
To name folders on the Network Media Player you have to use the cell phone style letter input system from the remote or attach a USB keyboard. The play, stop and pause buttons are all the same size and it will take you a little while to get use to their location.
When I first started to test the RaidSonic Network Media Player there was several issues that I would stumble across from time to time. Certain videos would not play, the system would lock and to be fair it was a pain in the butt. After a few firmware updates all of these issues were sorted out and the system is now rock solid. If this review was written within the first thirty days of its arrival the outcome would have been much different. Luckily there are a couple of online communities where members are active in testing and working on pieces of the updates. These communities are very transparent about what features they are working on and what issues are being sorted in the next update. Even though the Network Media Player is now functioning just as advertised the NTM tweakers are adding new features at a steady rate.
Once you factor in all of the extras that are produced by the DIY crowd it is clear that we have not even scratched the surface of this product. The Bit Torrent client was included from the factory but not discussed in this article. The web interface allows you a level of control over the unit and is where you load your torrent files.
The playback capabilities of the RaidSonic Network Media Player are top notch and the system gives you a lot more flexibility than the Apple TV or Windows Media Extenders. Playback quality is above average even when paired with high quality audio and video components. The system isn't going to make your YouTube videos look like DVDs since the quality of the video you are watching will determine the final output quality.
If you are not prepared to build or buy a stand along PC for use as a media player to bridge your audio and video files from your computer to your TV then the RaidSonic Network Media Player is a good way to achieve this goal. The unit is silent , uses a lot less power when compared to a PC and makes other purpose built products look like kids toys.
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