|ViewSonic Media Adapter (WMA100)|
|Summary||Networked media player connecting via Ethernet or 802.11b/g. Supports many audio, video and still image formats.|
|Pros||• Small size
• Supports many different media formats
• 802.11g support with WEP and WPA
|Cons||• Buggy user interface
• Spotty MP3 tag parsing
• Windows XP / 2000 only
• Slow Internet Radio startup
When I was offered the chance to check out the new ViewSonic WMA100 Media adapter, I looked forward to trying it out. I've been playing around with some networked audio devices, but had not had a chance to try out a device designed to handle video and still images in addition to audio. Since the size of my digital video and picture collection dwarfs the size of my audio collection, I thought this little network device might help me get a handle on it or at least give me an easy way to navigate and enjoy my growing collection.
The WMA100 is one of a new breed of devices designed to help consumers mange their media libraries and packs a lot of features into a box the size of a typical home network router. It connects to the home network either via a 10/100 Ethernet or 802.11b/g wireless connection (the latter of which supports both 64 / 128 bit WEP encryption as well as WPA). Once on the network, the WMA100 is designed to locate all of your movies, pictures and music and stream them to your TV or stereo.
Output connections are included for a wide array of formats including component, composite, DVI, VGA (with included DVI / VGA converter), and S-video video outputs and digital and analog audio. (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Rear of WMA100
As far as types of media supported, the WMA100 is designed to handle MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4 for video, JPG, GIF and PNG for still pictures, and MP3, AAC, and WMA for audio. In addition, the device comes with support for a set of Internet Radio stations.
NOTE: Several days into my review of this unit, I went deep into the Setup menu and selected the Revert to Factory Settings option. Once I did this, the odd volume behavior and the default output behavior described below went away and the WMA100 powered on with a proper volume setting and automatically displayed on my TV. Since I'm not sure whether my review unit had bad settings to start with or something had gotten corrupted along the way, I've included the problem descriptions in the review.
When I first unpacked the device, I was pleasantly surprised at its small size and low weight. For all the capabilities that it provides, I was expecting a larger, heavier box that would be closer in size to a PC rather than a router. But design-wise, the WMA100 is an un-inspiring little gray box that would look more at home in a server closet than in the home entertainment center.
However, functionality should outweigh aesthetics, so I proceeded to hook it up and try it out. Maybe after using an array of Apple equipment and Roku Soundbridge networked music player [reviewed here], my standards have been raised a bit. But I soon found that the WMA100's feature set was also a bit of a let-down.
As usual, I set aside all software, and documentation and went to work connecting it to my home entertainment system. Since I have an Ethernet drop in my entertainment center, I simply plugged in a network cable, connected audio and video cables, applied power and turned on my TV - and was presented with a silent black screen. Maybe I should at least concede to look at the "Getting started" documentation.
A quick flip through uncovered a blurb on "If there is no screen image". According to the documentation, this shouldn't happen if you are using S-video (which I was), but the presented solution was to press the Output button on the remote until an image appears. Pressing this button brought up a basic top-level menu. Now to really try it out.
My original understanding regarding the way the box worked was that it did a network mount of Windows file-shares to access music, pictures and video. So I had pretty much ignored the "Supported Operating Systems" spec. since all of the various Apple, Linux and network appliance boxes on my network have the ability to perform Windows file-sharing.
But flipping through the WMA100's menus showed no configuration options for mounting Windows file-shares, and the sections for Video, Music and Pictures were empty of content. Whoops, maybe this wouldn't be as easy as I thought - but then that was my fault for ignoring the basic requirements. According to the box, only Windows XP and 2000 are supported and ViewSonic also sells a wireless media server than can be used with the WMA100.
I noticed that a sticker had been placed on the WMA100's box to cover up a reference to Windows 98 support. So, disregarding the sticker, I installed the included software on the only Windows box on my network - an aging Windows 98 system. The software installed fine, but the WMA100 still showed no content. Evidently I'd actually have to believe the documentation regarding operating system support! Until I could borrow a Windows XP system, I decided to try out the only content that showed up in the menus, Internet Radio Stations.
Bugs in the Machine
Selecting the Internet Radio option on the menu brought up a list of nine categories such as Jazz, Pop, Country, etc. and inside each category was a short list of stations. But when I started trying out the stations, I was again brought to a puzzled halt. No matter which station I selected, I would be greeted by a "Connecting..." message on the screen followed by a descriptive message that appeared to come from the station itself. This would be followed by a music-related graphic image, but I would never hear any output.
The descriptive message indicated to me that I was connecting to the station, so the Internet connection was good, but why wasn't I getting any output? After checking my connections, I eventually noticed a volume control on the remote. When I tried it out, it indicated that the volume was set to zero, but turning it up didn't seem to make any difference as I flipped from station to station. Only when I finally stopped trying out the various stations, did I finally get music.
The problem was two-fold. First, it was taking a long time to start streaming music. Some stations didn't start for up to 30 seconds after being selected. This is a "feature" of the WMA100 itself, since the same station accessed via iTunes would start up within a couple of seconds. The delay itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of a status message such as "working" or "tuning" is poor user interface design.
The second problem was the volume. I found that the volume was always set to zero after powering on the unit. When playing with the unit, I frequently turned it on and off (more on that later) and was constantly thinking that something was wrong until I remembered that I need to turn the volume up. Again, this is a design choice, but a prominent volume indication on the WMA100 itself or its on-screen display would have saved me a lot of time.
As far as turning the unit on and off, I found another curious issue. The remote would turn the unit off fine, but would never turn it on! So I had to physically push the Power button on the WMA100's front panel to turn the unit on. I also found that in addition to forgetting the last volume setting upon power-down, the WMA100 wouldn't remember the last output setting either. So when turning the unit on, I had to remember to re-select the output and turn the volume back up from zero.
The power-on issue wasn't the only frustration I had with the remote. In general, navigation with the remote just didn't seem right. While moving through a list, I would frequently overshoot or undershoot my desired target and end up selecting the wrong item. And even when I had the right selection, navigation was awkward. For example, when playing a Radio station, the only way to get out was to hit the "Stop" button on the remote. None of the Back, Home, Music, Video, etc. buttons had any effect. I also found that the Pictures button just gave me a blank ViewSonic screen for a bit and then put me back into a non-functional top-level Radio list. I got used to the menu navigation after awhile, but the remote button behavior didn't seem to be well thought out.
In order to try out the remaining features, I borrowed a Windows XP laptop and copied a sample of my music, video and pictures into the Windows My Music, My Pictures and My Video folders. I then installed the included Media Manager software on the XP system, which went without a hitch. The Media Manager installs a local web-server running on port 8088 of the Windows box that is used for basic administration such as choosing folders to serve, assigning music tracks to picture collections, setting a password etc..
Figure 2: Media Manager main screen
With the Media Manager installed, the tracks in the My Music folder on the XP system now properly showed up when I selected the Music option from the main WMA100 menu. But while browsing the entries, I noticed something was not quite right. The WMA100 had created Artist, Album and Genre groupings, but only a couple of tracks appeared to be properly categorized into these groups.
This was an issue, but at least my music was now showing up and the sub-directories I had created for my own grouping on the XP system were still present. Note that the music I was using were MP3s from my iTunes library and I had verified their tags were properly handled by Microsoft Media Player.
That problem noted, I pressed on and selected a song to play, but was once again greeted with a problem. The first thing I saw was a black screen, then the title and album displayed on the bottom of the display, then a message quickly flashed on screen: "UNKNOWN FORMAT" (Figure 3) and finally silence.
Figure 3: An unhelpful screen
I tried a couple of more songs with the same result and even managed to find a song that didn't display the format error, but always ended up with silence. I was beginning to think that none of my music would play when it hit me....the reset-to-zero Volume problem!
Once I turned the Volume up, the song that didn't give an error was now playing and also displaying abstract music-related graphics (piano, sheet music, guitar, etc.) on the screen. I also found that when I went back to the songs that had "failed" earlier, I still saw the error, but now heard music - without any graphics.
Apparently, the "UKNOWN FORMAT" error was related to the graphic display and not the songs themselves. After some additional investigation, I've concluded that the problem is probably related to the songs originating from my iTunes library, most of which include album-art. If the WMA100 is trying to use the album-art (which would be a nice feature), it would be much better behavior to fail gracefully and fall back to the stock graphics rather than output a confusing error message that a consumer can't do anything about.
Menu navigation when playing music is much like Internet Radio, but with a little twist. If you hit the Pictures button while playing a song, the music continues to play but a "STOP" message flashes on the screen and you are sent to the Pictures menu where you can select a set of your pictures to display instead of the standard graphics. The "STOP" message was a bit strange, but when this worked, it was a nice feature. Unfortunately, the box seemed to struggle a bit with displaying pictures and music.
On a couple of occasions, I had the music restart when the pictures first started coming up. I also had one experience of having my pictures display as if they had a gray film covering them, and once case where both the slide show and music just stopped. Also note that the pictures and music feature did not work with my music that gave me the "UNKNOWN FORMAT" error described above.
I also found that while in the Picture selection menu while music is playing, you are not prevented from navigating to other menus such as Radio and Video, which clearly aren't available. (Trying to select one of these options always seemed to result in my favorite "UNKNOWN FORMAT" error.) I had a number of other quirks appear while playing music, but you get the idea. The actual playing of music works fine, but the surrounding features need work. On to the video.
Video and Pictures
I was looking forward to trying out the video playing capabilities of the box because ultimately, I want to handle my DVD collection the same way I treat my CD collection. I want to rip all of my DVD's to a network hard drive and then have a way to select and play them through my entertainment center.
To test out the WMA100, I had put the video files from a couple of DVDs that I had created using iDVD into the My Video folder on the Windows machine that was running the Media Server software. The files showed up in the Video menu of the WMA100 and upon selection, played mostly without issue. I would occasionally see a small video glitch, but nothing worse than I see from my satellite TV connection.
Although the DVD menus were not present, I found it a nice way to view my video and close to what I wanted from networked video product. The WMA100 did pretty well with MPEG2 and I had good success with a little movie I created in MPEG4 format from iMovie. To really test it out, I grabbed an assortment of MPEG1 videos from the Internet, including the infamous exploding whale and the world's fastest starting barbecue.
But attempting to play the barbecue video just gave me a black screen, while the exploding whale video gave me only audio. To be fair, trying to play random videos downloaded from the Internet is often a hit-or-miss proposition due to the various formats used, and the whale video wasn't likely encoded in a supported format (but I couldn't resist trying it anyway). I found that serveral other less interesting MPEG1 videos played fine, so overall, I'd say that the video capability worked well.
Displaying pictures (still images) on the box is fairly straight forward. You are presented with a directory tree of your pictures (jpg, gif and png image formats) and can select a single picture to display or a whole directory tree. The pictures can be displayed sequentially or in a random order, with options for changing the amount of time pictures are displayed and how transitions occur between the pictures.
But the transition effects are fairly crude considering what's available in other products these days. All of the transitions, wipe, fade, slide, etc. occur between the picture and a black screen. For example, you see a picture, the screen goes black, and the new picture fades in. I'm used to fading between the two pictures, but perhaps this takes a bit more horsepower than the WMA100 has. Note also that you can select one of your music playlists to play while a slide show is running.
For all of my tests so far, I had been using the wired Ethernet connection, but the WMA100 also has the capability for wireless networking using either an 802.11b or the faster 802.11g connection. Setting it up was fairly easy. First, I unplugged my wired connection, then from the main setup menu, selected the Auto Sync button which did a site-scan looking for access points (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Wireless site scan result
In my case, two were detected and I selected one that was encrypted to see how the WMA100 handled it. I was presented with a detailed menu of options including WEP and WPA. I entered my 128 bit WEP key using a cell-phone style alphanumeric entry from the remote (which was a bit tedious) but was connected without problems.
Once the wireless was active, the main menu showed a signal-strength bar in the upper right (Figure 5), which was a nice touch. But, unfortunately it didn't seem to change much even in areas of my house where the signal strength was very low.
Figure 5: Main menu with wireless signal strength indicator
Going Wireless, Continued
When testing out the media categories using a wireless connection, I really couldn't tell any difference in behavior compared to the wired-connection, until I got to video. The initial tests were run using a quiet, 802.11g-only dedicated network with the WMA100 on the main level of my house and the access point in the basement, one level below.
The MPEG4 and MPEG1 videos that worked before still worked fine, but when I tried my MPEG2 DVD files, I initially had problems. These videos were much higher quality than the others and were quite a bit larger and required a higher streaming rate. Attempting to play these files resulted in severe jumping and stuttering so much that they were unwatchable.
Even though the distance between WMA100 and AP didn't seem that far, I tried the same test again with the WMA100 in the same room as the access point and got much better results. This time, the video played fine with perhaps a few more jitters than a wired network, but it was certainly watchable.
To see how the unit worked with very low signal strength, I took it up to the second floor of my house which is about as far away from my basement access point as I could get. At this location, the WMA100 worked, but even MP3s were choppy and everything seemed a bit sluggish. As noted above, the signal strength "meter" on the main menu still read one bar away from full-strength even though it was obviously having trouble. My take-away from this experience is that if you're expecting to stream DVD-quality videos, your safest bet for a trouble-free viewing experience is an Ethernet connection - unless your wireless distance is very short.
One final annoyance I found was related to connecting to the Windows system where my media was located. Every time I powered the WMA100 up and went into a menu such as Music, my selection resulted in an odd message of "To remove the selected server, press OK on the remote control" (Figure 6). Given no other choice, I would select "OK", the listing of my Windows box would go away and then several seconds later it would re-appear. Once it came back, everything worked normally.
Figure 6: Another curious screen
Under the Covers
For curiosity's sake, I did a little poking around to see what this device was doing under the covers. A quick tcpdump network sniff turned up a lot of HTTP and UPnP traffic between the Windows server and the WMA100. The HTTP headers showed a php-enabled Apache 1.3.31 server had been installed on the Windows system and it was being used to feed most, if not all, of the user-interface to the WMA100.
Basically, the user-interface on the WMA100 is a web-browser using HTML for rendering the menus and displays. When I picked out the user-agent string of the browser off the LAN, I saw that the browser identified itself as:
uCOS-II v2.05;NOS;KA9Q; 624x416,HiColor; www.syabas.com
This little string tells us a lot. The operating system on the box is apparently a variant of Micrium's uCos and Syabas supplies the browser. A view of the Syabas web site shows that they are an OEM for home-network media boxes so they may be the ultimate source of everything for this box.
Based on these discoveries, I was able to fire up a web browser, point it to the Windows server and access pages such as the list of my video files, that were not available through the standard Media Server administration page. Clicking on a video file selection from my browser resulted in a plain-text description of the movie that included a URL reference to a video streaming application with the movie as a parameter.
Going one step further, I fed this URL into VLC and voila, I was viewing the video from the ViewSonic Media Server on my OS X computer. I'd really like to be going the other direction, but this showed me that the WMA100 was using a lot of standards-based pieces and that it probably wouldn't take a whole lot of effort to get it working with iTunes or even one of my Linux-based network storage devices acting as the media server.
As a quick test, I fired up a couple of UPnP-based media servers on my network to see if they were recognized by the WMA100, but found that they weren't. So either there is something other than UPnP involved with serving content to the WMA100, or I don't have something configured properly - which is likely since I don't have any experience with UPnP.
To really see what's going on under the covers, I popped the top off the box and took a look inside (Figure 7).
It's a bit hard to see it in the picture, but the heart of the box is a Sigma Design EM8551 Media Processor and the wireless capabilities are provided by a removable 802.11g mini-PCI card with a ViewSonic sticker. A look at the pictures in the FCC filings revealed that the card is based on Conexant's PRISM chipset, although I couldn't tell which one.
The WMA100 accomplished all of its advertised features and performed hard tasks such as decoding video well, but needs work in a number of areas, most notably the user interface. The basic menu navigation was a fairly constant source of aggravation for me, but perhaps over time I would get used to it. But the various odd error and status messages need polish or even removal in some cases. Other areas that need tweaking are the startup time of Internet Radio Stations and the handling of MP3 tags.
But perhaps the biggest show-stopper for me is that the WMA100 can use only its own Win XP / 2000 software or companion WMG80 / WMG120 Media Gateways as media servers. Since most of my music content resides on iTunes (or iTunes-compatible) servers, I don't really want to have to copy those files someplace else in order to play them.
This proprietary-server approach isn't unique to the WMA100, however, since the Linksys WMA11B [reviewed here], NETGEAR MP101 and Creative SoundBlaster Wireless Music [reviewed here] - to mention a few - also require installation of their own Windows XP/2000-based server software. But, my personal preferences aside, the WMA100 would have a larger potential customer base if it could also stream content from media servers already in the market, such as SlimServer, mt-daapd, iTunes or even Windows Media Center Edition.
Still, the WMA100 has potential, and I hope that ViewSonic will soon release new firmware to address the problems I encountered.