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{mospagebreak toctitle= Introduction}

Introduction

NETGEAR Wireless Digital Media Player

NETGEAR Wireless Digital Media Player (MP115)
Summary Media player supporting music, image and video with Ethernet and 802.11b/g connectivity
Update None
Pros • Supports wide range of music & video formats
• Follows UPnpP standard
• 802.11g & Ethernet connectivity
Cons • Unexciting user interface
• Picky about supported video formats
• Personal firewalls can cause problems
• No WPA support

As my digital media library grows, I'm constantly on the lookout for the perfect little box to let me access it from my home's conventional audio / visual gear. I'd like to be show photos and digital movies on my TV, play my digital music library through my stereo and have one user interface to control it all. The box should be able to pull content from any of its locations on my network, especially my networked storage devices. Tall order? Perhaps - but I can always hope! In this review , I'm going to take a look at a device that's designed to do most of what I'm looking for - the Netgear MP115.

The MP115 is a network device that's designed to be a bridge between your entertainment center and your PC. It's equipped with both 802.11b/g and Ethernet networking capabilities for connection into your home network. Output ports are provided for connecting to your stereo and video system including RCA-style audio and composite video, S-Video, and Y/Pb/Pr component video. There is also one undocumented, and apparently unused, USB port. (Figure 1)

MP115 connectors
Figure 1: MP115 connectors

When I opened the MP115 box, it was a bit bigger than I expected. Since it has no internal hard-drive or display, I expected it to be tiny, but it was just a little smaller than a cereal box.

Unlike Netgear's MP101 music-only device, the MP115 does not have a front panel LCD display, opting instead to use its video output to a TV for its UI display. No buttons are provided on the device either - you drive the box via an infrared remote.


Setting Up

Since I have a network drop in my entertainment center, hooking it up was straightforward - just a matter of plugging in the network and AV cables and applying power. I initially had a black screen on my TV, but a button on the remote allowed me to cycle output to the S-Video port I was using. During the startup of the device, a status screen showed progress, including the acquisition of an IP address through DHCP. It seemed to go on-line ok except that it informed me it couldn't find a media server.

The basic idea is that you run a UPnP-based server on your PC, that on request, feeds your music, video and pictures to the MP115. The included media server software installed without incident on my recently-acquired Windows XP laptop. But when the server started up, I got a warning from my PC's personal firewall telling me that the program was trying to open up an Internet connection. So I selected the Always allow button and let it continue.

During initialization, the server asked about importing my multimedia files. I went with all of the default settings and the program began to scan my hard drive, cataloging all of my music, video and pictures. But I found that accepting the defaults yielded a library with every little sound effect, icon and miscellaneous video clip from the deep reaches of my file system!

I didn't really want to have a play-list of Windows sound effects, and a slide show of icon themes, but that's what I had. I didn't see any easy way to do a bulk clean-up of the mess, so initially just left it alone and went back to my TV to explore the capabilities of the MP115.

I reset the device and this time when it came up, it recognized my newly-installed media server. The main menu showed four options, My Music, My Videos, My Pictures and Premium Service (Figure 3), and I decided to start with music.

MP115 Main menu
Figure 2: MP115 Main menu

The first level menu under Music had automatic grouping by genre, album, artist, etc. This was a nice feature, because with a large collection, it's important to have groupings that allow quick navigation to a desired track.

I navigated into a list of about a dozen songs but noticed that only nine were displayed. I was momentarily confused because there was nothing indicating that there were other songs in the list that were not displayed. But when I scrolled to the bottom of the list, another page of song titles appeared.

With a very long list, it would be easy to get lost, so it would have been nice to have an indication of additional pages of selections and where in the list I was currently browsing. It would also be nice to use more of the screen real-estate for user information or more titles, perhaps by shrinking the NETGEAR logo and slogan.

Song selection
Figure 3: Song selection


The 45 second mystery

When I found the song I was looking for, I made my selection with the remote. I expected to hear the smooth sound of Dave Brubeck, but was greeted instead with a little music followed by pops, stutters, and finally an exit back to the menu. I tried a few songs with the same result, while others would just hang with no sound at all. I backed out to the main menu, and briefly tried the Pictures section, which seemed to work fine. I then tried the Premium Service menu, which turned out to be a list of Internet radio stations that also gave me stutters and pops before quitting. Time to check with the manual.

The manual had a section on firewall trouble, but I was a bit skeptical. I had told Windows to allow the server to make connections, and the fact that I was hearing some music between the stutters and pops told me that some data was flowing. Although I thought a firewall would be all or nothing, I went into the Windows control panel and disabled the Windows firewall.

When I replayed a song that had been stuttering, I now heard clear music. So I thought I had the problem licked until the music abruptly quit in the middle of the song. I tried several songs and noticed that they all stopped at 45 seconds. Strange. Then I tried the songs that hadn't played at all before. No go, they still hung up. Trying to isolate the problem, I tested various physical network configurations without change.

To see if the problem was hardware or software related, I downloaded a generic UPnP server from Twonkyvision. Twonkyvision's server can run on all of the machines on my network, including my Kuro Box, NSLU2, iBook, XP laptop, etc.

UPnP Server selection
Figure 4: UPnP Server selection

A quick test showed that the Twonkyvision server running on my XP machine served music to the MP115 fine. I could even run it simultaneously with the NETGEAR server, but where the Twonkyvision server would play a song, the supplied server would still fail. At least this isolated the problem to software.

At this point, I called in assistance from a helpful NETGEAR engineer. He recalled seeing reports of the 45 second problem and said that symptom was always related to a firewall. He also said that the Twonkyvision server used a different method of communication than the NETGEAR server, so a firewall could affect them differently. This still seemed odd - a firewall that allowed 45 seconds worth of music to pass before cutting it off? But if there was a known issue with firewalls, I was willing to look around a bit more.

Since this was a new laptop, I wasn't familiar with all of the software than had come pre-installed. I managed to find a McAfee Personal firewall that was configured in addition to the standard Windows firewall. This had to be it! I went into its configuration screen, turned security all the way down and tried again. No change.

This was getting frustrating, so I went into the McAfee screens and told it to trust the NETGEAR server. I told it to trust everything on the local network. I told it to trust the polite young man from Nigeria with a large inheritance he needed assistance with. I told it to do no filtering at all. None. And then I tried again. No change. A song would play for 45 seconds and quit.

Just before I gave up and dragged out my collection of vinyl 45's, I tried one last thing. I gleefully deleted the McAfee firewall from my laptop, rebooted and tried again. Success! Now I could actually play a a song from start to finish. I then tried one of the songs that previously wouldn't play at all and it also played all the way through! Now I was getting somewhere. On with the review.


Music and Pictures

Once I was up and running, the music playback feature worked well. It allows choosing either a pre-defined grouping such as artist, genre, album, etc. and playing through the list, or defining a custom grouping on the server for more precise control. To really test it out, though, I needed to go back to the server and clean out all of the Windows sound files that it had picked up before. I did this and changed the import preferences to only look in my media directories.

Going through this process reminded me once again of how important it is to have proper groupings. The All list showed more than a thousand songs and scrolling through them nine at a time wouldn't be fun. The bulk of the music I was testing originated as MP3s from iTunes. These played fine, but the device - like all others not manufactured by Apple - can't directly play music purchased from the iTunes store.

Album cover display
Figure 5: Album cover display

During playback, I usually got an unexciting screen showing the song title and progress, but occasionally, an image of the album cover (Figure 5), associated with the song was displayed. While this is a nice feature, it isn't clear when and how the images and songs become associated. (It didn't appear to use the album art embedded in my iTunes files.) But after a few minutes, a screen saver of a slowly bouncing NETGEAR logo would appear, so the mystery of the album covers is somewhat moot. By the way, supported formats are MP3, WAV, and WMA.

Next I tried out the Pictures feature, which also worked well. Note that the grouping feature for pictures is based on the underlying directory structure on the server machine. So if you've been diligent about keeping your photos in well-defined directories, and if you have meaningful names, you'll be fine. If not, you'll end up with a long list that you'll have to scroll through nine at a time looking for the right one.

In my case, I used a directory tree of photos that I normally managed from within iPhoto. As you can see in Figure 6, I was relying on iPhoto's organization tools and not using meaningful filenames or directories, so finding the right photo was doubly hard. Unlike the Viewsonic WMA100 I tested a while back, there were no options for creating transitions between photos or for adding music to the photo playback. There's only a single option to control how long a picture stays on the screen and a selection on the remote to let you display a list in random order instead of sequentially. NETGEAR says the MP115 supports JPG, GIF, BMP and TIFF file types, but I found the PNG files would also be displayed.


Figure 6: What happens when your photo filenames aren't descriptive


Internet radio

Next I tried out the Internet radio station feature found under the Premium Content menu. The "Premium" in the title refers to the fact that you can sign up for a pay-service. Purchasing the feature (a one-time fee of $19.95) provides you with over 2000 stations. The box comes with a 60-day trial, but after your trial is up you'll still have access to 50 stations. As a comparison, I did a quick check of the free set of stations provided in iTunes and it showed 170 available. So if you're really into Internet radio, $20 gives you access to a lot of content.

Playing a station consists of navigating down through a list grouped by genre, country, language, etc. and selecting it. The feature worked well, although one thing I missed was an indication of the quality of the station. When I have a choice between two similar stations, I'd like to know which one is using a higher bit rate.

The only problem I encountered while using the radio feature was a momentary "blip" that's not uncommon with Internet radio. But instead of picking back up after the blip, the MP115 gave up on that station and moved on to the next one in the list. I then had to hit the Stop button, go back to the menu and reselect the station I wanted. It obviously would have been much better if the MP115 just retried for a bit and then, as a last resort, exited back to the menu rather than selecting a new random station to play.


Video

The final format I checked was Video. The box advertises support for MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and DivX 4 and 5, but like many things, it's not quite as easy as that. I'm no expert in the matter, but I know that at least MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 come in different types. For example, I found a site that advertised MPEG-2 test streams that manufacturers can use to test their MPEG-2 decoders. But it turned out they were MPEG-2 transport streams, and were incompatible with the MP115.

I created a MPEG-4 movie on my iBook using iMovie, but it too was incompatible because it wrapped the video stream for use in Quicktime. A NETGEAR representative verified that only MPEG-4 movies wrapped in AVI format would be playable. But even then, there are incompatibilities because there's more than one way to do MPEG-4 encoding.

Despite using several programs ( Quicktime Pro , VLC , HandBrake ) to generate MPEG-4 AVI files, I was never able to create an MPEG-4 movie that was playable on the box. One of my movies even caused the box to lock up hard, requiring a power reset. Given more time, I suspect I could have found the magic encoding incantation, because NETGEAR supplied me with some sample MPEG-4 AVI files that did play correctly.

I had better luck with MPEG-2 files. My best source of MPEG-2 movies were DVDs I had created with iDVD. Internally, DVDs use MPEG-2 encoding, but the video is wrapped in a VOB format (DVD Video Object) that includes information about chapters, alternate tracks, etc. A file with a .vob extension is not recognized by the NETGEAR server, but I found that if I renamed a file from *.vob to *.mpg it was usually playable. The decoder must be smart enough to skip past non-recognized data until it gets to MPEG-2 data.

Commercial DVDs are another matter. Commercial DVDs are normally encrypted, so their VOB files will not play unless the encryption is removed. I extracted and unencrypted a VOB file from one of my DVDs and the result played fine with one exception. The DVD was in wide-screen format where the video was "letterboxed" on the screen with black bars on top and bottom of the picture.

However, when I viewed the video on the MP115, the picture was stretched vertically to take up the whole screen where the black letterbox bars had been. Fortunately, a quick check of the preference menu gave an option to allow the video to play without stretching. Once this was set, the video displayed properly.

My experience with MPEG-1 video was the smoothest because all of my MPEG-1 samples played properly. So MPEG-1 appears to be the safest bet, for trouble-free video playback on the MP115, but that means sacrificing a lot of quality. Note that I didn't try to play DivX 4 or 5 files.

One feature that seemed a bit odd with movie playback was the way it automatically moved on to the next movie in the list when the first was complete. Maybe this would be fine for music and slide shows, but after viewing a 2 hour movie, I wouldn't want the box to just automatically start up a new one.

Tip! Tip: While researching the playback of video on the device, I came across an entire forum devoted to tricks, tips and experiences in using the same media server and decoder in use on the MP115.


Going Wireless

I'm lucky to have a network drop located behind my entertainment center, but I suspect that's a bit rare. Fortunately, the MP115 supports 802.11 b/g wireless capabilities as well as wired. This allows you to put the device where you need it, without regard to network cables. To try this out, I disconnected my network cable and cycled the power on the box. When the box came up, it scanned for wireless access points. In my case, it found three (Figure 7).

Wireless Network scan results
Figure 7: Wireless Network scan results

I selected my access point and the MP115 brought up a configuration screen. My access point is configured using 128 bit WEP encryption, so I used the remote keypad to enter the key cell-phone style. It was a bit awkward, but it shouldn't be a daily experience. I did notice that the box would forget my wireless settings when switching back and forth from wired to wireless, so in my case, at least while I was testing, it was a common experience. Note that the device does not support the more secure WPA encryption, which is a serious omission.

My access point is in a bad location for best range, being located in my basement furnace room because that is where cable comes into the house. My entertainment center, where I used the device normally, is directly above the furnace room, so there was a wood floor between test AP and the MP115, but only about 6-7 feet of distance.

With this setup, I was able to watch a couple of full-length movies ripped from my DVD library over the wireless link without problems. At one point, I was even watching one while transferring another over the wireless link and I saw no glitches or artifacts!

For a range test, I moved the MP115 to a spot about 30 feet or so away, but with a floor and a couple of sheetrock walls between it and the basement AP. Note that the furnace room also has a lot of metal ductwork that was probably blocking and bouncing the wireless signals around.

In this location, I found that sound would stutter, and finally stop and quit to the selection menu. I also sometimes found menus to be non-responsive, as if no content could be fetched from the server. I tried a DVD-quality movie, which started to play, but then stopped and locked the box solid, requiring a power cycle.

In all, I judge the range of the MP115 to be comparable to other wireless devices I use in my house. It worked where I needed it, but had problems in locations in the remote corners of my house where I usually have signal loss. So if you want to run wirelessly, choose your location carefully. By the way, it would have been nice to have a detailed signal strength display during this testing or as an aid in determining AP / MP115 placement. The only signal strength display is in the initial access point selection menu (Figure 7) that only had rough signal quality settings.


Under the Covers

MP115 main board
Figure 8: MP115 main board
(click image to enlarge)

Taking off the cover on the box revealed a few details about the MP115's implementation. The video decoding appears to be accomplished with an ALI T6306 chip and wireless capabilities are provided by a mini-PCI card based on an Atheros AR5004.

I was also interested in seeing what was going on under the covers on the network. Often times, the first thing I do when plugging a new device onto my home network is to use nmap to do a port scan of it to tell me what services, documented or otherwise it may provide. But when I tried this with the MP115, I got no results - this little device was stealthy!

Another thing I do is watch network traffic going into and out of a device. When I tried this with the MP115, I saw the expected UPnP traffic and also noticed a manufacturer's name fly by: Digital5. This told me that the manufacturer of the device was probably Digital5 and a visit to its web site comfirmed it. Of course, had I looked closer at the front-panel of the box, I would have noticed a small Digital5 logo - but that wouldn't have been as much fun as sniffing the network traffic!

Since the device supports the standard UPnP protocol, I was eager to try it out with the Twonkyvision servers running elsewhere on my network. I had servers running on my NSLU2, KuroBox, iBook and laptop under both Linux and Windows XP. That should be enough!

In general, I found compatibility to be good. In some cases, I could play movies with the Twonkyvision server that wouldn't play with the NETGEAR server and vice-versa. But I also had a couple of difficulties with the Twonkyvision server and the MP115. The first problem was that the Internet radio station selection from the main menu was missing when using a Twonkyvision server. Stations would show up under Music, but they wouldn't play.

There was also a problem when attaching to the server running on my NSLU2. When I selected this server, I would get a long pause, and then go straight into the Music sub-menu. I would never get a choice to select Pictures or Movies. Music would play fine, but I had no other options. Twonkyvision lists an incompatibility (a TCP/IP stack issue) between its server on the NSLU2 and the NETGEAR MP101, but looks like it may also have trouble with the MP115.

Despite these problems, using the MP115 with a small server such as the Kuro or the NSLU2 is an attractive option. Using network storage devices means you don't tie up a "real" computer and the devices are small, power efficient, nearly silent and can have a great deal of storage space.


Wrapping Up

I can't help thinking that other consumers will be fighting with problems caused by personal firewalls much like I did, which doesn't bode well for NETGEAR customer support and returns. The manual did have a section on configuring a McAfee firewall, but the instructions didn't match the version installed on my laptop.

But once I got my firewall issue resolved, I was generally pleased with the box. I'd even say that I prefer the MP115 over the Viewsonic WMA100 mainly due to the MP115's more mature software. I also feel that the MP115's user interface performs better and it was able to play more of my media without throwing up cryptic errors - especially my iTunes ripped MP3s.

That said, I wasn't all that impressed with the MP115's user interface beyond its responsiveness. It reminded me of Windows 3.1, being a bit dull and often un-intuitive. But realistically, based on the way I'd use the box, I wouldn't use its browsing features that often. I found myself just selecting an album or movie and letting it go.

Eventually I'd like to re-encode my DVD library to a hard drive and play them through a device such as this. So while the video issues were an annoyance - but not unexpected given the wide variety of movie formats in use today - they were a useful tutorial in what will be involved in realizing my desire. I suspect that, with time, I could come up with the proper encoding magic that would satisfy both my needs and the box's requirements. But if you're planning on using an existing library of digital movies, you may want to do some research to make sure that the MP115 can play them. Note, however, that movie formats supported by the MP115 played without problems.

Note also that if you decide to bring an MP115 into your home, you may have a difficult time finding one. A quick check of on-line shopping sites brought up surprisingly few hits. When I asked NETGEAR about this, they would only say that the product is in "limited distribution in the US, Europe and Asia/Pacific and that it is in "field trials in various channels, including service providers".

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