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Video Playback

The first feature I checked out was the video capabilities. This is a hard feature to get right since there are a lot of video formats in use. Over the last few years, I've tested a dozen or so of these types of products, and I've yet to see one that would play every video file that I had laying around on my system. Buffalo advertises support for the following: MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, Xvid, WMV, and H.264 (MPEG-4 AVC).

But even though the basic format may be supported, it's not always that easy, since each of those types can vary greatly and can be contained in different file types. It was good to see H.264 listed, since this is a nice video codec that is not often seen in these types of devices. But on the other hand, it was curious not to see DivX listed, since support for Xvid and DivX usually goes hand-in-hand with these devices.

For my testing, I usually just start down the line playing video files I have on my system. Depending on what files you have, you will likely have different results. Usually MPEG-1 files play without a hitch on these products, but on the LinkTheater, I had several that just gave me black screens, and I had one that played back with the wrong aspect ratio.

I had better luck with MPEG-2 files—all of my standard-definition files played fine. I could even play decrypted VOB files ripped from DVDs. A stress-test 1080i MPEG-2 file failed to play, giving me only a black screen. But since the LinkTheater advertises support for video only up to 720p, I can't hold this failure against it.

Other formats were hit-and-miss and things get really confusing when video codecs get mixed with video container formats. I only had a single H.264 video that was in an AVI container, and it failed to play. However, I had a number of standard-definition Xvid files in AVI containers, and they all played fine. Attempting to play one of my WMV files caused the LinkTheater to lock up, requiring me to pull the power cord. Some other WMV files played, some didn't—with little feedback as to why—which is common with these devices. I had a bunch of DivX movie trailers and some played, even though DivX was not listed as being supported. But none of my High-def DivX videos played. If you have DRM-restricted video files, Buffalo documents that they can be played back from the Windows Media Connect server, although I had none to test with.

I'll also note the behavior of the fast-forward and reverse buttons on the non-backlit remote. These worked, but they were more like jump-ahead and jump-back, which is also common with these devices. It's just too hard to pump the data across the network fast enough for smooth operation of these modes.

In general, I'd say the video-playing ability of this device was sub-par. None of these devices are perfect, but the LinkTheater played fewer of my files than similar devices I've tested recently.

Music Playback

Music is somewhat easier to handle than video since there are fewer formats in common use. Buffalo documents support for: MP3, WAV, WMA, M4A (AAC), LPCM, and AC3. At the top-level menu, options are presented for sorting your collection by Album, artist genre, etc. (Figure 8)

Music selection

Figure 8: Music selection

Like most people, the bulk of my digital music is in MP3 format ripped from my CD collection, so that is what I do most testing with. One of my big complaints about the LinkTheater mini was its handling of music that had added album art from the iTunes music player. The mini would crash whenever it tried to play one of these files. I had hoped that this new LinkTheater would do better. It did, but only a little.

Instead of crashing on these files, the LinkTheater would start and then just give up. Ugh. Once again, this is a flaw that I see in too many of these devices. I have a lot of music files with album art, and none of them could be played. MP3s without album art played back fine.

When talking to a TwonkyVision UPnP AV server I was also offered the ability to listen to Internet Radio Stations under the Music sub menu. This worked well and was a nice feature. As far as other music formats, several WMA format files I tested played fine. Note that you won't be able to play DRM-restricted music purchased from the iTunes music store. However, when using the TwonkyVision server, I was successful in playing back one of the new non-DRM music files (AAC Format) purchased from the iTunes store. The file would not play, however, using either of the Buffalo-installed servers. While music is being played, you can navigate into the Pictures menu to start a slide show to accompany your music.

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