|At a Glance|
|Product||Iomega ScreenPlay TV Link (34386)|
|Summary||Portable Multimedia player / adapter for USB drives|
• Power efficient
• DVD VOB Support
|Cons||• Lackluster user interface
• Limited format support
A year or so ago I finally made the decision to rip and encode my entire DVD collection, much like I did my CDs years ago. Now after many months of disk swapping, file copying and overnight encoding sessions, I have a large collection of movies that I can stream across the network to my TV. It's cool. With metadata attached, I can view the movie posters, and watch my videos sorted by genre, director, awards, cast, etc.
But there's a problem of portability. What if my kids want to watch one of our movies at a friend's house? In theory we could copy a movie across the network to a laptop and take it along to hook up to the TV. But in reality, that's a time-consuming pain that doesn't work well with my daughter's spur-of-the-moment sleepovers. So even after all my time and effort, I still have to keep a shelf-space hogging DVD collection readily accessible. Is there a solution out there?
In this review I'll check out a new device in Iomega's ScreenPlay line. The TV Link is a sub-$100 device that you hook up to a TV and a USB drive for playing back movies, music and photos. And as an added portability bonus, the little box is only about the size of a pack of playing cards.
The TV Link is actually the media-player portion of Iomega's earlier product, the Multimedia ScreenPlay drive. Both products are functionally equivalent; the TV Link is just smaller and comes sans hard drive.
Setting up the TV Link is pretty simple and it doesn't take much more than plugging in the power and the proper audio/video connectors. Figure 1 shows the back panel where you see the USB drive connector and support for composite signals, component signals and even HDMI. (Iomega includes breakout cables to connect to the composite and component connectors.)
Figure 1: Back Panel
Even though the TV Link has high definition connectors, this isn't a real HD device, as it uses up-scaling to get to high-resolution formats such as 720p and 1080i. For disk drive usage, standard Windows formats such as NTFS and FAT32 are supported along with Iomega's REV-UDF format used in their REV USB drives. And if you want real portability, you can even use a USB-stick in place of a drive.
I tried out a USB hub to see if I could use multiple devices, but it was a no-go. When a hub was plugged in, nothing was recognized. In addition, if you have a drive with multiple partitions, only the first will be recognized. Figure 2 shows the remote used on the TV Link.
Figure 2: TV Link Remote
Notice that the volume up and down buttons are reversed as compared to most remotes. In use, I found this very thin remote a bit stiff, but it worked well enough. Note that if you want to use the remote in a darkened room, it has no backlighting.
I started the setup using the composite connector and powered up. Figure 3 shows the initial menu displayed.
Figure 3: Main Menu
As you can see, the menu graphics on this device are not going to impress your family and friends. They're just about as basic as you can get.
Normally when reviewing one of these video devices, I connect the output of the device to a frame-grabber. But in this case, my grabber didn't like the signal coming from the composite output of the TV Link. This may indicate that the composite output is a bit "off" from standard NTSC, since I've never had this issue before. My TV had no problem with the signal, however. So all of the following screen images were taken using a digital camera and tripod.
The three folders shown here, Music, Pictures and Video correspond to the directories I had created on the flash stick used for this initial test. Miscellaneous non-media files I had laying around at this same level didn't show up at all.
Before I tried out my content, I wanted to check out available configuration options. Figure 4 shows the setup menu that is accessed via a button on the remote.
Figure 4: Setup Menu
From this menu, you can select basic configuration options such as menu languages, audio/video output and photo slideshow timing. And in addition to the standard setup items, there were also a number of DVD-type configuration selections such as DVD Menu, subtitle language, etc.
The first media I tried out was photos. When I selected my "Photos" directory, I was immediately presented with a slide show of my pictures. This was not really what I expected. I wanted to browse and then select pictures or sub-directories to view.
As I further played with the product, I found this to be the case on all directories. Any time I selected a directory, the music, photos, or video within it would immediately start to play. To see my directory, I had to exit the slide show using the Stop button on the remote. Figure 5 shows a listing of my photos.
Figure 5: Photo Menu
Once again, this is a very basic display showing an alphabetical list of pictures in the directory. If you want any level of control, you need to build subdirectories for each set of photos you want to display. Note that Iomega supports only JPEG still images. For a little more pizzazz in the display, you can hit the "menu" button on the remote to see your photo menu constructed in thumbnails (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Photo Thumbnails
When displaying your pictures, you're always in a slide-show mode, but you can use the pause or stop button for control and use the repeat button to control sequential vs. random playback. According to the manual, the Forward / Reverse buttons were supposed to allow you to move from one picture to the next while paused, but it didn't work for me. There's also a Zoom button on the remote, but it too didn't work while in a slide show.
If you want music to go along with your pictures, just deposit one or more MP3s in the photo directory, but note that they will play back in alphabetical order, so name them accordingly. If you want more control, you can build a m3U playlist file and place it in the directory. Note that when I paused on a photo, it stayed up forever. This means the TV Link has no screensaver, so be careful if you have a TV that is susceptible to burn-in.
For music playback, Iomega advertises support for several formats: MP3; OGG; WMA; and WAV. Figure 7 shows a listing of my music directory.
Figure 7: Music Listing
Like the photo display, it's pretty basic with the little icon next to the file indicating the file type. And again, you'll also want to organize by your files by directory. You probably wouldn't want your whole music collection of 3000 songs shown in one alphabetical list.
Once you hit the Play button, songs in your directory will be played back, either in order or in a random mode selected via the Repeat button on the remote. Curiously enough, the fast-forward button works while playing back music. So if you want to look for hidden a message in your old Pink Floyd album, now's your chance. While playing back music, a very basic display with a progress bar is shown (Figure 8)
Figure 8: Music Playing
The final format I tried was video. Video playback has always been difficult for hardware devices, because there are just too many formats and codecs in use. Iomega advertises support for MPEG1, MPEG2 and AVI containers along with MPEG4 using DivX and XviD codecs. But, as usual with these devices, your mileage may vary depending on your file.
Unfortunately for me, I have hundreds of DVD rips using MPEG4 with an H.264 codec, which is an unsupported combination. But to give playback with supported formats a try, I plugged in one of my large external USB drives and navigated into several directories that contain video files. Like before, as soon as I entered a directory full of videos, the first one would begin to play until I hit the Stop button, so that I could choose what I really wanted to see. This was a bit annoying, as it's not often that I want to play the first video in a large list of files.
The first thing I noticed was that files of unsupported formats just didn't appear. The supported files showed little icons that representing their type (Figure 9)
Figure 9: Video Listing
As I played with the supported files, I noted a few things. The best-supported format appeared to be MPEG2. When playing these files, most of the features such as fast- forward, fast-reverse, zoom, slow, etc. worked as expected. With other format files, using these features was hit and miss. For example, when viewing an AVI file using an XviD codec, none of the special keys such as fast forward/reverse/zoom buttons worked. I also noticed that sometimes a file that had played once wouldn't play again (unsupported codec message) until I powered down and then back up.
Going through my collection of files, I was able to play MPEG2, MPEG1, DivX, and XviD files. I tried to cheat and rename an unsupported format to a supported format, e.g. ".mpg", but it didn't work. The file would show up, but it would have a "?" for an icon. I also noted that the response was pretty good. I'm used to streaming all of my video across the network, so I always get a bit of a lag. But since the TV Link uses a local drive, data is always close to the playback device.
Next, I was curious about all of those DVD-type options, such as "Subtitle" and "Angle" on the remote. Could the TV Link TV play back a ripped DVD in the format of a VOB directory? When I tried, I first got a rather unsatisfactory answer.
First, I selected a directory that contained a ripped DVD. This was followed by the USB disk clattering and a message on the screen stating the directory was being scanned. Shortly thereafter, the TV Link appeared to crash and reset. When I tried again, I got the same result.
The third time I tried, I hit the "stop" button on the remote as soon as I heard the disk start to chatter. This gave me a listing of the DVD VOB directory. When I then hit the Play button on the standard "VIDEO-TS" entry, I was greeted with a normal display of FBI warning, previews, the DVD navigation menu, etc. It was just like a standard DVD. And from then on, every time I tried to play the DVD directory, it worked like it should. I never got the crash again. And when I tried a second DVD, it worked flawlessly.
I don't know what caused the first behavior that I encountered, but it never happened again. Maybe it was caused by some transient flakiness of my drive. But once it was working, it was a powerful feature. Note that I was also using DVDs that were decrypted. The TV Link does not have the ability to play back ripped DVDs with the encryption in place.
Last year, I had spent months ripping and re-encoding my entire DVD collection. I could have done it much, much faster if I had just ripped the DVDs directly without a re-encode. And then as a bonus brought about by keeping the DVD structure intact, I would still have had all of the video special features, menus, trailers, etc.
Terabyte drives are fairly commonplace these days and can be found in the $150 neighborhood and looking down the road, they'll only get cheaper. If you want to do a simple DVD rip, it's fairly quick ( around 30 minutes or so on my Mac). The size of a rip varies, and can be compressed, but 4 GB or so is common for the rips that I have done. This means that a Terabyte drive could hold in the neighborhood of 250 DVDs.
This makes it feasible for many people to easily rip their entire DVD collection and retain the full functionality of the originals with scene selection, outtakes, director's commentary, etc. Nice. PCs and Macs have been able to play back directly-ripped DVDs for awhile. But this is the first multimedia playback device that I have reviewed that could do it. And for less than $100, it's not much of an expense. So with this device and a big USB drive, you could have a large, portable multimedia library that fits in a space smaller than a shoebox. Cool.
Under the covers
Usually, I like to dig into a device to see what software it's running internally. But with a stand-alone little device like this, and with no firmware image to dissect, it's hard unless you start probing for serial or a JTAG port. So this time I'll have to leave that to others who are prepared to dig out a soldering iron. But we can at least see what hardware components are being used.
The TV Link is a dual-sided board. Figures 10 and 11 show both sides of the TV Link circuit board with the case removed.
Figure 10: Main Board Side 1
Figure 11: Main Board Side 2
The main chip visible in the center of the board is a ESS Technology 8381 chip. It's responsible for most of the decoding and DVD handling that is going on. This chip is oftentimes found in consumer DVD players. HDMI support on the board is via a Silicon Image SiI9034 chip. The USB interface is a Genesyslogic gl824c
In general, I'd have a hard time recommending this product for any serious music playback or photo slideshows. It might work fine if you need to take it somewhere for a specific slideshow or if you just have simple playback needs. But it has fairly crude capabilities compared to other higher-end devices I've used. I also have the same reservations for general video playback. It was fairly flakey with my motley collection of miscellaneous files.
For example, although it has limitations too, my current multimedia player of choice, the AppleTV has a very slick user interface with extensive capabilities for slide shows and music playback. And the Netgear EVA8000 that I reviewed a while back is a true HD device and plays back nearly all files in my library.
But neither of these products is portable and both are priced over $300, while the TV Link is a pocket sized, sub $100 device, so its limitations aren't all that surprising.
But where the TV Link shines is ripped DVD playback. If you want to experiment with ripping all of your DVDs to an external USB drive and don't want to spend the time re-encoding, this little device just might fit your needs and allow you to reclaim all of the shelf-space that a big DVD collection takes.