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{mospagebreak toctitle= Introduction}

Introduction

ioBox 100HD

At a Glance
Product DragonTech ioBox-100HD Networked Media Tank
Summary Compact, fanless "Media tank" style player with wide video format support
Pros • Supports Wide variety of video formats up to 1080p
• Plays ripped DVDs w/ menu
• Supports UPnP AV
• Active Developer Community
Cons • Some bugs
• Bland user interface

Every since I hacked my AppleTV a couple of years back, it's been the primary multimedia player in my house. With my hacks in place, the AppleTV can access files from the various NASes on my LAN and play back all my ripped and H.264-encoded DVDs with a very slick user interface that allows me to quickly sort through the hundreds of movies in my collection via metadata such as genre, actor, director, etc.

It's slick, but as cool as it is, it hasn't been the answer for all of my media. When it comes to high definition movies, the AppleTV just doesn't have the horsepower to handle anything higher than very specifically encoded 720p videos. If you want to play 1080p movies on your home network, you're going to have to look elsewhere.

One HD-capable media player that I've heard good things about is the Popcorn Hour by Syabas. Word is, the PH could play just about any video format in use and could also handle 1080p movies with ease. I hadn't had a chance to try the PH myself and they are a bit hard to come by.

But now Sybase is acting as an OEM for other manufactures wanting to build their own players. They have branded their OEM solution, the "Network Media Tank" (NMT) and now there are several manufacturers producing boxes based on this platform. In this review, I'll check out one of those products, the Dragontech ioBox-100HD.

Physically, the ioBox isn't much bigger than a VHS videocassette (for those of you who remember what those are). The aluminum case feels solid and comes with easy-open thumbscrews so you can install an optional 2.5" or 3.5" SATA disk, which you'll likely want to do since the ioB ox comes without one. (You can run it diskless but you'll lose some functionality).

The front panel (seen above) has a couple of USB ports for plugging in external drives (FAT or NTFS supported) and also a slave port for direct attach to your PC for high-speed file transfers. If you want to do a direct-connect, however, you'll need to have ext3 drivers installed to handle the Linux disk format used by the ioBox internally. It's nice to have the USB connectors on the front panel for easy access, but if you want to permanently hook up a USB drive, you'll be stuck seeing a cable hanging off the front panel.

The back panel (Figure 1) has a full suite of connectors for both HD and standard-def use.

Back Panel

Figure 1: Back Panel

The only thing missing for standard-def users is an S-Video connector. Otherwise, from left to right you can see component connectors, composite A/V connectors, coax and optical audio connectors, HDMI port, 10/100 Ethernet, power and an on-off switch. Note that if you don't have Ethernet available where you want to use it, the ioBox supports a USB dongle. But once again, you'll have to have it hanging off the front panel. Note also that this unit doesn't have a fan, so it's silent in operation. As far as power-draw, I measured the box to draw about 12 W when active and 11 W when idle.

Figure 2 shows the ioBox remote.

iobox Remote

Figure 2: iobox Remote

The remote is full featured and worked well enough, but it's not backlit. So if you like watching your videos in a darkened room, you may want to have a flashlight handy.


Setup

For basic use, setting up the ioBox is as simple as hooking up the right cables and powering it on. By default, the box is set to acquire an IP address via DHCP and auto-detect your output. So if everything goes well, you'll end up on with the initial display as shown in Figure 3.

Main Menu

Figure 3: Home Menu

One thing I noticed during setup was that the documentation is a bit sparse. The unit came with a user manual, and a quick-start guide. But neither had in-depth information. For that, you are directed to the online forums. There's a lot in the forums, but it can be a bit confusing because you get a mixture of info from users and moderators as well as questions and comments about other NMT boxes.

Figure 4 shows the setup screen where numerous parameters can be set, including network settings, screen-saver timeout, A/V output settings etc.

Preferences

Figure 4: Preferences

One notable configuration menu allows you to mount network shares from the ioBox. So if you have a NAS on your LAN or you're sharing a directory from your PC, you can mount it using this menu and the content on it will be available. If you don't want to acquire content using a network share, you can also get it automatically via the UPnP A/V protocol. It's pretty common for NASes to have a built-in UPnP AV server. So if you have one running on the network already, you're set.

Figure 5 shows the Media Source selection screen where the local disks and servers located on my network are shown.

server select

Figure 5: Server Select

There are a lot of ways to move content to the ioBox if you have installed a hard drive. If you want to push your files to it, you can use the setup menu to share your internal disk via either the Windows SMB or Unix/OSX NFS protocol. Once you've done this, you can mount it across the network from your PC and move files over. In this case, it acts much like a NAS device itself, except it lacks common configuration settings such as the definition of individual shares, with privileges, user accounts, quotas, etc.

If that doesn't appeal to you, you also have the option to FTP your files to the box. If you're into downloading content via Torrent, you're covered here as well, since the ioBox has a built-in Torrent client. Just Feed it your Torrent file and it will download your content for viewing.

The ioBox also supports fetching content via a documented HTTP/HTML protocol. This has given external developers the ability to develop creative servers that can interact with the device. Once such server that looks promising is called the MovieJukebox. The idea is that you would run this app on your computer and it indexes your media and feeds info and screens to the ioBox. I had problems getting it to run due to Java version requirements. But as you can see from the screen-shots on the MovieJukebox web page, this app looks promising. Note, however, that you'll need to have a separate server system running to feed content to the ioBox.

If you're going to rely on UPnP AV for getting content, a benefit is that it can interact with other devices that also use the same protocol. One such device, is the iPhone or iPod Touch, at least when you've purchased an add-on app such as Plug Player. Figure 6 shows a screenshot of my iPod where I've selected the ioBox as a UPnP output (renderer), and then one of my UPnP servers as input.

iPod Control

Figure 6: iPod Control

Using this combo, I can use my iPod as a controller for the ioBox. At least that's the theory. In practice, more often than not, when I'd select a video and hit the play button on my iPod, the ioBox would start to play back the movie and then freeze up, requiring me to power-cycle the box. Hopefully this will get corrected because this is a nice combo when it works.


Photos and Audio

The ioBox supports basic slide shows using JPEG, GIF, BMP or PNG images. You just navigate to a directory full of photos and then hit the Play button to start the show. In the preferences area you can set the photo display time as well as specify that a fade transition be used. This feature worked, but was about as basic as you can get for slideshows.

Audio playback was similar in operation. Navigate to a directory of audio, and hit the play button to start playing the songs. Support is provided for a wide range of formats: MP1/2/3, WMA, WMA Pro, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, AC3, PCM, WAV and FLAC. On some of my files, I even got an album-art display (Figure 7) while the music was playing, while on others I did not, even though it was present in the file.

Music Display

Figure 7: Music Display

As compared to other media-playback boxes I've tested, the ioBox was similar to most. But as compared to the AppleTV I use on a day-to-day basis, there is no contest. The AppleTV can do combined audio and photo slideshows with complex, fluid, user-specified 3D transitions, fades, animations, etc.

Video

Handling video is the toughest task that media players have to handle since there are so many different encodings being used. In the last couple of years, I've taken to ripping all of my DVDs in H.264 using Handbrake and I'm glad to report that the ioBox played all of these back fine.

The only issue I had was that the audio came out as stereo instead of the Dolby Digital 5.3 I was getting on my AppleTV. This doesn't surprise me, as it's my understanding that the Handbrake developers had to do a bit of a non-standard hack to get the 5.3 audio included in the output file.

One of the big selling points of NMTs is their ability handle almost any video you can throw at it. So how did it do with my video collection (Figure 8)?

Video Selection

Figure 8: Video Selection

Not bad. I had a few older WMV files around that it couldn't play and it choked on some of my MOV files. But overall, I'd say this box played back more files than any other (non-hacked) media player that I've tested. I had success with MPEG1, MPEG2, XviD, DivX and other files. The ioBox also comes out on top with the ability to handle "trick modes" such as fast-forward, reverse, slow-motion, etc. This all worked better than I've ever seen with other products, although on occasion, it did skip backward when I would get out of fast-forward mode.

Once nice feature is the box's ability to play back ripped DVDs. If you've ripped your DVDs to your hard drive and removed CSS encryption, the ioBox can play them just like you were using the original DVD. You get full menu support, scene selection, etc. It's a cool feature when it works. But I had a frequent failure where it appeared as if the DVD subsystem was in a bad state. One time it would work, but then the next time it would start to bring up the DVD menu, before falling back to the file selection screen.

One confusing thing to note about the DVD playback is that it only works when you're accessing the files locally or via a network share. It you're accessing the media via a UPnP server, you'll be able to play the VOB files from the DVD, but you won't get the complete DVD menu-driven experience.

And how did the box do with HD? I don't have a large HD video collection, but I do have a handful of 1080p files and they all played back without issue. It was great to be able to stream a high-quality video across the network and pause, fast-forward, reverse, etc. I have a 1080p H.264 capture of last year's NCAA Men's Basketball Finals (Rock Chalk Jayhawk!) that I've never been able to play anywhere. Even though my dual-core MacBook Pro has trouble with it, the ioBox played it back from a network share perfectly. Very cool! And what about Blu-ray? I have a Blu-ray rip from my copy of "The Shining" and the ioBox had no trouble with it either. Impressive! With Blu-ray, I didn't get full menu support like I did with standard DVDs, but the video played back perfectly.


Additional Services

I won't have room in this review to cover all the features, but the ioBox has a number of what it calls "Web Services". These are basically references to web sites on the Internet that you can display via the unit. Syabas has included a collection of services for nice display on the ioBox with pages for various video sites such as YouTube, MediaFly, and Blip.tv, as well as Internet radio stations and photo web sites such as photobucket and Picassa (Figure 9).

Web Services

Figure 9: Web Services

And if you can't find what you want in the list, there's a way to add your own links. Bear in mind that the web "browser" that is used isn't quite up to the standards you'll find on the desktop, so some pages may not display properly.

Under the Covers

Figure 10 shows the main board of the ioBox.

Main Board
Click to enlarge image

Figure 10: Main Board

You can see the big heat sink that keeps the box from having to use a fan. This obscures most chips on the board, but fortunately, the main CPU is documented to be a MIPS-based Sigma Designs SMP8635. You can take a look at all of the GPL software included by downloading the files from here. There are a number of documented ways to get a root command-line, so I installed a Telnet daemon by following the instructions here that worked fine. Once in, I could see a fairly typical embedded Linux distribution with busybox used for utilities, Samba used for Windows file-serving support and Apache for a web server. I could also see that the Linux kernel was version 2.6.15.

Closing Thoughts

So, will this box be replacing my hacked AppleTV as my family's media-player of choice? Not for now. I don't have enough HD content yet to worry about, and the ioBox user interface pales in comparison to my AppleTV. As for a price comparison, the ioBox can be had for about $220 without a drive, and an 18 month warranty, while the AppleTV starts at $220 with a 40GB drive and one year warranty. But you'd have to hack your AppleTV to get anywhere near the level of file-format support that the ioBox has, and even then you'll never get 1080p playback.

The bugs that cropped up now and then in the ioBox were a bit annoying, but obviously the box does have a lot going for it. Its ability to play a wide variety of content including DVD rips and 1080p movies was very nice. I liked being able to get content from UPnP AV servers, local disks or standard file shares. And its developer friendliness means that we may see a lot more interesting plug-ins and user interfaces cropping up. I'll really keep an eye on the Movie Jukebox server since it comes closest to what I'm getting out of my AppleTV as far as movie artwork and metadata. But as mentioned, the downside to this model is that the Movie Jukebox has to be on the server-side, which means running a separate computer just to serve content to the ioBox.

Regardless, I enjoyed using the ioBox, and I'll be keeping an eye on the NMT platform as it evolves and gets more functionality from its active developer community. Is the ioBox right for you? As usual, that depends on your needs. But if you have a lot of varied content to play and aren't into hacking, you might give the ioBox a try!

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