To the fully geekified, the idea of a device for playing video and music files on your living room TV is as familiar as a beer launching fridge. However, for a lot of people it’s as foreign as having an Aga in the bedroom. So, I'll just briefly explain. What these devices allow you to do is sit back and relax in your favourite armchair or sofa and watch on the TV all those videos and photos stored on your home computers, while also listening to your mp3 collection on your TV or hi-fi.
The practice started with people running Linux on homemade PCs which were built into custom cases. Then Microsoft released Windows XP Media Center Edition, giving non Linux users a chance to get in on the action. Now we have dedicated devices that can do it all and, with the help of AppleTV to spread the word, these little boxes are likely to start appearing on TV cabinets all around the world.
So, today I’m looking at Buffalo’s take on the network media player, the LinkTheater Wireless A&G. At around £150, it is £50 less than the AppleTV and far cheaper than a fully fledged Media Center but you do get what you pay for with reduced functionality and connectivity. The big question is whether the right compromises have been made.
The Buffalo LinkTheater Wireless A&G has both wired 10/100 Ethernet and Wireless 802.11a/g network capabilities and supports MP3 / wav / WMA / AAC / LPCM / AC3 audio formats, MPEG1 / MPEG2 / XviD / WMV / H.264 (MPEG4, AVC) video formats, and JPEG / BMP / PNG image formats.
So, on the surface the LinkTheater looks like it beats AppleTV hands down as it has far better audio and video format support and can playback content from any source – not just iTunes. However, even though it supports high definition content, it only has Scart, S-Video, and composite connections, all of which cannot transport HD signals. Now, obviously if you have an older TV this isn’t going to be a huge problem (because it won’t have any other connections) but for anyone with a modern TV, this just isn’t going to cut the mustard. Notice I didn’t say anyone with a high definition TV because even though you may not have an HDTV, component, DVI, or even VGA will provide a much better signal than these older standards, giving you sharper, brighter, more accurate video. The only digital connection on offer is an optical audio output, so at least you can enjoy good audio if you're source material is coded correctly.
All this is made more peculiar when you consider the previous version of the LinkTheater, that Riyad looked at nearly two years ago, did have component output as well as a progressive scan DVD player. This meant that the original Link Theater could output high definition resolutions, which would be more useful now than it was then, what with the massive increase of HDTV adoption. Quite why Buffalo has decided that these features are no longer needed is utterly perplexing. Quite frankly downgrading a product from high definition to standard definition just when HDTVs are becoming the norm seems like lunacy to us!
As a budget product, it will come as no surprise that the LinkTheater is no great looker and certainly won’t be competing with AppleTV on this front. It is made from thin sheet steel with a bland plastic fascia and the whole lot is finished in generic silver paint. The clear black plastic section on the front looks like it should contain an alphanumeric display but actually just houses two LEDs that indicate power and network activity. This seems unnecessary and I would’ve preferred to see a sleek simple design that incorporated the LEDs more subtlety. In fairness the case is nice and small (280 x 47 x 124mm) so it can be tucked out of the way easily.
Physically setting up the device is very straight forward, just plug it into your TV and turn it on. However, once you start trying to use the device, things quickly go down hill. If you turn the LinkTheater on without it plugged into a wired network and without a wireless network setup, the device just freezes. Plugging it into a wired network allowed me to get started but I couldn’t for the life of me get the device to connect to our encrypted wireless network. So, I soldiered on using our wired network instead.