As our digital multimedia consumption continues to increase, the desire to have everything stored in, or at least accessible from, a single location is becoming ever more prevalent. From digital TV to mp3 collections and downloaded films to Internet radio, all these things on their own are well and good but the true holy grail is having a single box (and remote) that can control the lot.
Enter, then, the Emtec Movie Cube S800. This sleek black and white box incorporates a twin digital and analogue TV tuner with PVR capabilities, a 500GB hard drive for storing all your music and videos on, and both wired and wireless network connections for sharing your content around the home and tuning into Internet radio stations. So, on the surface, it would appear to have just about all (baring DAB radio, and video streaming) the digital multimedia bases covered. However, as we’ll see later, these initial impressions don’t really hold up once you delve a little deeper.
As soon as you get it out of the box, the S800 makes an impact. While the two-tone styling and relatively short and fat stance (compared to conventional AV equipment) may not be to everyone’s liking, and the plastic outer panels not that resistant to scratches, the overall impression is one of quality. There are no creaks or flexing panels on show as you manhandle the device and the back panel looks and feels solid with its multitude of clearly labelled connections arranged neatly in a tough steel plate.
Picking out a few of the more interesting connections, you’ll see that the S800 has an HDMI socket, which will be all the outputs most people will need, I’m sure. If not, there are composite and component video, and coaxial, optical and analogue stereo audio outputs. There’s even that golden-oldie, SCART, so no matter how old your TV you should be able to hook this box up to it. As well as the outputs, there’s inputs for composite video and stereo audio. Also of note is the TV aerial socket at the bottom and the USB sockets at the top.
You’ll also notice the small fan at the rear. This is the main method of ventilation for this box, along with half a dozen slits in the bottom, and as such it gets spinning reasonably fast when you’ve been working the S800 hard. Fortunately the resultant noise isn’t too intrusive and you’ll certainly notice noise from the hard drive over and above it. Not that the hard drive is ”particularly” noisy but we did notice it when the S800 was just sat next to our telly and we were sat on our sofa. If you were to hide it away in a TV cabinet or tuck it into a corner, the disturbance should be minimal.
Setup can be as easy as plugging in just the aerial and an HDMI connection to your TV. However, if you want the most out of the S800, you’ll need to either connect an Ethernet network cable or use the optional Emtec Wi200 Wi-Fi USB adapter to connect to your wireless network.
Once powered up, a small LCD screen embedded in the front lights up. This lets you control the Movie Cube without having it connected to any other display, which could be useful if you just want to playback some music and aren’t otherwise using the TV. Unfortunately it doesn’t really go far enough as it’s so small and the viewing angles are so poor that it’s next to useless unless you’re sat two feet in front of it. On top of this, despite being a mini full-colour display, it can’t be used to view any video or photos. Most damaging, though, is that you can’t even access the main setup menu. Having experienced the situation where we plugged in an external display only to find that the S800 didn’t work because it was set to the wrong output mode, we know that this would be a useful addition. Ultimately, if Emtec is not going to go the whole hog, a simple Hi-Fi-like monotone segmented (or even fully pixellated) LED display would’ve been a much better option.
The disappointment continues when you get a proper screen attached as the clunky menus are rather ugly compared to the stylish examples we’re used to seeing nowadays. What makes this more disappointing is that the menus are rather slow, so you often get that annoying situation where you overshoot the menu option you were aiming for.
Starting with the leftmost option, the TV, you can tune into either a digital or analogue broadcast and record them at the touch of a button. We managed to pick up a healthy selection of channels on both tuners and found the picture and sound quality to be at least passable. However, you can’t use the two tuners together to, say, record one while watching the other. Also, there’s a timeshift option (that constantly records allowing you to pause and rewind ‘live’ TV) which can be turned on/off from the remote but we found it temperamental at best so just turned it on permanently, using the onscreen menu.
Recorded sections of TV can be reviewed using the Playback option and files are neatly listed by channel and date. There’s even a preview window so you can tell which file is which.
Unlike Western Digital’s WD TV, the S800 doesn’t scan your storage devices for media and add it to a library. Instead you have to either browse your devices by folder and file name or you can copy your files to the S800’s internal storage, which does have a proper library interface. Now considering it can be setup as a Network Attached Storage (NAS) box and thus could potentially be used as the main store for all your media, you may not see this as too much of a problem. However, having seen how quickly and easily the WD TV managed to index external devices, we see no reason why the S800 can’t either.
More worrying, though, is just how poor the Movie Cube’s file format support is. Basics like MPEG2 video and mp3 audio are catered for but free and widely available formats like FLAC and Xvid completely failed to play. Now I know there’s an argument for saying that these formats are only really used for illegally distributed media and this is why they’re not widely supported but, one, that’s not true, and, two, if another device does offer these features (e.g. the WD TV) it’s nonsensical to not also offer them.
Finally, we come to the Internet radio and once again we find something that does the basics but has no flair. Setup is quick and easy and plenty of stations can be found. However, you can only search through the thousands of stations by either a seemingly unordered list or by genre, which itself only whittles down the selection by one step and offers up the stations in no obvious order. Once you do find some stations you like, you can add them to your favourites, for quick access, but finding them in the first place may prove quite challenging.
The Emtec Movie Cube S800 packs in plenty of features and is presented in a well-made and reasonably elegant case. However, whether considered primarily as a PVR, a NAS box, a media file player, or an Internet radio tuner, it simply doesn’t compare on any level to separate devices. Sure, if you really want a single box to do everything then it serves its purpose and comes in at a good price but for us, it’s a compromise too far.
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