Much like the A.C. Ryan Playon!HD Mini, this ViewSonic bundles a full-size remote. Unfortunately it’s far less attractive than the small, muted matt black affair that accompanied the VMP30, with a glossy top leading to plenty of fingerprints and white buttons giving a slightly toy-like impression. However, it’s also far more practical. It runs on AAA batteries so you can easily use rechargeable ones, its layout is spot-on with each button logically positioned and clearly marked, and it lies comfortably in the hand with its matt underside offering a secure grip.
Turning the VMP74 on reveals an attractive side-scrolling main menu with large, colourful icons. While not quite as sharp and clean as the interface found on the Western Digital WDTV Live HD, it’s nonetheless one of the better interfaces around, even if we do wish ViewSonic had gone for two rows of four rather than one continuous line of eight icons.
Tabbed folder browsing is an especially neat touch and one we haven’t come across before. It makes switching instantly to anywhere in a long directory string child’s play, and we hope other media players will adopt it. Another great feature is that pressing the ‘info’ button at any stage changes the folder view, similar to Windows or OSX, with several views offering video previews within icons which load reasonably quickly. These touches raise the ViewSonic’s interface above that of most rivals.
There are plenty of options in the ‘Setup’ menu, where you can alter video, audio and network/sharing settings, as well as media playback (like choosing your preferred audio or subtitle language for ‘DVD’ playback, or adjusting slide show transitions and timing). For display settings you can choose various resolutions, aspect ratios and turn scaling on or off. Interestingly, you can also alter brightness, contrast, hue and saturation – even when connected over HDMI. Audio settings allow you to choose between analogue or digital output, and to select DTS, AAC, Dolby or WMA Pro throughput.
Next up is ‘iMedia’, which gives access to the VMP74’s online services that comprise BBC iPlayer (the US gets Netflix instead), Live 365 and SHOUTcast (online streaming radio), YouTube and Flickr. You can access most websites and services through the built-in browser, but it’s nice that dedicated modules are provided. iPlayer, for example – which uses the BBC’s ‘big screen’ browser interface – works very well indeed once you get past some sluggish menus.
ViewSonic’s media player is unique among those we have reviewed in offering a usable web browser. Navigating and text-entry using the included remote is clunky and slightly frustrating, and the virtual keyboard doesn’t help much – but fear not; USB keyboards and mice (including wireless sets) are supported. Unsurprisingly web page rendering can be a little slow and formatting can be inconsistent, but provided you use peripherals rather than the remote it’s an alternative.
One other feature that adds some unique flair to the VMP74 is a weather applet that’s always visible on the main screen (along with the time and date). Superfluous, maybe, but nice all the same. The RSS reader, meanwhile, works pretty much as expected. ‘Terastation’ provides access to network shared folders and the VMP74 is UPnP compatible, so you can pull media from a NAS box or PC connected to the network.
There’s a ‘Favourites’ menu where you can set up background music to have your preferred tunes playing while browsing, watching slideshows, etc. Last but not least, ‘Removable Device’ lets you browse external storage connected locally over USB or eSATA, with support for FAT, FAT32 and NTFS. In another nice touch, you’re given the used and free capacity of any device without needing to go into sub-menus.