Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player

Price: $199.99

Pros: Does well with video playback in some formats, easy setup.

Cons: Spotty Internet radio playback, doesn’t support Windows AVI files.

Wi-Fi media players like the Wireless Digital Media Player (WDMP) from Actiontec that let you play digital media from a computer through your home entertainment system are by now a glut on the market. Virtually every Wi-Fi network equipment vendor has one.

Few alas work glitch free, and the Actiontec product ($200 direct) is no exception.

While far from perfect, the Actiontec WDMP did, however, open my eyes to the possibility of playing stored video over a wireless LAN. It also has a rudimentary Web browser, and it is the first I’ve seen that can actually play Internet radio stations — though not all, nor particularly well.

The SMC’s EZ-Stream Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver, like the Actiontec, is among those that plays not only audio, but video as well. SMC’s product wasn’t entirely satisfactory, though, leading to the conclusion that this technology was best suited to playing stored audio only.

The Actiontec product, though, does a very good job with at least some types of video files. In testing, they looked better than on the SMC device, even though the WDMP is 11 Mbps 802.11b while the SMC EZ-Stream product is supposedly faster with 54Mbps 802.11g. The extra bandwidth should theoretically give the SMC product an edge when playing high bit-rate media such as video. It didn’t.

On my TV, MPEG1 files looked absolutely fine in full-screen mode. If you looked closely you could see some pixelization, though not as much as with the SMC, and at a reasonable viewing distance, they looked as good or better than many off-the-air VHS recordings. Mind you, these were 300MB digitized versions of half-hour TV programs.

I did in a couple of cases experience interruptions when viewing video, usually when the device had to replenish its buffer before continuing. This only happened at the beginning of programs if at all. After that, they played without interruption.

The Actiontec product cannot play Windows AVI videos, however — even though the Media Buddy Server (the supplied server software that runs on your PC) recognizes them as video files and adds them to the library list it creates on start-up. Perhaps some future version of the software or firmware will allow you to play AVIs. In the meantime, Media Buddy should certainly not add these files to the library list. In some cases, they generate an ‘Unknown Video codec’ error message when selected and won’t play at all; in other cases the audio plays, but no video.

Internet radio is an attractive feature in these devices, but none I’ve tried so far gets it exactly right.

With the Actiontec product, you use the built-in browser to surf to the radio station site and select a link. Keying in a URL on a TV-style remote with tiny numeric keys that double, telephone-style, as alphabet keys is no picnic.

Once at a site, you can use the direction keys on the remote to jump to the link you want or to scroll horizontally or vertically — the screen is 640 x 480 so you don’t get the full width of a page.

In my testing, some MPEG stations worked — most of those I tried at Shoutcast, for example. The 128-Kbps and higher streams sounded very good indeed, Except for the occasional very annoying bit of “static” – presumably jitter from lost packets. I do not experience this when listening to the same stations on my PC.

Some stations did not work at all. When I surfed to one of my favorite sites, the BBC Radio page which provides 40- to 50-Kbps streams of all eight of the British broadcaster’s stations, clicking the Listen buttons generated an onscreen message saying the station was playing — but the stream wasn’t coming through the Actiontec device.

Like the SMC device, the Actiontec WDMP lets you show slide shows from specified folders on your hard drive. In fact, you can have a slide show running while you’re listening to music — though this feature only seemed to work some of the time.

Besides the limitations described already, the Actiontec device froze frequently in my testing. Cycling power off and on was the only way to bring it back. On one occasion it could not log in to either of the servers I had set up.

Actiontec does get high marks for making the WDMP very easy to set up and configure. The Quick Start brochure may be the best of its kind I’ve ever seen. It presumes no knowledge of the technology behind the product and spells out each step in detail in very clear language. The product worked on the first try — just not perfectly.

The Media Buddy Server software automatically searches your hard drive to find media files. This can take a long time — so long in fact that I thought during one installation, when it took over 20 minutes, that the software had stopped responding.

Given the problems I experienced, I cannot really recommend this product. However, I’m assuming with all of these less than perfect Wi-Fi media players that they will improve with server software and firmware updates.

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