Price: $249.99 MSRP
Pros: Supports both 802.11b/g and 11a.
Cons: Inconsistent performance and installation issues with server software
Wi-Fi media players that let you pipe digital music and sometimes video from a computer in one room to a stereo or TV in another have terrific appeal.
Products like the EZ-Stream Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver (SMCWMR-AG) from SMC Networksoffer a quick and dirty way to achieve the long promised convergence of computers and consumer electronics — without breaking the bank or reconfiguring your home.
You can leave the computer where it is in the den or office and leave the entertainment center where it is in the family room or living room — and you don’t have to run messy wires between the two to bring them together.
Wireless media receivers also represent a whole new and potentially lucrative product market for Wi-Fi network and audio-video equipment manufacturers, and more than a few have jumped on the bandwagon.
The products introduced so far have some common characteristics, but each takes interestingly different approaches to basic design and feature sets. The results are not uniformly successful.
A key differentiator for the SMC product is that it works on 802.11g/b and 11a networks at up to 54 Mbps.
This is crucial given that the EZ-Stream’s other great strength is that it plays not just stored audio files but video as well. It also displays still photo files on a TV — and, most impressive, plays Internet radio stations.
This universality may also be its great weakness. It’s a jack of all trades, but hasn’t mastered them all.
Each of the Wi-Fi media receiver products we’ve looked at recently – including products from Creative Labs and cd3o – has found a different way to solve the central problem of how to present lists of media files stored on the remote host computer. Creative provides a wireless RF remote control with a small LCD display, cd3o uses an ingenious voice-to-text interface. Since the SMC plays video, it makes sense that it displays media file lists on the TV to which it’s connected. This approach doesn’t work quite so well for audio-only products like the Creative and cd3o models, but it makes perfect sense here.
My experience with the EZ-Stream was not entirely happy. To set it up, you begin by installing the EZ-Stream server software on the host PC. After I installed it on my main test machine — a Dell Dimension 4300 running Windows XP — it would not launch.
A call to SMC technical support did not resolve the problem. SMC’s best guess was that it was caused by the presence of different versions of Apache server software used by the different wireless media receiver products I’d been testing. None of the other media receiver programs had this problem, however.
I took the easy way out and installed the software on a different host PC, a Dell Inspiron 500 laptop, where it worked fine.
Setting up the EZ-Stream media server software on the host PC to give the receiver access to files on your hard drive is easy enough. You simply tell it where to look for audio, video and photo files, adding as many shared folders as you like to the list of places it looks for files.
Adding Internet radio stations is a little trickier. You need to know the URL for the audio stream, which you can always get by right-clicking on the hyperlink and saving its shortcut to your clipboard. To make the iRadio function work, you also need the port for the station. This is not always easy to find. SMC tech support suggested viewing the HTML source of the page on which the hyperlink appears, but this doesn’t always work.
A better method is to launch the station in the RealOne Player and select View/Clip/Source from the main player window. In the dialog in the media server software, you input the URL and port, such as http://stream2.mpegradio.com:8041/ (the final digits are the port number).
The SMC receiver can only play 128 Kbps stations that broadcast in MP3 format. However, the product appears to have difficulty even with stations in the right format.
The next installation step is to connect the receiver hardware to your entertainment system(s) using the supplied RCA audio and video cables.
This was slightly problematic in my house only because my TV and stereo are not connected or even on the same shelving unit. The Wi-Fi receiver had to sit between them with the audio wires trailing one way, the video cable the other. This won’t be a problem for most users.
The SMC Wireless Multimedia Reciever automatically finds the host over the wireless network and configures itself on start-up — provided there are no problems with the network configuration. My test unit was able to connect successfully once I’d resolved the initial software problems.
The onscreen interface is simple enough. Select audio, video, iRadio or photos from the main menu and you’ll see a list of files available. In audio, they’re organized by album, artist and song.
Video, audio and photo functions all work well, at least initially. On several occasions during the testing, the system appeared to freeze while playing a media file. The file would keep playing, but the receiver would not take input from the remote control. The only way to resolve this was to toggle the receiver off and then on again.
Internet radio, which would be a very attractive feature if it worked properly, was a big disappointment. All the test stations for which I was able to track down URL and port number connected and played — but only for a few seconds.
All subsequent attempts to access these stations generated an “Bad File” error message in the Time Elapsed field in the receiver’s onscreen display.
SMC technical support again could offer no good explanation for or solution to this problem.
One final quibble: the infrared remote control that comes with the product is poorly designed. The buttons are far too small.
Not highly recommended, though it has potential.