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If there's a Wi-Fi equipment vendor today that has not introduced a wireless digital media server product, I'd like to know who it is. Strike one more vendor off the list of no-shows now that D-Link has introduced its powerful but flawed 802.11g DSM-320 MediaLounge Wireless Media Player.
The MediaLounge product streams stored audio and video files to your home entertainment system, plays some Internet radio services (if you pay) and displays digital photos on a TV. The MediaLounge can even stream MPEG2 video filesequivalent to DVD or digital television qualityat up to 8 Megabits per second (Mbps).
It features advanced audio and video connectivity, which owners of modern A/V receivers will appreciate, and it is also the first of these devices I've seen that is designed to be stacked with home electronics gear. It measures 1.5 x 11.25 x 16.75 inches, which fits perfectly with my CD player and other stereo equipment.
The DSM-320 sells online for about $165, which makes it slightly less expensive than some competing products.
Do we really need media servers?
Wireless media servers are a neat idea. I use one all the time for audio. Even good computer audio systems can.t do justice to high-bit rate digital music such as the highest-quality variable-bit-rate WMA files I rip using Windows Media Player. You need to hear them on a good hi-fi sound system.
Media server systems take digital audio files out of the noisy, distorting environment of your computer and stream themas digital datato the media player connected to your stereo. Your stereo, unlike a computer, was designed to play music and does a much better job of it.
The case for streaming digital video is not quite as good to my mind. Digital video files downloaded from the Web (usually illegally) tend to be highly compressed and/or less than full-screen. The DSM-320, like other video-capable wireless media servers, nevertheless automatically plays them full-screen, with the result that all their shortcomingspixelization, poor color, less than fluid motionbecome very evident, especially on a big-screen TV.
That said, the high-end video playing capabilityMPEG2 at 8 Mbpsmeans theoretically that you could back up your DVDs to a hard drive and then stream them to the MediaLounge for playing. Theoretically.
How well do they measure up?
No question, wireless media players make a ton of sense. The trouble is, most we've looked at so far fall well short of working perfectly, and this late entry from D-Link is, alas, no exception.
Some of the problems I encountered while reviewing the MediaLounge product may be particular to my computer and network set-up and to the media I tried to play through it, but I haven't had as many such problems with other wireless media players. More on this in a moment.
Besides its convenient, stackable form factor, the MediaLounge player has a couple of other hardware features that set it apart. It includes component video, S-video and optical and co-ax audio out, along with the usual composite audio/video. It even comes with an S-video cable.
The advanced audio and video connections, which improve picture and sound quality when used to connect a cable or satellite set-top box or CD or DVD player to a TV or receiver, may be overkill for most uses to which a Wi-Fi media player will be put. On the other hand, this one can supposedly stream MPEG2 video. It can also stream WAV files (though, disappointingly, not lossless WMA, and MP3s only up to 192 Kbps.) If you have a recent model A/V receiver with these kinds of inputs, it's definitely a nice plus to be able to use them.
Putting the MediaLounge to work
Installation was fairly straightforward. The D-Link server software that sits on your host PC is simple to useperhaps a little simplistic, in fact, compared to others I've tested. It lets you add folders from your hard drives to be shared with the MediaLounge player. You can also use it to update or refresh the media list as you add new files to the shared folders, and even set up a schedule to automatically refresh.
Hardware set up was also simple. The device worked first time on my wireless network, which is controlled by a NetGear 802.11g router. The MediaLounge does also come with an Ethernet cable you can use to plug in to a wired/wireless gateway to configure the player for the wireless network if necessary.
The infrared remote control is fairly well designed with reasonably large buttonswithin obvious limitations. They.re also well marked and logically arranged. I found the four-way direction buttons a little over sensitiveI kept scrolling past the menu item I wantedbut this just required a little practice and a lighter touch.
The real problems first surfaced when I tried to access audio files using the player. The D-Link software was apparently not able to sort the tracks properly.
Under Album, it should show an alphabetical list of album titles. Under artist, it should show an alphabetical list of artist names, and under each one an alphabetical list of album titles. Ditto for Genre. But when I clicked on Album, Artist or Genre, I found only one optionOthers. When I clicked on Others, I was presented with an alphabetical list of the one thousand-plus tracks in my library. Not very useful.
A D-Link spokesperson speculated there was a problem with the ID3 tags, the text data stored with my audio files identifying artist, album, genre. They asked me to e-mail sample files, which I did. A week later they had not been able to offer an explanation for what I was experiencing.
The next problem came when trying to view Photos. Initially, I had a similar problem to the one with audio files, in that all the files in the subfolders in my My Pictures folder, which I had added to the list of shared folders in the D-Link server software, were displayed in one long alphabetical listing. This later resolved itself and I was able to view thumbnail indexes of individual subfolders. The MediaLounge lets you rotate pictures and zoom in and out, which is useful.
However, many standard JPEG files refused to display. They generated an error message saying the file format was not supported. This appears to be a problem with file naming conventions. The D-Link system does not accept all Windows-legal file names. If the names include some special characters such as the percent sign or are too long, it won.t recognize them.
Video, which generally requires a higher bit rate than audio, is always a big challenge for a wireless media player. This one played some MPEG and AVI files but not others. With some, it would start to play, then the system would freeze and require a re-boot. Some hiccupped at the beginning of play, then played fine. Others did not play at all.
This is perhaps not unreasonable. There are many different CODECs (CODerDECoders) that can generate files with the AVI and MPG extensions. D-Link built in support for files created using only some of them. This is not explained in the documentation, however, which only says that the unit will play AVI and MPEG files without caveat.
MPEG2? When I converted an AVI file created in Adobe Premiere to MPEG2 format using a shareware video file converter, it played fine through the MediaLounge player at first, but then music and video playback both became very jerky.
When I reviewed this product, the only Internet radio service available was AOL.s, which worked fine, though with the demo account (it.s a for-fee service), the selection of channels was poor. D-Link has since added support for RealNetworks' Rhapsody and Napster services.
While the product will play M3U and PLS music playlists that you create and store on your hard drive, there is apparently no way to play free Internet radio stations such as those at Shoutcast, which is what we really wanted.
Bottom line: Despite the problemssome, I'm guessing, are not common to all installations, others will be fixedand based on some superior design features and D-Link's obvious commitment to the product as evidenced by the addition of the new radio services, I'd say this is one to watch. Just make sure you can take it back if it doesn't work properly on your system with your files.
Article originally appeared on Wi-Fi Planet.