Thursday, December 14, 2006

D-Link DSM 320RD

I'd like to post a review of this device on one of those sites which review these kind of things, but a casual Google didn't reveal any review-able entries for this particular one. So, here we are.

The D-Link DSM 320RD is a cheap (for the type of device) networked media player. This is a box that connects to your TV like a VCR or DVD player, and also connects to your computer through your home network (You do have a home network don't you?), allowing you to play video or music, or even display pictures, that you have on your computer. It has wireless 802.11g support (plus ordinary Ethernet), and also has a built in DVD player and a 5-in-1 card reader.

After considering some of the reviews of the DSM 320 (the one without the DVD player and card reader), I decided not to install the included media server software, and installed TVersity instead. It's beta software, but it's free, and it worked pretty well right out of the box. I have a couple of minor issues with TVersity:

  • The menus are a bit funny. They tend to stick open when you click on other windows instead of closing like normal menus.

  • When I recreated my media library because I had rearranged things, it took forever, much longer than the initial creation did.

Aside from this, I have no complaints with the media server software.

Configuring the DSM was not a simple plug-and-play dream, but it did work the first time through with no major hangups. The only problem I had was with the unclear user interface. When there is a list of options on the screen it is a bit hard to tell that the list is selected, and you need to select the list, then hit enter to go into the list, select the item, and hit enter again. I was stuck for a couple of minutes at the SSID (wireless network) selection screen because of this, before I figured it out. But anyway, it was up and connected to the media server pretty quickly.

So, the good news: The DSM plays many different formats of video and audio, including Ogg Vorbis audio and DivX video. It can also play these formats stored as files on a DVD. The picture quality was great. It downloads new firmware fairly automatically with support for new codecs and (presumably) bug fixes. It is exactly the device I needed to get my wife off the computer.

These are the reasons why I probably won't be returning it. However, now I'll talk about the reasons why this is a near thing. Basically, the thing still seems to be in beta (current firmware is 1.04 for the 320RD, it seems, although I haven't downloaded it yet).

  • Startup is very slow. Press the on button and (most of the time) the blue light on the panel comes on. Some fifteen or twenty seconds later the display says "WELCOME", and then the TV display comes on, displaying the "Connecting to network" message.

  • There are problems with video stuttering. It's not consistent, and it seems to get worse the more things you watch between reboots. Video files will start showing static frames while the sound drops in and out, or you may see sound and video go out of sync for a while, and then the video speeds up to catch up. As I kept trying and retrying this, the problem got completely unbearable. Then, after resetting the machine and media server, it went away completely for the first video I played. The second video had a few small, fairly unobtrusive, stutters. I suspected it was a network bandwidth problem, and that might be it (playing from a DVD seemed to be much better). However, and much worse, something similar even happens with DVDs, although it is much less pronounced. This is the thing that I'll be watching over the next little while. If I see this again with DVD play, this machine may be going back to the store after all. I have a DVD player which cost one fifth as much, and it doesn't stutter.

  • If you accidentally hit the DVD button on the initial screen without a DVD in the player, the thing locks up. It may need to be unplugged to get it going again.

  • From time to time the system seems to get stuck while navigating menus or trying to start a video. Usually it comes out of it after a while, but it is very annoying.

  • The remote buttons are a bit touchy, and the thing feels flimsy. The layout is pretty unintuitive, and the labels for buttons are far too small.

  • There are two modes for searching through video: either you can fast-forward and reverse, or you can jump to a specific time you enter with the keypad. Unfortunately, you need to switch between these modes using an option buried deep under the setup menu. Also, fast forward is rather slow, at least on video from the media server. Jumping works better, but you need to have some idea what time you are aiming for. Making it possible to use fast-forward or search without changing modes (they're different buttons!), and having the option of a slider type of interface for selecting the time would be perfect, and not that hard to implement, I expect. Maybe in version 3.0.

Anyway, I'm keeping the machine because it does perform the tasks I needed performed: show video in many formats over a wireless network and from DVD, and it works well when it works. However, it is so flaky that only a determined early adopter like myself could put up with it. I half expect my wife to destroy it within a month. If you are in the market for a similar device and you are anything less than a tight-fisted uber-nerd, you should probably get something else.

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