As the DVD player market continues to grow, manufacturers are looking to add more functionality to their disc spinners. From video upscaling machines to suit the latest flat-screen TVs, to DivX and JPEG playback, it seems that the latest craze in DVD fashions is going to be home network integration. It's a concept pioneered by Danish manufacturer KiSS, and now PC component manufacturer Buffalo wants a piece of the action.
The company's first entry in the AV market is the LinkTheater, a box that looks just like any other DVD player out there -- except that it's packing a network port on the rear. Using this connection, or the internal wireless card, the Buffalo can stream music, video and photos from a home network and play them back through your TV. If you find the setup of a home network prohibitively technical, you can keep it simple and play these same files from recordable discs or USB via the front panel. If you warm to this concept, you should look at buying a Media Center PC, but as the LinkTheater is high-definition compatible and very modestly priced, it comes recommended for PC types who want to upgrade their AV setup.
Buffalo's LinkTheater is identical in size and form to nearly every DVD player on the market, with a DVD tray on the front and all connectivity housed on the rear. There are a couple of other additions that are small enough to go unnoticed to the untrained eye -- a USB socket on the front and a network port on the rear. The other big feature is even more covert and that's the integrated wireless card that's hidden inside the box. This lets the LinkTheater jump straight onto the airwaves to grab your media files -- and it's a super-fast 802.11g (54MBps) card too.
There are a few things that stand out on the LinkTheater and they're a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good: the box has a set of component video outputs on the rear, meaning it can send high-definition video to your flat-screen TV or projector. The bad: the inclusion of these component video has been at the cost of standard Scart connectivity. The ugly: when the designers at Buffalo had packed all their cool technology and features into the LinkTheater, they must have headed down the pub and left the menu system to the work-experience kid.
Scart is the de facto video standard in the UK and this is the first DVD player we've seen that doesn't include a Scart output. Even those cheap Korean companies you've never heard of manage to get their heads around SCART. If you've got a regular old CRT and you want to use the box, you'll be forced to go with S-video -- not a completely unusable video standard, but certainly not up to the quality of RGB Scart. And to top it off, Buffalo brings some pioneering new functions to the market, then hides them under the world's most unintuitive and ugly menu system.
However, the player is geared up for a proper AV setup when it comes to sound. There are digital outputs (coaxial and optical) and stereo outputs for those yet to jump up from analogue. Bear in mind that it doesn't support DTS though.
The remote control isn't atrocious, but it falls way short of the perfection reached by Sony and Panasonic of late. It has been custom designed to cater for all the functions unique to the device, but it never feels like you've got complete control. You'll certainly need the patience of a saint when you're inputting the 14-character WEP key for your wireless network, but more on this later.
With support for DivX, DivX High Definition, Xvid, Windows Media Video/Audio, MP3 and JPEG, the LinkTheater says to the PC, 'Anything you can do, I can do better.' Indeed, we were flabbergasted to see that the box could play back high-definition DivX files without dropping frames -- the Toshiba Portégé laptops that we use can't manage that.
Apple Macintosh owners will be the first to spot the box's omission of AAC and QuickTime support, and they'll be disappointed to learn that the box has no support for Mac OS systems at all. You'll need to be running Microsoft Windows 98SE or above, but bear in mind that you can connect your devices directly to the LinkTheater via USB. The Archos AV700, Pentax Optio S5z and the Sony PSP were all recognised by the host machine, but true to form, all Apple iPods refused to share the music held within (it's all locked away in the otherwise lovely iTunes).