USB hard disks are ten a penny, but it's not every hard disk that will plug straight into a TV and play video, audio and photos. The BNI Mediabox is not much larger than a thin paperback novel, but it can store 40GB of multimedia content. It will also play this content back like a stand-alone video player. There's a small microprocessor built into the Mediabox that takes care of decompressing and playing movies on your TV.
The £120 Mediabox plugs into your TV via a composite AV lead and you can navigate its contents with the bundled remote control. The TV menu system is not pretty -- in fact it looks suspiciously like the 1980 Commodore Amiga interface -- but it is fast.
If you cart around a laptop to display business presentations on projectors, the Mediabox is a reliable alternative to hauling a monster around. It easily slips inside a jacket pocket and is light enough to forget about.
If someone slugged you with a 9mm in a dark alley and you had a Mediabox in your breast pocket, the chassis looks like it would catch the bullet -- the brushed aluminium case is extremely tough.
The front of the Mediabox is a shiny tinted-plastic facia which lights up in a faint blue when the drive is powered up. There's also power, USB and A/V sockets which let you connect the drive to a TV for stand-alone playback.
There wasn't much scope for inventiveness from the Mediabox's designers. It is, after all, a hard disk and you don't get less glamorous than that. To their credit they've not over-designed things, and the result is a simple, low-profile aluminium rectangle. It's 130mm long and weighs 215g.
You can stuff the BNI Mediabox with 40GB of whatever media your whim suggests. The process is straightforward: just plug the box into your laptop via USB and drag whatever you want onto it. You don't need to install drivers or mess about with a synchronisation tool. The Mediabox works just like any other USB drive.
While you're transferring files from your PC or Mac, the Mediabox will power itself via your computer's USB port. There's no need to attach the power cord. For TV playback we had to plug the Mediabox's power supply into the wall and plug the power connector into the front of the drive.
Using the Mediabox really couldn't be easier, which is lucky, because the manual is written in barely intelligible broken English. It was clearly translated from the original Chinese by a GCSE student with half an eye on EastEnders.
A few seconds after plugging the Mediabox into our TV it was ready to show photos, movies and play MP3s. The on-screen navigation system was clunky but effective. You scroll through a series of folders using the bundled remote control, pick the media you want to play and select it.
For video playback, there are the same controls you'd expect from any video player: play, fast forward and rewind. The approach is still minimalist, but you're unlikely to notice any significant difference between the Mediabox and a regular DVD player.
While video playback on the drive is good, MP3 playback is archaic. You can't do anything else while an MP3 is playing and there's very little visual feedback on song information or track time. We can't recommend the Mediabox as an MP3 player. It's simply crippled in this department.
Hard disks don't like to be thrown about, so we chucked the Mediabox into a rucksack and took it on rush hour trains to make sure it knew who was in charge. The chassis remained absolutely unscathed despite every effort to crush it and there was no data loss. We knocked it about and slung it around the place out of spite now and again. A quick scan of the drive revealed no bad sectors after a week of systematic abuse.
Video quality during TV playback is largely dependent on how your video source was encoded. For DVD files, the image is identical to what you'd expect from most DVD players. MPEG-4 movies also appear very clearly on the screen. The image isn't breathtaking, but considering the size of the Mediabox, and the likelihood that you’ll be watching some distance away from your TV, it's hard to fault.
The Mediabox is not for the faint of heart -- ideally you'll know what VOB files are if you're transferring a DVD to the drive. If you don't, prepare to spend a few hours reading up on the subject. You may also have a problem sourcing MPEG-4 movies that will actually play. The most common MPEG-4 files are in a Quicktime format. Disappointingly, the Mediabox doesn't like these. These problems may not be important, though -- the Mediabox's ability to play our feature-length movie format of choice, DivX, is enticement enough.
Edited by: Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by: Nick Hide