Boxes that stream video and music from your PC to your TV or stereo system are nothing new. And if that’s all Digital Deck’s Media Connectors did, we’d have yawned and barked “Next!” So when the company told us its boxes not only stream A/V content from any consumer-electronics (CE) device over Ethernet, but that they can also control those devices, we sat up and growled “Show me!”
As it turns out, the Digital Deck lives up to most of its promises—as long as you’re willing to accept a few rough edges and limitations, including this one: The whole shebang relies on wired Ethernet.
Still interested? OK, here’s how it works: Each Media Connector is outfitted with an Ethernet port, four sets of analog A/V inputs, three dual-channel infrared outputs, and one set of A/V outputs. Plug any combination of hardware (set-top box, DVD changer, VCR, etc.) into the box’s inputs, and it will encode those signals and send them to your PC.
Digital Deck’s PC server software can record these streams to your hard drive, or it can route them in real time to any other Media Connector on the same network. The receiving Media Connector decodes the stream and outputs it to an attached TV or A/V receiver. Digital Deck tells us a high-end PC can manage as many as five Media Connectors, but we had only two for the review, so we couldn’t test that functionality. While sending different video streams from the hard drive on our 3.4GHz P4 to each Media Connector, we noted CPU utilization that ranged from just 4 percent to spikes of more than 50 percent. We wouldn’t recommend playing a demanding game at the same time.
You can also stream any unencrypted digital content (video, music, or photos) stored on your PC; online digital photos from a Flickr account; or any unprotected music, podcasts, or playlists in your iTunes library (videos and songs you’ve purchased from the iTMS, however, cannot be streamed due to Apple’s Fairplay DRM).
But here’s where Digital Deck’s concept gets even cooler: You can remotely control up to six CE devices attached to each Media Connector. The included universal infrared remote sends commands over the network to IR emitters plugged into the remote Media Connector and attached to the CE device’s IR receiver.
WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD If we were evaluating the Digital Deck on concept alone, we’d give it a 10/Kick Ass verdict; but because we’re also judging the company’s execution, our opinion isn’t quite as positive. For starters, none of the Media Connectors’ four sets of A/V inputs is digital. There’s no component-video input, and there’s only one S-Video input (the other three are lowly composite video). There’s no HDTV support, and the two USB ports are nonfunctional.
The Media Connector does have digital audio outputs (optical and coaxial), but no digital video output (you do get component, as well as S- and composite-video). The well-designed 10-foot user interface looks best with a component connection, but it’s almost as good with S-Video.
Configuring the Media Connectors to control your CE devices can be a maddening trial-and-error process: Digital Deck’s database of IR codes includes only manufacturer names, not specific model numbers, and there can be dozens of permutations. The system has other issues, too. To move up in the channel listings, for instance, you must counter-intuitively push the remote’s page-down button. And the system’s DVR function will only record programs to your PC’s hard drive, even if your set-top box has DVR capabilities of its own.
Digital Deck has an awesome concept on its hands, but we can recommend this first iteration only to ardent early adopters willing to tolerate its shortcomings.
Month Reviewed: August 2006
+ BAKED POTATO: Inexpensive solution in comparison to a custom system.
- COUCH POTATO: Difficult to set up; relies on wired Ethernet.