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Netgear Digital Entertainer Live

December 24th, 2009
Netgear makes a simple but wide ranging media streamer.

Netgear has made a few forays into the home entertainment market over the past few years with various networked media hubs. The Entertainer Live is Netgear’s budget offering , with an asking price of only $150. But unlike other high-end media extenders that include hundreds of gigabytes of storage, the Entertainer Live only streams data from networked sources, the Internet, or your own source. Will this seemingly simple device hit a budgeting and feature set sweet spot? what's in the box and the design

In addition to supplying us with the Entertainer Live for the review, Netgear also sent us its USB Wi-Fi adapter specially designed to work automatically with the Entertainer Live (the adapter retails separately for $40). The USB Wi-Fi adapter came with nothing more than a 4-inch USB extension cable, a manual, and some instructions and user guides on a cd. The Entertainer Live came with manuals and instructions on CD along with a power adapter, an Ethernet cord, and an RGB output adapter.

From a design perspective, the Entertainer Live is what you'd expect from a networking-focused company: it's about the size of a standard Ethernet switch. The included remote is small but comfortable to hold in your hand. The USB Wi-Fi adapter looks like any other external network adapter, but of course its automatic setup separates it from an off-the-shelf unit.

The Entertainer Live sports just enough expansion to be useful: two USB ports, an Ethernet jack, HDMI output for full digital video, and standard RCA output for analog. There isn’t room to fit three RCA jacks on the back of the Entertainer Live, though, so Netgear's 1/8th-inch adapter is necessary for RCA audio and video functionality -- a potential nuisance if you port the box somewhere else but forget to take the cabling with you.

functionality and services

Netgear recommends setting up the Entertainer Live via a wired Ethernet connection initially to ensure easy setup and a guaranteed connection. We partly followed this recommendation and initially connected the unit via the Netgear powerline networking equipment we reviewed earlier this year. We really love the plug-and-play simplicity of the powerline equipment, and we weren't concerned about its reliability as the data transfers remain fast and stable. Once we had the powerline connection working, we unplugged the Ethernet cable and tried the USB Wi-Fi adapter. We were pleased to see that it worked with no fuss as promised, as we simply had to type in our network’s security key.

The Entertainer Live can play content from a variety of sources, of which there are two main types: online content and local content. We tested a variety of both types of content and were impressed overall. For playing local content we viewed videos from a USB flash drive, Netgear's Stora network-attached storage, the Windows 7-based HP MS214 all-in-one and a Windows XP notebook.

Playing content from local network sources normally requires either Windows Media Player 11 or a Windows 7 computer, either of which supports streaming to DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) and UPnP (Universal Plug 'n Play) devices. All devices that are compliant with the respective standards can easily push and pull music, photos and videos around a networked home, and we found this generally worked well. With Windows Media Player 11 on our Windows XP notebook we could easily push content to the Entertainer Live or pull it from the notebook. Not all was perfect, however: when testing with our Windows 7 desktop, we could see content but had a hard time pushing it to the Entertainer Live. Mac users will have a more difficult time as Apple doesn't have native DLNA or UPnP support of its own, but software like PS3 Media Server can potentially achieve the same effect.

Media playback from the Netgear Stora NAS thankfully worked smoothly, as did playing back movie trailers from a USB drive; it should be noted that the Entertainer can play relatively exotic formats like DivX, Matroska and XviD alongside more pedestrian fare like H.264 and various other MPEG standards. Audio and video quality was excellent, as you'd hope for locally available content. We were testing this device with an older tube TV, but were very impressed with how great the video quality looked on the analog set.

Online, the Entertainer Live supports a number of content sources natively, but annoyingly there are a few (Hulu, CBS, Netflix) that require a host PC to have PlayON software installed. This immediately sets it back compared to a number of similarly-priced devices that can play at least Netflix, such as the Roku Internet Player. However, using a conduit app like PlayON also circumvents Hulu's attempts to ban its video from TV sources, so those who prefer to avoid artificial limits on legal video may want to at least consider Netgear's option. Without the software installed, users can also still access YouTube and a number of Internet TV stations.

We watched most of a CSI: New York episode from CBS via the PlayON software and were impressed with the streaming audio and video quality. Watching TV shows commercial free is also a nice plus. Other than the rather high profile main sources, though, the remaining sources are relatively niche and in some case Internet-only: beside big media names like ESPN, HBO and NASCAR, the rest were more specialized Internet outlets like CollegeHumor, Crackle, Joost and The Onion.

Notably, the Entertainer Live does support Roxio's CinemaNow for those who want a per-title movie purchase and rental service. We watched Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and saw video quality very close to that of DVD. While the popularity and selection may not be as strong through a service like iTunes, it allows online access to mainstream Hollywood movies that are still off-limits at Netflix.

user experience

In the past few paragraphs we’ve detailed how the Entertainer Live offers a bevy of content sources and connectivity options, but almost as important as those details are is the user experience. The menus and layout of the user interface are adequate and simple, albeit not particularly impressive. It takes only a moment or two to acclimate oneself to navigating the menus of the Entertainer Live with the remote that Netgear includes. Videos can be paused and shuttled back and forth, information about online content can be read before playing videos, and album art is shown for menus -- all nice touches that users would expect. On the other hand, there are some quirks that most users wouldn’t expect: music is sorted differently on the Entertainer Live than on popular media players like iTunes or Windows Media Player . The software is very track-centric instead of album-centric, which can be troublesome for users with large music libraries.

Searching for videos on YouTube depends on a giant onscreen keyboard and the remote. While this approach worked, the layout of the virtual keyboard was puzzling. Instead of using a QWERTY keyboard as one would find on an actual keyboard, Netgear uses a vertical ABC keyboard that remains fairly counterintuitive.

Beyond accessing and sorting media, there isn't much else beyond a settings section for configuring video settings for HDTVs, to test Internet connectivity, and to configure networked media sources.

wrapping up

With a budget price point of only $150, there is a lot to like in the Entertainer Live. The user interface is unpolished, and the remote is a touch small, the Entertainer Live offers a surprisingly broad mix of content options and great connectivity features.

Having said this, it's clear that it's not necessarily the best for everyone. Mac users are the most likely to be disappointed as the Entertainer supports a wide range of formats but, officially, clings to a Windows view of the universe. And it's also not the only inexpensive device on the market: again, Roku's Internet Players can cost less and taps into services that aren't available, like Amazon Video On Demand. However, Roku's device isn't especially suited to local content, and Netgear's most obvious competitor -- the Apple TV -- is decidedly more expensive as of this writing.

With these in mind, if you’re still in the market for a DLNA- and UPnP-ready media receiver and you’re on a budget, the Entertainer Live is certainly worth investigation.

- Many content sources, online and off.

- Simple setup; Wi-Fi an option.

- Good AV quality even on analog.

- Relatively low price.

- Interface and remote quirks.

- Need to leave computer on for a few Internet services.

- Bias towards Windows sources.

- Internet-only content sometimes too niche.