The Gadget: HP's Mediasmart Connect, a networked receiver that plays back H.264, DivX, XviD, MPEG-2, WMV video, photos, and even connects to your Media Center to act like an extender. It's also expandable space-wise with HP's Pocket Media Drives, and supports 10/100 Ethernet and 802.11a/b/g/n. It comes in a glossy piano black finish which attracts dust and fingerprints as easily as an actual piano.
The Price: $299
The Verdict: The Mediasmart Connect is a decent video player, Media Extender and photo viewer, but it doesn't shine in any area other than video quality. We compared the Mediasmart Connect to an Xbox 360, streaming the exact same episode of Entourage from the exact same Windows Home Server and the video quality was noticeably better on HP's unit. Great, except you wouldn't really notice the difference unless you had them side by side like we did.
One other problem we noticed is that browsing speed (browsing a folder file system) is pretty damn slow. Paging down takes upwards of seconds to refresh, forcing you to hold the down button one by one to save yourself from the delay. The same "page down" action on an Xbox 360 is near instantaneous, so we know it's not a server issue.
It does, however, have features that other extenders or media streamers don't. For one, there's the ability to aggregate videos from various networked sources, including DLNA-capable servers. Again, nothing spectacular, but it's a feature that's nice to have. 802.11n streaming (a/b/g are also there) is another nicety for people who hate wires. More bonuses are YouTube, Snapfish, CinemaNow and Live365, services you may or may not use and want on your set-top streamer.
Compared to the Xbox 360, both can act as Media Center Extenders, both can play back DivX and XviD files and work as a photo viewer, but only one can play a donkey-load of video games. On the other hand, the Mediasmart Connect does have on-board storage, which is great if you want to dump a bunch of videos onto it and delete them out of your BitTorrent folder on your PC.
At $299, it's hard to recommend the Mediasmart Connect over something like an Xbox 360 because of everything else the 360 can do. If extras like YouTube and CinemaNow (as well as media aggregation over all servers), built-in 802.11n wireless, DLNA compatibility and better video quality appeal to you, this may be your ticket to streaming video anywhere in your house. [HP]