Can't anybody get this right?
This is what I keep thinking every time I test a wireless media receiver -- a new sort of box that uses your WiFi network to present your computer's digital music, photos and even videos on your stereo and TV.
The need for such a gadget can be explained by this alone: Who wouldn't like to be able to tune into Internet radio in the living room instead of bland, repetitive FM broadcasts?
And yet the manufacturers keep blowing it. They continue to ship media receivers that demand an agony of tweaking and leave out too many obvious and necessary features.
I'm not happy to report that the two contenders I've just tried, Prismiq's MediaPlayer and D-Link's DSM-320 MediaLounge, continue this losing streak.
Prismiq's device (Win 98 SE or newer, $200 at www.prismiq.com, plus $30 to $50 for a plug-in WiFi card) has been on the market for a long time, but a steady series of upgrades since its late 2002 release have added some impressive-on-paper capabilities. It not only plays your digital music, photos and videos, but it also lets you tune into RealNetworks' Rhapsody music service (a $9.95-a-month Internet jukebox) and browse the Web on TV.
Alas, getting the MediaPlayer set up was as excruciating as ever: First it didn't detect any wireless network, then it saw only my neighbor's, then it found my network but not the laptop running Prismiq's MediaManager software, then that program froze up the computer when I put it in sleep mode.
MediaManager is necessary to make your digital music (MP3s, but not song files downloaded from such stores as iTunes or Napster), photos and videos accessible to the MediaPlayer. It also lets you customize the MediaPlayer's Internet radio presets; Prismiq supports MP3 or Windows Media Audio broadcasts, but none of the three Windows Media stations I tried worked.
Prismiq's TV interface suffers from an excess of too-small type that flickered annoyingly, and it lets you browse through your MP3 library only by album -- not title, artist or genre. When playing, on the other hand, many songs were identified only by title, because the Prismiq software failed to read those MP3s' artist and album data.
Tuning in to Rhapsody was about as awkward; if you stop playback for any reason, resuming it takes three steps. And the first time you use the service, a creepy voice-over informs you that the MediaPlayer's digital-audio outputs don't work while you listen to Rhapsody -- an insultingly heavy-handed attempt to block music piracy.
Browsing photos is a bit more logical: Select a folder of pictures, then choose the ones you want from a gallery of thumbnail-size previews. You can't set up a slide show from in front of the TV, but they're simple to arrange in MediaManager. A similar interface allows you to pick a video file to play.
The big worry of any wireless system is reliability, but I didn't hear any dropouts in music playback, even while I flipped through photo albums on the MediaPlayer and downloaded other files to my computer. Video was another matter: My laptop's slower 802.11b WiFi adapter didn't lend enough bandwidth to play a movie (saved in the DivX format) without frequent hiccups.
Prismiq's Web access is intriguing but possibly useless. Text-heavy sites are unreadable on TV, and while the MediaPlayer does work well for looking up weather forecasts, stock quotes or news headlines (these can be viewed together on a portal page you can bring up by tapping a "home" key), TV already delivers that sort of info.
D-Link's MediaLounge (Win 98 SE or newer, $199 at www.d-link.com) has a fast 802.11g WiFi receiver built in, but that's about its only advantage over the MediaPlayer.
Its setup was even worse than the abysmal Prismiq experience: Not only could the D-Link box not find my wireless network, I couldn't even tell it where to look -- the command in its setup "wizard" that should have let me enter the network's name didn't work. Following advice from D-Link's tech support, I plugged the MediaLounge into my WiFi router's Ethernet port and could then configure these wireless settings via a different interface.
D-Link's crude, ugly desktop software looks like a Windows 3.1 relic. It's hard to believe that the crisp, stylish interface on TV came from the same company -- but underneath those snazzy looks you'll find some seriously boneheaded thinking.
For example, the MediaLounge can't play more than one song in a row unless you create a playlist on your PC -- unlike a $20 boom box, this box can't simply play through one album. (D-Link says an upcoming firmware update will remedy this.) While you're listening to a song, the remote's basic navigation buttons -- "photo," "video," "home," etc. -- don't work; this device can't continue playback while you view a photo album.
The MediaLounge supports MP3 and Windows Media files but not most purchased downloads. Your only choice for Web radio is America Online's Radio@AOL, which requires a subscription to the online service.
Images can be browsed only by their file names (100-0045_IMG.JPG, 100-0054_IMG.JPG and so on) unless you know to change a setting in a setup screen.
Like the Prismiq box, the MediaLounge had no trouble sustaining music playback, but I couldn't test video output, since it didn't accept the files on my laptop.
Unless you have a high threshold for technology-induced pain, hold off on these two media receivers. Others are on the market or on the way, three of which I plan to test soon: SlimDevices' SqueezeBox, Roku Labs' SoundBridge and Apple's AirPort Express. It would be nice to see this streak end.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.