As many of you are no doubt aware, I do my fair share of downloading. Movies, music, terrible TV shows, and so on. Usenet, BitTorrent, plain ol’ HTTP, whatever. So be it. Those of you who read the site closely—God bless you—also know that I have a rather ghetto entertainment setup: an iMac connected to a TV via HDMI, and good-enough surround sound system via toslink. It does the job for this cheap, foolhardy hack, and it should be able to do the job for most of you, too. Most of you, provided you don’t mind stringing meters and meters of cable to and fro’.
But what if you do? What options do you have?
For the past week or so, I’ve been playing around with the Iomega ScreenPlay HD, which is essentially an external hard drive with built-in AV inputs, including HDMI, coax, component and old school RCA. (Not surprisingly, there’s no HDMI cable included. Why make life any easier, right?) The idea here should be fairly obvious. You load the device with video files, plug it into your TV, and away you go. Useful for those of you who have your main PC—and I do mean PC, since the drive doesn’t play well with Macs—and TV are in separate rooms. The device, to Iomega’s credit, doesn’t look completely out of place when situated in a home theater.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me return to a previous thought—lack of Mac support. As John “Beetle” Biggs alludes to every day, most of us here use Macs exclusively. That’s not to say we can’t run Windows&mash;I must sometimes(tv streaming&mash;but listen closely: this little guy does not go well with Macs. That is to say, if you have a Mac, and aren’t willing to use Boot Camp (or maybe Parallels?), this device does you no good. Plugging it into a Mac results in a plain jane Iomega hard drive mounting. That’s a problem, for the Iomega software is such that you need to deposit video files into a specific directory. And lo! that directory is unwriteable (word?) from a Mac. Conversely, it works just fine when plugged into a Windows machine. Well, XP, at least—I’m not a glutton for punishment enough to run Vista on Boot Camp (or otherwise!).
So yeah, she doesn’t work with Macs. Fair enough, as it’s only listed on the box and in the documentation as being compatible with Windows . That said, you could reformat the drive and just use it as a regular external hard drive if you’re on a Mac.
So, Mac qualms aside, how does she work?
OK. But just OK, and for one reason that could possibly be remedied with a future firmware update: she doesn’t support MKV files! What madness this is!
The name of the device itself, ScreenPlay HD, suggests that you can, and ought to, use it to view HD files on your TV. Explain to me, then, whose idea it was to release this without MKV support out of the box? That, to this surreptitious pirate (Toshiba, at a press event two years ago, called pirates “surreptitious;” it hurt my feelings, though Biggs was too busy stuffing his face with free sushi to pay much attention to my fragile emotional state.) is unacceptable.
Though it doesn’t support MKV, it does support plenty of other formats. MPEG1, 2 and 4, including h.264-encoded material, XVID, DIVX, yada, yada. Pretty much every video type I’ve encountered online except for the dominant MKV. So if you’re keen to re-encode scene HD rips into a compatible format, be my guest, but I suspect it’s not worth your time. Or maybe you have an HD camcorder? That’d work fine, too.
As for the on-screen interface, one word comes to mind: basic. In fact, let’s throw in a superfluous adjective while we’re at it: very. Very basic. Once you’ve booted the device, you’re presented with a list of filenames; that’s it. Use the provided remote, select your file, press enter and call it a day. Nothing flashy—very basic&mash;and no where near the sophistication and polish of, say, XBMC’s user interface. Truth be told, what you get is all you really need, but a little razzle dazzle doesn’t hurt.
I’m not one to give out numerical scores since I think they’re rather pointless. What I can do, however, is provide my opinion, and hopefully guide you in the right direction. First, stay home, Mac users, as this girl isn’t for you. (Again, forgivable, since it’s not advertised as such.) Got a PC? If you’re keen to watch standard-def scene-encoded XVIDs, then by all means give it a whirl. If you’re all about going to go alt.binaries.hdtv.x264, download the There Will Be Blood in MKV format and use it here, then hold off for now. If Iomega updates the firmware so that it supports MKV, then all of my reservations disappear, and this would be a pretty decent purchase. Until then, the HD support is a little too limited for my liking.
Overall, OK. No more, no less.