Netgear NeoTV 550 £125.77
1st Aug 2011 | 13:45
A media streamer that can do it all
Netgear NeoTV 550: Overview
Despite the ongoing march of Blu-ray into homes across the country, there's been no let-up in the number of media devices that enable you to get all the media you've collated on your PC – whether movies, music files or photos – and access them on your TV in another room.
These boxes of joy can deliver the goods stored on your PC in a variety of ways: by having a built-in hard drive that you can put your files onto, like the D-Link Boxee Box or the Western Digital WDTV Live Hub; by simply plugging an external hard drive into the device, as the AC Ryan PlayOn! HD2 Mini does so well; or by streaming them from your computer over the air, like with the AirTies 4420, which is capable of punting full HD movies from one place to the other.
The Netgear NeoTV 550 takes the latter approach, but it also doubles up as a network-attached media player, allowing you to stream content from the internet, such as YouTube videos, or listen to radio stations. The NeoTV also caters for those wishing to get their media kicks through a locally-attached storage device.
You can plug in a USB memory stick and a hard drive at the same time via the two USB slots, you can stick in an SD card – which is ideal for photographers or those using a handy cam – and there's even an eSATA connection – brilliant if you're connecting a large hard drive with lots of files on that you want to access quickly.
So, then, nearly all the important boxes are ticked – however you want your media to be served, the NeoTV can manage it. But does it do any of it particularly well?
Netgear NeoTV 550: Specifications
You get a lot of media player for your money with the Netgear NeoTV 550, although it seems to have come at a slight cost – it's a little on the big side, and it's not really much of a looker, either.
It's not a great surprise, given that Netgear is more at home producing slabs of networking plastic called routers. But really, how hard is it to make the thing look half decent? The NeoTV isn't something you would want on show in the lounge, so it's yet another device that will have to be resigned to a cabinet for the rest of its life.
Although there's no built-in hard drive, it's probably no great shakes for the majority of people because there are a multitude of ways of accessing your files either using the aforementioned plug-in external storage, which can be connected in many different ways, or streaming media over your home network.
Sadly there's no built-in wireless, so if you want to stream media from a network-attached PC, you'll have to do it over Ethernet. So, you'll need to put the NeoTV 550 right next to the router, which will in turn need to be near your TV.
Alternatively, you can use the Netgear Universal Wi-Fi Internet Adapter, which allows you to stream with a little more freedom – at an additional cost of about £35.00. You're probably better off sticking to Ethernet anyhow – if the majority of your streaming will be in HD, it'll cope better.
There's plenty of video and audio connectivity at the rear of the NeoTV 550, with both analogue and digital covered. There's an S/PDIF output that, combined with the player's DTS support, means you can connect it to a DTS hi-fi and blow the cobwebs off the ceiling in movies that support it.
HDMI is also included in this line-up, but oddly there's no HDMI cable present, which is something you might expect to see at this price point.
Netgear NeoTV 550: Performance
After a brief firmware update when the Netgear NeoTV 550 is turned on for the first time, you're taken through a pretty thorough configuration, including an audio check and video options, which is good to ensure that everything looks and sounds correct before you start using it.
You then have to select your country as well as the city you live in, the result of which is an on-screen weather app within the main menu – a neat touch, if a little pointless.
If you get stuck at any point here, then you're in trouble – the NeoTV really is that easy to setup.
It'll then try to set up a network share, so that it can access your media files for streaming playback. If you've got a NAS device or another kind of network-accessed media share, then you'll have to manually enter the network details to add it.
Otherwise, if your media is stored on a networked PC, then you'll have to install the software included on the disc that comes with the NeoTV 550.
Annoyingly, if you've got a number of machines then you'll need to install it on every one. It's quite easy to install, though, and once done the NeoTV 550 will immediately see your network attached PC and allow you to access files on it.
When external storage is attached, the Netgear NeoTV 550 will tell you that it's connected and ready to use via a handy pop-up at the bottom of the interface. Selecting the storage is simply a case of pressing the source button on the menu, choosing it and searching through the files until you find what you want. This is a great feature when you have multiple drives attached to the device, because it'll always be clear which one you're using.
The interface is clearly laid out and very easy to use, and the NeoTV 550 responds to inputs without any delay using the included remote control, which is full-featured and well laid out.
The menu is very configurable too – there's a wide range of features available to customise the experience; you can change the font used in the menus or download a custom skin for the interface, for example.
Searching through available content is simple – just browse to the device, whether it's attached or over the network, and browse to the right folder. If, for example, you want to choose another movie during playback, the NeoTV conveniently keeps a preview window showing in the corner so you don't miss anything.
Although the standard menu system lists files, you can view them as thumbnails at a press of the button on the remote using the cover art option. It makes for a much more natural way of searching through your files.
Crucially, when 1080p movies are streamed over a wireless network – albeit a Wireless N one – they played smoothly and with absolutely no stuttering whatsoever. They looked stunning too – crisp and colourful.
The only minor problem the Netgear NeoTV 550 threw up was an occasional delay when fast forwarding or rewinding videos, when it gets ahead of the speed at which the data is coming from the network share. As a result, it's advised that you don't use the full speed of the forward and rewind functions because it can cause the NeoTV 550 to almost freeze when it gets lost in the data stream.
The NeoTV 550 is right up there with the best of the media players in its format support – it will happily play pretty much anything you throw at it, including AVC HD files and MKVs, and it'll even play ripped Blu-ray movies with the film's menu structure intact.
It doesn't stop at just the files stored locally either – the NeoTV 550 also has access to online content through its selection of built-in internet apps. They're pretty slick to use, but aside from a standard offering of YouTube and Flickr, there's not much to choose from.
That puts it at a significant disadvantage to something like the D-Link Boxee Box, which has a BBC iPlayer app, among others.
Netgear NeoTV 550: Verdict
The Netgear NeoTV 550 desperately wants to be the media player to do it all – to be able to play all types of media content and allow you to access them in as many ways as possible. And it comes so close. Only a couple of things hold it back from being the best media player/streamer you can buy.
Don't get us wrong – this is still by far and away one of the finest of those out there right now, and for £125 it's excellent value for money, given everything it can offer.
It's simple to set up and very easy to use – your grandma could probably even just about figure it out. It also supports a huge range of video, audio and photo file formats, including all the major HD movie files. There's a plentiful number of ways of viewing these files on an external storage device or over a network, and 1080p content plays perfectly.
Finding content is also very simple, and the cover art option makes viewing all your files – movies especially – that much more like you're browsing your shelf in the front room. The internet apps are a nice idea, but until there's more support, it'll just remain a nice idea and nothing more.
A lot more thought could have gone into the design of the NeoTV 550, but it seems that Netgear has instead decided to go the anonymous route and make it look like one of its routers – in fact, Netgear makes marginally better-looking routers.
The lack of built-in Wi-Fi might also upset some people, but not that many other devices on the market do have it, probably because HD streaming is such a demand over the airwaves – the AirTies 4420 would be a better bet if this was something you wanted.
While there are certainly cheaper media-playing offerings out there, there aren't many that have the breadth of abilities of the Netgear NeoTV 550, as well as the ease of use and the quality of its functionality.
If you're willing to pay just that little bit extra for one of the best methods of satisfying all your media needs, then this is well worth a look.