The latest solution to address the always problematic issue of media streaming comes from Freecom, who offers a Network Mediaplayer intended to house a 3.5-inch hard drive to store content locally.
This is a handy way to carry media around with you away from home, but those looking to set it up as a semi-permanent fixture in a living room can handily skip the hard drive option and pick up an empty box for a very reasonable price.
Whichever you choose, you'll benefit from a generous range of connectivity that includes standard composite, S-video or component connections, the latter of which offers resolution support up to 1080i/720p for HD-encoded content.
These can of course be used to connect the device directly to a television to play content from an internal drive, but if you're looking to stream from a computer you'll find a choice of both wired and wireless connections to do so.
Setup here is fairly straightforward provided you have some experience with adding devices to a network, and to allow access to content on your PC you simply share the relevant folders using your OS's default sharing tools.
It's at this point the Mediaplayer starts to impress. Streaming performance here is excellent, and although you really need to use the wired option if you need it to handle higher demand HD formats this is still an impressive effort.
There's almost no buffer time before playback starts, and you'll find very responsive fast forward and rewind control here, the bugbear of many similar devices in the past. We're also very impressed by the file format support of the player, with a range of often troublesomely encoded video formats working first time.
Unfortunately it's not all good news; even if we did find that the streaming performance alone puts Freecom ahead of much of the competition. You have very little control over the interface, and subsequently you're a bit restricted in browsing and organising large collections of files.
You also have very little control over the content while it's playing back, there are no bells and whistles here past the basic controls. Since it's a hard drive based product there are inevitably some delays while the drive spins off, but these seemed longer than necessary, particularly in the case of startup and shutdown.
Many might argue that this is a small price to pay if the Network Mediaplayer can handle content streaming so well, but they're the kind of niggling issues that do frustrate over time and prevent Freecom from really setting a standard with its new drive.
Freecom's MediaPlayer has many admirable qualities but stops just short of offering the ideal budget priced media streamer because of a few niggling issues.