Despite the digital media boom there are still precious few streamers and jukeboxes around that do a decent job of handling the array of digital content that might populate the modern home. We’ve seen a few commendable efforts so far, but very few manufacturers seem to have their finger on the pulse when it comes to giving the customer what they want.
Enter NetGear, who released what is still many people’s streamer of choice in 2007 in the EVA8000, which has finally been usurped by the EVA9150. Despite the fact that 18 months represents eons in tech-circles, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the company hasn’t moved an inch since its earlier efforts.
We’re still presented with a bland and overly large grey box with this new model, with the notable exception of the fact that (802.11n) wireless is now built-in, so no more untidy antennas poking out of the back. Otherwise the design is much the same, with two USB ports for connecting additional media, an HDMI and swathe of "old-school" connectivity for those without an HD Ready TV.
It’s dead easy to connect and set-up the new streamer, but the process must begin by inserting the supplied CD into a computer (PC or Mac) and installing the Digital Entertainer software supplied. From here you’ll be told when to dart into another room and begin setting up the streamer, which uses a helpful wizard to guide you through configuration and network setup.
Most users should find this whole process pretty straightforward and aside from any potential firewall issues, networked content should be available through the streamer in no time at all.
Video, photos and music are all accessible through either local or networked storage locations, with 500GB supplied as standard via a quick-release bay at the front. Once you get it up and running you’ll notice small but notable features such as the "Play something now…" option, which appears on the music menu, that betray an almost nerdy attention to detail that will become the mainstay of the 9150.
It truly is a joy to browse through collections of media here, not only because the interface is so fast and responsive but in large down to the excellent performance on offer, most notably in the case of video.
This streamer has some of the best support we’ve seen to date for various formats and codecs you might want to collect or use. It handles playback admirably and is capable of streaming HD up to 1080i over a wireless connection with very little delay or frustrating buffering of content, though 1080p files will need wired or direct access.
Browsing large collections can be irritating due to the small amount of space reserved on the interface for viewing a folder, but text-search via the remote that helps to filter based on keywords makes this manageable. Audio can be browsed via ID3 Tag categories and photo support is impressive enough, offering slideshow access with configurable timings, zoom and rotate controls.
In addition to playback of locally stored media, the 9150 also offers access to YouTube, and is one of the most capable devices on the market of doing so. You’ll find all of the control you’d expect from a typical web browser on a computer here, and the speed at which it initially buffers and begins playback of a video file is admirable. In addition, Flickr, Internet radio stations and a range of channels and RSS feeds can be loaded directly and you can even enter a location for local weather forecasts.
We’ve covered the main features here but in truth there’s far more to NetGear’s new device than just streaming and media playback. The supplied remote control, for example, is the best we’ve seen with any such device by some margin. Not only is it intuitively and solidly built, it can also be configured to control three additional devices, so you’re getting a free "all-in-one" with its own dedicated configuration manual as standard.
You’ll also find a "PC Access" option that allows you to control the host machine remotely via a TV, though in fairness this is glitchy at best.
We’re struggling to think of anything bad to say about the performance of the 9150, but as you’ll see from the score above, it’s not quite perfect. Why? Well for one, there’s no ability to copy content directly to the internal hard drive. Instead you’ll have to connect USB storage or do so by copying over a network connection, which carries inevitable performance overheads.
We’d also have liked the interface to be a bit more customisable, or at least to dedicate more space to browsing and sorting large collections. Resume functions could be better for video when playback is interrupted and despite the excellent media support we did have issues with some audio streams with downloaded YouTube video.
We can’t be too negative about these admittedly minor issues however, as despite the fact that there are more than enough plus points to make up for them, very few rivals can claim such benefits either.
Unfortunately, NetGear has priced its new streamer extremely highly and as such has narrowed its market to the real enthusiasts, at least until the price comes down. Despite this, we were extremely impressed overall and were left hoping that other companies start following NetGear’s lead when it comes to giving customers what they want.
Despite some relatively minor issues, we have nothing but praise for the EVA 9150 as a modern-day streamer. It offers excellent support and control for media collections, superb performance, even over wireless, and impressive attention to detail when it comes to intuitive operation and online access.
It’s a little more "rough and ready" when it comes to the physical design and the main interface than some rivals and it’s almost difficult to forget the fact that it’s pretty damned expensive compared to more basic streamers. But those serious about their digital media collection in the home will still consider it a worthwhile investment.