The media streamer market seems to be picking up speed again following a series of recent announcements, and by the looks of things those looking to share media libraries around the home will have no shortage of choice this summer.
Freecom fans would be forgiven for thinking that the device on test is another addition to its range of external hard drives, but in fact that Mediaplayer II is the successor to its previous efforts in the streaming market. It's certainly a tidy enough design with a range of connectivity including, most importantly, HDMI to handle resolutions at up to 1080i. The device is available with a choice of hard drive sizes or as an empty unit so you can fit your own or simply connect USB storage for local playback, though this is going to be a problem for those who like to stream content wirelessly.
Unlike previous models in the range, there's no built-in wireless support for the Mediaplayer II. A separate dongle can be picked up from the Freecom website for a rather expensive £45, which adds considerable expense. More importantly there is only one USB port on the back, so if you do require wireless there is nowhere to attach external storage.
HD-resolution files will require a wired connection via the 10/100 Ethernet port or local storage for smooth playback anyway, and one feature we were impressed by is the player's ability to copy files between a network, attached storage and the internal hard drive: a considerable added convenience.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for usability in general which, due to the overly basic and frankly quite ugly interface, is sadly underwhelming. A depressing, black background is interrupted with fuzzy, low resolution icons as you browse the menus and files are displayed in an unnecessarily small window on the left that makes large collections difficult to browse. This makes things frustrating rather than unusable though, and in fairness it is quite quick and easy to find your way around the limited range of features, including setting up a network connection - which is appropriately straightforward.
By this point our expectations were diminishing rapidly and it was therefore no surprise to see a fairly poor level of media control. There are a few handy options for video playback including subtitle support and a zoom control but skipping back and forth, while smooth, is a bit of an arduous process and there's very little in terms of shortcuts and intuitive control. File support is best described as "average" since it's not compatible with H.264 or MP4 and MOV formats, though users who like to standardise a collection to more common .AVI or .MPG using DivX and Xvid codecs shouldn't have too many problems.
Audio playback is simply a case of selecting a track from a folder, though the ability to create playlists makes up slightly for what is otherwise a complete lack of control, and photo viewing at least offers timing and transition selection for slideshows along with a decent zoom.
The only real feature we haven't touched on with the Mediaplayer II is direct torrent downloads, which require you to use Internet Explorer to log in to a rudimentary client software interface for the player, select torrents stored on the local hard drive and initiate a download. Since there's no way to do this without grabbing a torrent on an internet-enabled computer and uploading it via the browser you may as well just download the file from this machine anyway, rendering this feature all but redundant.
Our original comment about the Mediaplayer II being an addition to its external hard drive range didn't turn out to be as far from the truth as expected then. As it stands, the design and aesthetics are the best thing about the player and it seems as though a bunch of connectivity and a rudimentary Linux-based interface is the extent of the company's ambitions in this market.
Considering the previous model at least offered built-in wireless and a handful of extra features, it would have been better off simply bundling the guts of it into this new enclosure as the new Mediaplayer II certainly doesn't bring anything new or exciting to the table.
£115 (drive-in kit)
Our assessment of the Mediaplayer II may seem a little harsh but it's not often you see a company move backwards with a new iteration of a device in a market as new as media streaming. The new player is quite reasonably priced if you want a basic device without wireless support, which adds 40% to the cost, but the limited range of features, lack of online content, poor control and basic interface means it doesn't stand up at all well to rivals in this market.