by Platon Scheblykin
07/23/2008 | 02:28 PM
As PC users were assembling large media collections and as there appeared numerous digital formats for storing music, video, etc, a new class of computers emerged. It is the Home Theater Personal Computer. An HTPC is a small but advanced computer designed specifically for storing and reproducing the user’s media collection.
Today, the most popular solution for building such media centers is a microATX system or various types of barebone kits. Such solutions have the advantage of compactness, come with preinstalled and preset software, and offer a large number of interfaces for connecting to networks, display devices, audio systems, etc.
One media center from this class is going to be discussed in this review. Developed by the Korean company Novatron (www.iamm.co.kr), this model is known under different names given to it by its resellers: IAMM NTD36HD, IconBIT HD360W, Eureka LX350HD and Cinebox HD. The sample I have is called IconBIT HD360W.
Supported video formats
- HD chassis (tp, trp ts),
Supported audio formats
Supported photo formats
Supported formats (other)
- Fast Ethernet 100BASE-TX/10BASE-T
- 64/128bit WEP
Supported file systems
Remote control unit
95 x 190 x 145 mm
730g (without hard drive)
External power supply
The box contains:
The accessories are sufficient. You may only need to add S-Video and LAN cables to use all of the player’s features.
With all its rich functionality, the player is small, comparable to a regular single-disk NAS. It is also light. I would even say the HD360W seems heavier than it really is. With the hard disk installed, the player stands firmly on its rubber feet and can hardly be toppled over accidentally.
The HD360W is pretty, its case made from white glossy plastic with translucent front and top panels and a metallic back. The case widens towards the bottom, forming a rounded large base. Overall, it has an appearance of a solid and well-made device and will fit perfectly into any modern interior. The assembly quality is high, all the details are neatly fitted together.
The player developer didn’t limit the user’s choice of the hard disk to use. You can easily install any disk you like. Just unlock the cover at the bottom of the case and you will see a compartment for a HDD with a SATA interface.
The HDD is inserted with the connectors facing outwards and then you attach the cables that go out of the case. The interface cable is rather short, barely enough to connect the drive.
As soon as the hard disk is installed, the player is ready to serve its purpose. But you can use the player even without it because the HD360W offers an abundance of I/O interfaces and the integrated software doesn’t depend on the HDD.
As for the noise factor, the HDD is nearly silent (although I used a rather noisy model from Seagate). The small cooling fan (3x3cm) inside the case is silent, too.
On the other hand, the thermal conditions inside the player are far from comfortable. The HDD becomes as hot as to scorch your fingers. It means the ventilation system is no good at all.
The above-mentioned fan is too weak to produce a strong airflow, and the HDD compartment has almost no holes for the hot air to go out. So, the ventilation system is the first serious drawback of the HD360W.
As opposed to it, the indication and control system is good. The front and top panels of the case contain everything necessary for you to interact with the player. Nearly all of the controls can be found on the top panel (from top to bottom and from left to right):
The remaining controls and all of the indicators are placed on the front panel. The indicators are actually not visible until active because they are all hidden behind the translucent plastic of the front panel. Their labels are painted in white. The indicators are based on SMD LEDs. Although small, they are bright enough to be visible under any lighting. Here is a full list of everything on the player’s front (from top to bottom and from left to right):
The included remote control is narrow and long.
The battery compartment protrudes at the back, thus serving as a counterbalance and fingerhold simultaneously. The control lies snugly in the hand. Perhaps the distance to the topmost buttons is too big, though. The manufacturing quality is high: all the details are neatly fitted together, nothing rattles, and the battery cover fits so tight that it doesn’t fall off even if you drop the remote control on the ground. The buttons are all made from rubber and bear appropriate icons. Additional functions of the buttons are indicated on the case of the control. The buttons are rather stiff but each stroke feels sharp enough.
The buttons are divided into three groups based on the color of the case underneath (from top to bottom):
And finally, the back panel of the case carries all the connectors the player connects to external devices with (from top to bottom and from left to right):
Besides that, there is a connector for a Wi-Fi antenna at the back panel. The cooling fan is fastened there as well.
Now let’s take a look at the components the HD360W has inside. It was a problem to take the player apart. First I had to find and unfasten a small screw in the player’s top and then remove the black edging of the panels. Next I unfastened two screws in one of the side panels and split the case into two halves. Two more screws and I took off the HDD compartment. Finally, I took out the player’s PCB with back panel by undoing one more screw in the center of the PCB.
The player’s electronics resides on several connected cards: a main PCB, DVI module, WLAN module and control card. The assembly quality is high save for a couple of flux stains on the reverse side of the main PCB.
The HD360W is based on an EM8621L processor. It is an ARM-architecture chip made by Sigma Designs. Although not the most advanced model in the developer’s line-up, it has really impressive characteristics.
Click to enlarge
Without delving into details, I can just tell you that the HD360W supports the various media formats thanks to this chip alone. By the way, there is a seat for a console near the processor.
The player comes with the maximum amount of system memory it supports, i.e. 64 megabytes, in two DDR SDRAM chips from Hynix (HY5DU561622ETP, 16Mb x 16bit).
The player’s firmware is stored in an 8MB M29W640FB flash memory chip from STMicroelectronics.
The player’s LAN port is based on the RTL8100CL network controller manufactured by Realtek. This Fast Ethernet controller is connected to the player’s main processor via a PCI bus.
The processor does not incorporate a SATA controller, so the hard disk is connected to it via a PATA-SATA bridge based on an 88SA8040 chip from Marvell.
Both of the player’s USB ports are based on a VT6212L host-controller from VIA. This controller supports four USB 2.0 ports, but only two are implemented in the player.
The USB port for connecting to a PC must be based on a PL-2507 chip from Prolific which is in fact a USB-PATA bridge. This explains why the player is identified as an external HDD when connected to a PC.
Other important chips are installed on additional cards connected to the main PCB. One such card is a DVI module.
There is a SiI164CTG64 chip from Silicon Image responsible for DVI Interface support.
The next chip that needs to be mentioned is located on the player’s control card. It is a PT6351 display controller from Princeton Technology Corp.
Its functionality is limited to the player’s buttons and indicators although it might also support a 12-segment display.
An IEEE 802.11g module is connected to the main PC via a mini-PCI interface.
This module is based on two chips from Ralink: an RT2561 MAC-controller and an RT2527 RF-module.
So, the HD360W is advanced on the hardware side. Let’s now check out its firmware. I will be talking about Iconbit’s firmware but there is little difference between the various versions of this player, according to user reports. The latest version of the HD360W’s firmware is 126.96.36.199.163 whereas version 188.8.131.52.162 is considered the basic one (it is installed by default). The two versions differ but slightly, though. The available firmware doesn’t seem quite polished off yet. I don’t mean the player doesn’t work right. Everything is okay unless you begin to experiment. I noticed one thing about this player during my tests. It likes to hang up at any nonstandard event. For example, if the wireless connection is broken while you are playing video over Wi-Fi, the player just hangs up. It doesn’t have a reset button, so you have to unplug it from the mains. The HD360W is also somewhat sluggish at certain operations (not when playing video or audio). These problems persisted with the newer firmware version.
While the developers of the player (in all of its varieties) are in no hurry to correct the problems, enthusiasts have already got busy writing their own firmware. You can read long threads about that at http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?t=763110 and http://www.hdd-player.de/phpBB2/index.php?board=7.0. There you can also find links to other websites and forums related to the HD360W. The third-party developers are working on transforming the HD360W into a kind of NAS with player functions. They are also trying to solve the problem of low Wi-Fi performance I will discuss later.
Now let’s see what you can do with the latest official firmware. Every setting and operation mode of the player is indicated on the display device the player is connected to at the moment. The user interface looks nice using a calm blue color scheme, informative icons, large fonts, and an intuitive menu structure. It is a real pleasure to use the HD360W’s interface. You don’t have to strain your eyes, the dialogs are not overloaded with information, the interface is legible on any display. The developer has provided for the user’s comfort.
After the player boots up, the file browser’s start page is shown on the screen. In the top right corner of each browser page there is an informational window of the player’s Jukebox feature that displays the music track being played.
The Jukebox allows you to build your own play-list out of compositions stored on any media attached to the HD360W.
In the bottom part of the main page you can see icons linked to file locations. The icons are bright when the corresponding locations are accessible and translucent if not. The first three icons refer to the standard folders with videos, audios and photos stored on the internal HDD. The next two icons refer to devices connected to the player’s USB ports. The last icon refers to the player’s network environment. You can read a brief comment on the selected icon in the center of the screen.
If you choose one of the active (highlighted) icons, you will see a window where you can navigate the list of files and folders. You can search for a file in the selected location or choose a new location in the top part of the screen (internal HDD, USB1, USB2, network). Below the list of locations, there is an address line that displays the full path to the necessary file. And lower yet, there is a list of all the supported files stored in the selected folder. The left column contains basic commands that help navigate and choose files.
You can enter the player’s setup menu by pressing the appropriate button on the remote control or on the player’s case. The settings are divided into five groups plus an Exit item. A tip on the navigation buttons is always displayed at the bottom of the screen. All the groups of settings are shown in the top part of the window as icons. I will describe these groups briefly.
The first group is about the player’s video signal. You can choose the video signal format, screen resolution, screen aspect ratio, etc.
The audio settings group is where you can choose music playback mode and the type and parameters of audio output.
The ETC group contains all the settings that didn’t fit into the other groups.
The last two groups of settings are about the player’s network parameters. The first of them contains general network parameters such as network address assignment mode, connection status, etc.
The other contains WLAN settings only.
By the way, you can either set the WLAN up manually or choose one from the list of found WLANs (entering a password if the network is private).
These are in fact all the basic settings of the HD360W. As you can see, everything is simple and intuitive.
The following equipment and software was used for the tests:
I decided to check out the quality of the sound and video reproduced by the player as these seem to be its most important parameters. I did it in a simple way. I just watched a few movies in different formats and tested the sound quality with RightMark Audio Analyzer.
Alas, it is virtually impossible to convey the quality of the picture by means of a camera shot while the TV-tuner I had at hand was unable to take high-quality screenshots. Anyway, the result I’ve got is also indicative of the high quality of video playback. The HD360W produced a superb picture on a 29-inch TV-set. Whatever video format I tried, the player showed it without hang-ups or delay or anything which are the common problems with such multimedia devices.
It’s worse with the sound. I could not achieve the recommended signal level on the player’s output. And RightMark Audio Analyzer evaluated the player’s analog audio output as Poor when tested together with a mainboard’s line input, which was evaluated by the same program as Good. These poor results must be due to interference from the internal HDD. That’s a common problem with such devices.
The speed of the player’s HDD was tested in the traditional way we use for benchmarking NAS devices. I mounted the player’s internal HDD as a local volume on the test PC in the NDAS manager. Then I benchmarked the mounted volume with IOMeter. I used two patterns: a 512-byte one to find the maximum number of disk operations per second, and a 64KB pattern for checking out the maximum data-transfer rate. Both patterns were doing sequential reading/writing to achieve maximum performance. This test was performed for each interface in read and write mode.
The table suggests that the player’s special USB interface is very fast whereas the 802.11g interface is very slow. The speed of the wired LAN connection is in fact limited by the peak bandwidth of the Fast Ethernet interface. So, you should write information to the player’s internal disk through the USB port where data transfers seem to be going directly through the USB-IDE bridge. The Wi-Fi connection is fast enough for you to watch non-HD movies if the access point is located near the player (in the same room) and is more than enough for music and photos.
Finally I measured the coverage area of the player’s wireless interface. This test was performed within a single apartment. I used IOMeter like in the previous tests but measured the speed of writing to the disk (this is the operation performed when playing over the network) in 64KB blocks at three points (the number of rooms in the apartment):
There are no surprises. Notwithstanding the low speed of the wireless connection, it behaves like most other 802.11g adapters.
Thus, I can make two points out of the tests. First, the HD360W has problems reproducing audio (although these problems are not conspicuous). Second, the Wi-Fi interface is but a formal advantage of this player (even though this connection is fast enough for certain applications). Otherwise, the player did well in the tests.
It is hard to make a conclusion about a device when you have nothing to compare it with. You have to base on your subjective opinion as the result. This time my opinion is positive. I liked the rich capabilities of the HD360W in terms of interfaces and supported formats. My only gripe is that it does not support the now-popular H.264 codec and the mkv container. Otherwise, the player offers superb functionality.
The HD360W has rather average test results. Besides the audio related problems, which are not going to be troublesome for ordinary users, it has a low speed of the wireless connection.
The HD360W is not the cheapest networked media player available, but it is superior to most other models in functionality. And we are going to test competing products soon to see how they compare in terms of performance.