We’ve seen something of an explosion in the home media streaming market in the last year or so. Low power and low price Realtek chipsets have brought high definition media on the television within range of the average home user. While home theatre PCs have a greater range of features than the best media streamer, they tend to be far more expensive and power hungry.
We like the idea of a small, unobtrusive and dedicated device that caters to a significant chunk of our home media needs. Has Eminent, the Dutch consumer electronics specialist, come up with the goods in the shape of the EM7195? Read on for our impressions.
To begin with, the media player is an impressive package. The weighty metal box is finished in a slick matte black, with an elegant LED stripe across the front the only visible indicator, lighting blue and red to indicate power and standby. The rest of the contents are equally impressive, with Eminent bundling in HDMI, composite video, optical and analogue audio cables as well as internal SATA and power connections for the optional hard disk. A USB 3.0 cable was also included in our box, which was a nice touch, despite the lack of high speed peripherals that utilise the new connection standard. No component video cable was included in the box, although the player offers component output.
Opening the case, it’s clear that Eminent put some thought into the layout, with the hard drive bay using a nice design, with a simple sliding panel that allows easy install and removal. The components inside are laid out in an efficient manner, with good air flow cutting down the fan work needed to keep things cool.
Noise levels from the side-mounted fan varied under load, but were only audible in the very quietest of scenes. While we would certainly prefer a passively cooled variant, this is about as good as fan cooling gets.
Playback was smooth and stutter-free when streaming music and movie files from the internal hard drive, and reached almost the same level of performance when accessing files on an SMB network share. We did notice some dropped frames in particularly high-bitrate content, but everything we threw at the player was entirely watchable.
Streaming content over uPnP with Windows Media Player was a more frustrating experience, with audio sync issues popping up, although we believe this was more down to the poor quality of Microsoft’s software than the media player. Streaming with TVersity proved a much better experience.
File support is truly awesome, with virtually any kind of media supported. This is a common factor in most Realtek-based network media players, and we’re glad that Eminent can hold their heads up alongside AC Ryan and Western Digital in producing a pretty good example. The only files that we were completely unable to play were music encoded as Apple Lossless (ALAC). Fortunately, it does support FLAC audio, so a simple conversion with dBpoweramp solved our problems.
DTS-HD passthrough was pretty successful on the whole, although attempting to stream an uncompressed Master Audio soundtrack alongside Blu-Ray quality video could quickly max out the 100Mbps Ethernet port, and is out of the question using the optional wireless N dongle. Adding a Gigabit Ethernet port, like the AC Ryan PlayOn HD2, would solve this bandwidth bottleneck (assuming you have access to a gigabit switch).
The twin TV tuners did the job admirably, although we note that they support only the DVB-T standard, and so cannot be used to receive HD Freeview broadcasts. Upcoming programs are listed on a simple Electronic Program Guide (EPG). A simple button press will record the show in progress or schedule a recording. Shows are then saved to the internal hard drive and viewable from the main player interface.
The interface is a major area that could benefit from some serious designer attention. While it is functional enough, it hardly has the friendliest of menus. With competitors creating custom interfaces, and even our Virgin HD box showing off a slick and usable side, the Spartan look of the EM7195 is a little disappointing. Opening the UI of the box to outside developers would be a very positive step that could differentiate Eminent from their larger competitors in a tough marketplace. There may however be contractual and legal issues standing in the way of this, as they licensed the technology rather than created it.
There another gripe that we would like to bring to the manufacturers attention. The remote bundled with the player is a cheap, nasty piece of tech that really lets down the premium feel of the rest of the kit. While it gives access to most of the necessary functions, the button labels are hardly helpful, and the tactile feel of clicking the buttons made me grind my teeth in irritation.
This problem is easily solved with a programmable remote, such as the Logitech Harmony One, but we really wish Eminent hadn’t cheaped out on this component.
Overall, the Eminent EM7195 is a competent network media box, with an enormously wide support for file types. The audio capabilities alone make it worthy of serious consideration for anyone who prizes their surround sound setup as much as we do.
However, the EM7195 is launching into a marketplace that is rapidly becoming crowded with similarly specced machines, some of which have customised interfaces offering a lot more in terms of usability.
While the DVR functionality is a nice extra, for customers with Sky+ or Virgin+ it will remain a novelty. The price is perhaps a little high then, with the AC Ryan PlayOn HD2 retailing at around £130. You’ll have to make up your own mind as to whether the TV tuner is worth an extra 40-odd quid.