Once you've tried networked multimedia, it's difficult to go back to anything else - as any rich AV enthusiast will tell you.
You might have read about dream kit like the Kaleidescape media system - yours for £25k. Kaleidescape stores 'ripped' DVDs and CDs on the massive hard-disk array of a central server.
This content can then be accessed from networked clients that drive the AV systems located in the various rooms. No more hunting high and low for discs - sure sounds tempting, doesn't it?
The good news is that you no longer need a Jean-Paul Getty-shaped bank account to join in this particular branch of electronic fun. Indeed, the humble PC - which can accommodate terabytes of affordable hard-disk storage nowadays - can be pressed into service as a media server.
Indeed, multiple PCs can be used; in addition some clients will also work with networked hard disks, known as networked-attached storage (NAS). The networking gear you'll need is a gateway-router, now found in thousands of broadbanded homes around the country.
Then there are the all-important multimedia players ('clients') themselves like Netgear' £200 EVA-8000 tested here. These boxes perform the same role as the more-expensive Kaleidescape clients.
The type of content that can be streamed to these boxes will, however, make Kaleidescape owners green with envy. In addition to DVDs and CDs, they'll typically cater for DiVX/XViD/WMV, digital photos, WMA/MP3 audio and digital TV recordings. Oh, and some boxes - the EVA-8000 included - will also play hi-def video.
Over a network connection (wired, as in the Kaleidescape, or wireless), they tell the PC acting as the server what content is being asked for. In return, the PC streams the selected content to the appropriate device across the network.
The multimedia client then decodes the audio and video, feeding it to the connected AV equipment. The PC has to run special server software - this is used to organise the content and talk to the clients. Some clients work to a standard known as uPnP, and run with software like Rhapsody (Mac), uShare (Linux) or Microsoft's free Windows Media Connect (WMC, for PCs).
Others - and the Netgear EVA-8000 falls into this camp - use software supplied with the unit. The EVA-8000 relies on the SMB (Server Message Block) protocol, which Netgear claims is superior to uPnP for this application.
Why? Because the EVA-8000 can do far more than the average streamer - it will allow you to tune into 'net radio stations, check the weather in your area, view podcasts and Web TV stations, read newsfeeds and even send messages to other people using EVA8000s elsewhere in the home (depending on content and network bandwidth, up to 255 can be supported!).
Unfortunately, the EVA-8000 software is Windows-only - thus reducing its appeal to those who don't use PCs.
I tried running the EVA-8000 as a uPnP client with WMC, but it proved close to useless here. The lists of media - photos, video, and audio - were occasionally corrupted, and the box tended to reset itself periodically.
Oh, and for some reason, only MP3 audio and MPEG video were supported. Once the Netgear SMB software - called 'Digital Entertainer for Windows' - had been installed on the PC and configured to share the various content folders, my experience took a considerable turn for the better.
It was more reliable, and the EVA-8000 could handle a lot more file formats - strange that, considering that Digital Entertainer doesn't transcode.
The box itself is remarkably slimline in appearance, and so you should be able to slot it into your system somewhere. The front panel houses nothing more than a standby button, USB slot and headphone socket. Its rear panel is equipped with two aerials for the on-board 54g Wi-Fi transceiver, as well as the wired Ethernet, which is a better bet all-round.
Connecting the EVA-8000 to your AV gear are audio outputs (digital coax/optical, and phono analogue stereo) plus a choice of RGB Scart, component, 1080p-capable HDMI or boring old composite/S-video.
It's thus no more difficult to connect up than a DVD player - even the network side of things isn't too complicated, thanks to DHCP auto-configuration. For Wi-Fi users encryption is supported, thereby ensuring that the next-door neighbour doesn't get too familiar with your multimedia.
In use, you get the impression that the EVA-8000 was designed by geeks, for geeks. And that's a real pity, because the ordinary public is crying out for a system designed with them in mind - the iTunes-shackled Apple TV doesn't really cut it. But instead of the slick Kaleidescape menu systems, you're treated to such menu-driven delights as 'administrator options' (propellerhead for 'setup'), 'hotkey binding' and lists that can't be cyclically navigated.
At least you can arrange for 'cover art' thumbnails to represent the media you're after, a nod to the Kaleidescape way of doing things - and a direct benefit of the system's basis in SMB.
Performance? Overall, I was somewhat disappointed with the real-life (as opposed to claimed!) compatibility with media. MP3/WAV audio and JPEG images were fine, and I'm pleased to note that the Sigma-chipset powered EVA-8000 is happy with lossless audio codecs like FLAC. DiVX and XViD proved to be a mixed bag, though.
Usually, the files played just fine. But sometimes, there was no sound - or it was 'choppy'. MPEG-2 and WMV standard-def video were always successful. However, some hi-def content - whether DiVX, MPEG-2 or H.264, 720p or 1080i - started off well before going 'juddery'. And that was with a wired 100Mbps Ethernet connection...
'Ripped' DVDs play fine; although no provision has been made for DVD menu access, you can play the all-important content. 5.1 audio is supported, but you must remember to engage the digital audio output (if it's not, it will still give you digital audio - but in stereo only!).
Lots of still-image file formats are supposed to be supported, but only JPEGs worked beyond the selection thumbnail! When it works, picture quality from stills and video alike is fine - especially via HDMI. If a hi-def output option is selected, standard-def is upscaled with acceptable results.
Likewise the audio - lipsync drifts are rare, and the subjective sound quality is up to scratch. The digital output fares better in terms of definition and involvement, though.
I'm a great fan of networked multimedia, and have been using it in various forms for the past three or so years. However, the EVA-8000 amply demonstrates that the technology is not yet mature enough to fare as a successful consumer product.
The user interface needs work, as does compatibility with the various key file formats. Hopefully, firmware updates will address at least some of these criticisms.