Middleware boxes designed to wirelessly stream media content from a PC to a TV are fast becoming essential digital home accessories. A gaggle of IT companies, including Linksys, Creative and Adaptec, have already shipped 802.11b and 802.11g boxes that can be quickly integrated into existing home WLANs.
The consumer giants are also getting in on the act. Philips, for example, has its Streamium range, with the simplistic SL50i Wireless Music Link at one end, and the fantastic 23-inch Streamium LCD TV at the other.
Slap bang in the middle sits the new Streamium SL400i. It's essentially a wireless streaming starter kit, featuring a DVD player-sized decoder box (that plugs into a TV) and an external 802.11g USB adapter (that plugs into a PC). You can incorporate the SL400i into an existing wireless network, but with the accompanying Scart and composite audio cables, Philips has supplied everything you need to create a basic peer-to-peer connection that can stream music, video and digital photos stored on a host computer.
The set-up process for a peer-to-peer connection is straightforward, even if you have little or no computing knowledge. Once the Philips Media Manager software has been installed, you simply specify the folders where your pictures, movies and music are stored. In terms of compatibility, the SL400i supports MP3 and mp3PRO codecs, but there's a lack of WMA and AAC support, which limits its playback options. Digital video formats fare better, as the SL400i caters for MPEGs 1, 2 and 4, plus DivX and XviD, while JPEG, GIF, and BMP images can also be viewed.
Connect the SL400i to a network with a broadband connection and you can also use it to access a range of internet radio channels. Usefully, this Streamium model features an LCD on its front panel, enabling you to control the box, log in and select tracks without using the TV interface. With this in mind, the SL400i can be connected directly to a hi-fi system.
Linked to a TV, the SL400i can also access online photo albums, videos and games via the Yahoo! portal, although we had no luck getting these elements to work. Prepare yourself for connectivity troubles if you're accessing the net from behind a firewall. This is where the SL400i stops being a consumer-friendly device and shows its true colours as an IT spin-off.
In short: wireless streaming boxes still need to improve. The SL400i is sluggish to start up and its lightweight feel suggests that it's more eye-candy chassis than useful circuitry. It also suffers from a chunky and unresponsive remote control, much like the one that's included with Pinnacle's rival ShowCenter box. In fact, we've yet to see a good remote supplied with any of these wireless boxes - again, a legacy of half-hearted IT thinking.
The Streamium certainly works and we like its flexibility, although only limited music streaming is supported on a Mac. But consider this: is streaming really the best way to access your digital content? The SL400i, for example, can only operate when the host PC is switched on, as it can't store anything locally. Yes, it's a decent starter kit, but it's not as convenient as a dedicated network attached storage device like the On3.