Devices that are designed to bridge the gap between IT and AV equipment are big business.
Until now wireless media adapters have hogged the technological limelight, enabling you to stream content from a PC to a TV via an inconspicuous set-top box. These 'middleman' gadgets work well enough, but they require the host PC or Mac to be constantly switched on. Unless you've got a dedicated system acting as a media server, it's not an ideal solution.
But there is another way. The On3 is one of a new breed of entertainment-focused NAS (network attached storage) devices. FIA's compact blue/silver unit is essentially an 80GB hard disk designed to act as a vault for all your music, video and digital photo files. More importantly, the On3 can also play back or display these files independently of an active PC. With its own built-in GUI and support for a wide array of media formats, this is half 20th century data archive, half 21st century media player.
Despite its NAS origins, the On3 is surprisingly easy to set up. It can be connected directly to a PC/Mac (where it will appear as a network drive) or plugged into a router/switch via a straightforward crossover cable. The supplied software automatically detects the attached On3 box, whereupon all you have to do is assign a manual IP address to the device or let the software suggest an appropriate one for you. The On3 drive is formatted with three pre-defined folders - Music, Photo and Video. Compatible files just need to be dragged and dropped into these folders to be recognised by the On3's software.
For hooking the On3 up to a TV, FIA has incorporated component audio and video outputs (for 1080i and 720p), composite video and audio outputs, plus S-Video, S/PDIF and co-axial audio connections. But the On3 will succeed or fail according to the number of video/audio formats that it supports. Fortunately, it seems to have a clean sweep of video formats, embracing MPEG-2, DivX and MOV files. Audio support extends to MP3, Ogg and AC3, while the On3 can also display JPEGs, GIFs, animated GIFs and PNGs.
In its media player mode, the On3 uses the same web-style interface as Actiontec's Wireless Digital Media Player. And, like the Actiontec device, it offers only barebones playback options. There's no 'resume' for video, for example, and while there's a 'random play' audio option, there's no 'playlist' feature. The badly designed remote doesn't help matters. Responsiveness is poor, while the FF and REW buttons have been squeezed into a cramped button layout.
The On3 is certainly promising, but it feels like an AV gadget designed by IT minds. It's a playback-only system and there's no wireless support in this version. It would have benefited from an optical drive, enabling you to view content on CD or DVD, rather than copy it on to the hard drive. Similarly, we expected a Scart socket on the back, considering the On3's TV-friendly ambitions. Perhaps FIA can implement this later on.
Admittedly, while the On3 is missing key usability features, it proves that such a remote backup device/media server can be a useful addition to a home network.