Networked multimedia clients - or 'media gateways', as they're often known - are becoming increasingly significant.
These devices stream video, audio and photos off PCs on your home network, and feed the content of your choice to an AV system. Perhaps the best-known example to date is the Pinnacle ShowCenter range, although other companies including Philips and Hauppauge sell these useful yet affordable devices.
Acer's Linux-based MG3001-p looks like it could have been made by Philips - with its understated curves and green fluorescent display (ideal for TV-less audio use), it's a dead ringer for the latter's smart-looking Matchline range. It's certainly prettier than Pinnacle's latest ShowCenter 200, which is also powered by the same HD Ready Sigma Designs EM8620 chipset.
Unlike the ShowCenter 200, there's a comprehensive bank of operating controls, so that all is not lost if the sleek slab of a remote goes walkies. Some of these controls are concealed behind a flap, as is a USB port that allows the MG3001-p to decode and display files held on a USB storage device. Strangely enough, though, the manual fails to even mention the USB port.
As far as connectivity goes, the MG3001-p is similar to the ShowCenter 200. There may not be an HDMI or DVI jack, but you get the next best thing - a component output capable of working in 480/576p/i, 720p or 1080i. This unit will play out hi-def files, but standard-def content can be 'upscaled' if need be.
Those who haven't yet taken the hi-def plunge are also well served. On the rear panel you'll also find an RGB-compatible Scart, composite, and S-video outputs. In terms of audio, the Acer gives you analogue stereo, plus both optical and coaxial digital outputs. The unit can talk to your home network in one of two ways. For the most reliable results - especially with high-bitrate files like HDTV or DVD/digital TV rips - a 100Mbps Ethernet jack is incorporated. But there's also 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, which should suffice for audio, photos and low-bitrate video. Connecting the unit to your network and AV gear is as simple as it should be.
A nice touch is the handset's video output mode selector, which will help you get a picture quickly even if the current setting is incompatible. Acer supplies some Windows XP software, known as eConsole. Installed on each PC containing content you want to access, eConsole allows you to specify the files in question and act as a background media server. Unfortunately, in my experience it's not particularly reliable - it frequently crashes or fails to start - and refuses to accept files that the MG3001-p can definitely play. Thankfully the unit is a UPnP device and can be used, for example, with the excellent Windows Media Connect (WMC) program, downloadable from Microsoft's website. If UPnP management/server tools are available for other computer platforms, then in theory the MG3001-p should work with them.
The MG3001-p's overall user interface is prettier than that of the ShowCenter 200, making good use of graphics. It gives you a choice of music, video, pictures or online content. Select one of the media categories, and you can then choose the server (or USB device) containing the content you want to play.
It's possible to display this content as 'pages' according to actor/artist, album or genre; there's an additional 'all files' option. Thanks to the use of thumbnails, only a limited number of files can be displayed per page - the ShowCenter uses a more sensible list format. Streaming proved to be smooth, even with HD files (720p DiVX and WMV are supported, while both 720p and 1080i MPEG-2 video can be played). But a 'server timeout' error cropped up regularly.
Picture and sound quality are both good - with standard-def video expect pictures akin to a decent budget DVD player. Subject to encoding, the reproduction of DiVX and WMVs also impresses; lip-sync problems are thankfully rare. 720p and 1080i HDTV clips also shine; with my Hitachi PJ-TX100 1280 x 720-resolution projector, natural details and colour rendition were simply sublime. But there are some caveats. Firstly, digital audio passthrough is not, unlike the ShowCenter, supported.
In other words, it's incompatible with 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks from ripped DVDs (which will play if the VOB files are renamed to MPG). Indeed, such files are eerily silent; the MG3001-p will only handle stereo audio. There are also anomalies with the 720p/1080i video outputs. The output is 50Hz, even with standard-def 60Hz material, and as a result 60Hz video, whether standard or hi-def, is juddery. The only get-around is to switch to one of the standard-def output modes, and then the output matches the refresh rate.
Do this, though, and the benefits of upscaling 480p material to hi-def are lost - and you're forced to choose between high resolution/lots of judder or standard resolution/less judder when playing HD material! Acer should also know that the MG3001-p's search modes also need attention. 'Reviewing' (reverse-searching) doesn't work with MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 - all you get is a 'prohibited' on-screen graphic. Cueing (i.e. forward-searching) does work, but only at 2x (even if 4x/8x is selected).
Sometimes, you can't get out of the cue mode and so you have to exit playback and start again. A useful get-around is a percentage-based skip' function (which uses the the left/right arrow keys). This works much better, and in both directions to boot! Note that photos are only displayed in standarddef, even when the device is working in its 720p or 1080i mode. Another annoyance is that you can't turn off the front-panel fluorescent display, the scrolling glow of which can be quite distracting in a dark media room.
There's quite a lot to like about the MG3001-p, but it's spoilt by some bugs and idiosyncracies. And until these are sorted out, Pinnacle's ShowCenter 200 will remain our media gateway of choice. Martin Pipe