HD is finally being delivered into people's homes, but in an uneven way. Many have invested in screens that can display 720p video natively, and are capable of picture quality that will knock your socks off. But high-def source material is still thin on the ground, and users may be twiddling their thumbs wondering where to go next. Sky is beginning to deliver the HD version of its Sky set-top box, but for most people the reality will be a high resolution screen driven by a DVD player outputting standard-def 480p or 576p.
PixelMagic's HD MediaBox is an innovative and flexible solution to this dilemma. It is a high-definition hardware media player with its own scaler/ deinterlacer, that, when combined with a hard disk drive, can store and play video or DVD content, standard- and high-definition video files, digital images and digital music.
It can be used as an intermediary between your existing video sources and your screen, transparently up- or downscaling and deinterlacing as required - eg 1080i to match your 720p display, independently of the input signal, or 720p from your DVD collection enhanced by the magic of the internal scaler/deinterlacer.
In its basic form the Linux-based MediaBox has no storage, but here it was fi tted with an internal 80GB 5400rpm Seagate IDE hard disk drive. It will support disk capacities of up to 750GB, and it can be used with two more external disks, for a combined maximum of 1.75 terabytes of data.
The MediaBox will not be a lot of use without a hard disk, so why isn't one included as standard? Perhaps because a fully-confi gured MediaBox could be regarded as an invitation to store copyright material - strictly verboten, even for personal use. But the MB100 can also handle video (and audio) fi les on your computer, which may or may not be HD, via a USB2 link.
It can also act as a network player - the device uses the SMB protocol and will detect shared folders on your (Windows XP) PC. But the bandwidth is restricted to under 14Mbps, rendering it useless for most HD material. This should be stored 'locally' on the MediaBox's HDD.
Connected via USB, the MediaBox appears as one of the computer's own drives, with a WYSIWYG interface, supporting drag-and-drop fi le handling.
But the MB100's main raison d'être is to act as a video source, whether from SD material upscaled and deinterlaced for the purpose, or native HD. Any video source can be mapped to a 1080p or SXGA (1280 x 1024) screen using HDMI, which simultaneously handles data reduced audio (Dolby Digital or DTS for example). The player also has VGA and component video connections.
Compatible video formats include MPEG1/2/4, WMV9, DivX and XviD plus .iso and .vob DVD fi les, and fi rmware can be updated, adding to the unit's functionality or compatibility as the needs arise. However, there are plans to speed up the network speed to HD levels.
Were you too, ahem, 'rip' DVDs to the MediaBox's HDD, using a program like DVD Decrypter, you would retain all the features of the original disc, including chapter access and navigation. Access to the recordings from a simple menu is rapid and trouble-free, and the internal scaler works well, delivering rich, saturated colour and good black level, while motion artefacts are well handled. And no fi ngermarks or scratches...
The killer ap, though, is its handling of HD, which for this purpose was via an HDMI link to an InFocus IN76 720p projector. This showcased the MB100's capabilities superbly, well enough to distinguish clearly three different HDMI cable types. The only full 1080p HD material available was of travelogue type material of Alpine scenes and the like, but despite the lack of narrative interest, picture quality was simply magnetic. Yes there were some motion artefacts that the MB100 couldn't straighten out (unsurprisingly it was much jerkier using scaled down 1080i/p material) but the video was a revelation.
It's not just that the pictures were sharper, though they were, unmistakably so. Less expected was that colour reproduction was more subtle and varied, as demonstrated by clips of outdoor scenery and fl ybys of snow-capped mountains, which displayed a wealth of subtle graduations. The combination was also capable of superb shadow detail, and impressive black levels. And all this at 720p. I can only dream of what might be possible with a 1080p display.
The HD MediaBox is a simple to use and flexible video and audio server. It has just about every interface under the sun, is largely self-configuring and doesn't cost the earth. Currently this puts it among the hottest units of its type. Buy one tomorrow - no, today! Alvin Gold