Hardware: Blu-ray, screen and hard drive rackAlthough the old generation (BD Prime 3.0) had a pretty average finish, you have to say that HDI has rectified matters with the HD Max. The casing allies thick rugged matte metal with a nice quality plastic façade in imitation brushed aluminium.
The front is broken down into three bits. On the left there's the built-in Blu-ray player. Very quiet during film playback, it is also very rapid for menu loadup of BRs and DVDs, with just 30 to 40 seconds depending on complexity.
You'll be able to play shop-bought DVDs and HD disks no prob. You'll need a USB key however for some Blu-rays and BD Live features. Unfortunately, in spite of what you'll pay for this device, this isn't supplied nor very easy to install.
In the middle of the façade, the single line VFD display is nice and bright. While it does allow you to browse the menus when the TV is off, it isn't detailed enough - you only get a single line displayed. We prefer the LCD screen on the PopcornHour C-200.
Next, on the right hand side, you get the hard drive rack. This is a practical system requiring no tools or screws. Just take your 3.5-inch drive and slide it in, close it and all's hunky dory. Nice. We also like the rubber mounting that limits vibrations.
Note, the remote is the same as on the previous generation. With its average finish, it looks too low end for this kind of product. We would have at least liked to see backlighting for the buttons.
Another negative: the fan. On the side of the media centre, it starts up automatically as soon as the hard drive is detected. And it's really noisy! You can console yourself with the fact that it gives off a muffled sound and the ear gets used to it more quickly. You can however turn it off if you want but you'll then have to make sure that you check to see how hot the hard drive is getting.
There are two standby modes: one veritable standby that allows you to turn the machine back on in 1 second and one that turns it off completely. In the first, the media centre consumes 15W and, most importantly, the fan continues to work - watch out for your ears. In the second, it takes about 15 seconds to turn the media centre back on but energy consumption drops to 0.6W and the fan is cut.
An austere but customizable interfaceWhen you first look at it, the navigation interface seems pretty basic. There are big icons for the various features but the graphics is pretty unattractive. Certain nice options are missing (see inset), but you can easily improve this when it comes to organisation of your videos.
The idea is to create a video jukebox, that's to say an interface which brings all your films and series together in the form of thumbnails with individual files giving a whole host of info (synopsis, actors, cover, fan art and so on).
For such a system, you need to refer to the user community. There, you'll find various programmes you can execute on a computer to create these various files easily (and automatically).
Several programmes are recommended including DuneX (MacOs) and Zappiti (Windows) but our preference is for YaDIS. It has many advantages. Firstly, even the least technical will manage with it as there are several levels of settings, going from basic to expert.
What's more, if it doesn't find the right info on a film or series, it's very easy to help the software correct this. Also, the graphics are very well done. Now the application just needs to be able to do the same with music albums and photos.
Display of series in YaDIS
Compatibility: very good, but a little weakness for external subtitlesThe decoding chip used is very good and you can see this straight away when you look down the list of compatible files. No jumpiness on HD videos, even very weighty ones. The same goes for DTS and Dolby Digital which can either be decoded (PCM) or sent via bitstream to an external amp. Note that there are no issues with DTS HD MA and Dolby TrueHD support.
There are also several other strengths to note. Firstly, we liked being able to synch up sound and image disparity so easily (press on button A). Next, the media centre automatically detects the image throughput of the video and adapts the display (24p, 23, 976 and so on). Lastly, the experts amongst you will even be able to change the dematrixing or colour space.
One or two disappointments all the same when it comes to handling of subtitles. Although there's no problem when they're integrated into the video container, things aren't as good when they are external. SRTs are for example given without tags and as a single track, with multitrack ignored. It's also a shame that there's no support for MKV chapters.
Connectivity: SDHC, RCA 7.1 and Ethernet GigabitConnectivity is extremely good here. First of all, you get all the standard HDMI 1.3, composite, S-Video, component, optical and coaxial outs. More unusually, you also get 7.1 analogue outs. Great for those who want to link up their amp to the speakers and use the Dune HD Max to decode the sound.
Of course the USB Host sockets (one of which is at the front) allow you to link up external peripherals. And there's even an SDHC card reader.
Networking is via an Ethernet Gigabit connector. Note however, support for is "experimental" It's not very stable nor does it give particularly good performance and it's best to use the 100 Mbps mode, which is a good deal better than anything you get on the competition.
Splitting hairs a bit, you could say that the streaming isn't as good as it could be. While the previous model could stream 90 Mbps MKV/H.264 videos, here you have to "make do" with 60 Mbps. The same goes for M2TS. No need to make too much out of this however as this type of file is far from common and the Dune HD max is still one of the leaders here.
Lastly, there's space at the back for plugging in future optional modules. One of these we already know about: a full HD digital module. For the time being, the only solution for adding digital to the centre is with a USB dongle that is also available as an extra. This gives a basic service limited to digital channels, which you can also record.