Design and build: looks good but you get lost in the menus!
This centre looks a bit like a DVD or Blu-ray player, but without the optical drive. Simple and sober, the casing allies good quality plastics and metals. Inside, there's a fan for the build up of hot air. The fanspeed varies depending on temperature but is always quiet. From the point of view of power consumption, we can confirm it uses 16W when playing and 0.4W on standby.
The remote is big but it handles fine. Your fingers go to the main buttons easily. We like the fact that it's universal and allows you to pilot three additional devices.
The interface has nice graphics. You can even change its appearance and download different display patterns from community sites. Unfortunately, though navigation is rapid, you do tend to get lost in the menu options. Several features are missing or badly handled: you can't go to a precise point in the video (goto), it can take up to 30 seconds to change audio track, there's no chapter support and so on...
The worst thing about the centre however is how Netgear has chosen to set it up like a multimedia library. All your files are indexed and catalogued. You can for example disply the albums of a given musician or search for films in alphabetical order.
Unfortunately you have to index the files manually (it can only be automated at specific predefined times, given in hours!). As a result, if you add a file to the hard drive or if you link up a USB key, you have to go into the advanced menus and launch a new index to be able to view and play the files; this is very labour intensive and constricting!
However we did like the possibility of displaying music album artwork. You can create a video jukebox for your films with the help of an application that comes with the media centre. The results don't however stand up to what you get on the PopcornHour or Dvico's Tvix series.
Compatibility: good and bad news
An old generation Sigma Designs chip (SMP8635) handles the multimedia decoding and gives pretty wide compatibility with various video codecs: you can play HD films easily and most standard containers are recognised (MKV, AVI, MP4, MOV...). In spite of this, some of our test films wouldn't play and we have no logical explanation for this.
Subtitling is limited as well, support only when in MKVs or DVD backup files. On the DVD backups they can be read in ISO or RIP. Menus, audio files and subtitling is recognised. Only RIP format Blu-ray backups can however be read. You have to start film playback manually by going to find the M2TS file that contains the main video. You then lose the menu and subtitling alike.
The EVA 9150 doesn't do much better in terms of audio compatibility and is behind the competition. It can't play M4As which stops you from listening to anything you've bought on iTunes. Nor can it play the Ogg Vorbis files so appreciated by audiophiles.
The lack of DTS decoder is really a drawback. You need an external decoder (amplifier) to read such tracks (bitstream). Those of you who use your TV speakers won't have sound at all.
Lastly, while it can process high resolution photos, you have to have plenty of patience when you want to move from one shot to another: 7 seconds on average.
Connectivity: Wi-Fi and plenty of slowdowns
There are plenty of connectors at the back with HDMI, component, composite, scart, optical and coaxial. There are two USB hosts (one of which is at the front) which allow you to link up USB keys and multimedia hard drives. Networking is via the Ethernet 100 Mbps socket and built-in Wi-Fi N.
Unfortunately, this is where the real drawbacks with this centre show themselves. USB speeds never exceed 2.7 MB/s as against 15 MBs on the best models. This means you don't get playback for videos with a bitrate that's higher that 34 Mbps, which is often the case on HD 1080p videos encapsulated in MKVs. The networking isn't much better, limited to 3.5 MB/s for both Wi-Fi and Ethernet.