Hardware: excellent finishThis media centre is compact and well finished but it's not designed to be loaded with an internal hard drive. To play files you have to hook up a USB or eSATA peripheral, or use the SDHC card reader or play content over a network. As there's no fan, the NeoTV 550 is perfectly quiet when in use. However, the decoder chip isn't fitted with an aluminium radiator to keep it cool so you're best off not leaving the NeoTV 550 in a confined space such as an enclosed bookshelf or cabinet to help prevent overheating.
The NeoTV 550 comes with an excellent remote control. It's nice to hold and the buttons are phosphorescent to help you find your way around in the dark. As practical as that may be though, we'd still rather see properly backlit buttons like in PopcornHour media centres.
Navigation is based on a kind of catalogue or index of files. Each data storage device is scanned by the media centre so it's possible to browse content according to different 'Categories' (media type, artist, year etc.)—more on that below.
Music, photos and videos: a look at the interfaceMusic: first of all, you'd better make sure all your audio files are correctly named an tagged, as if you haven't entered all the tags the catalogue system won't work properly.
Once the device has scanned all the audio files on the peripheral in question, the NeoTV allows you to browse or search for music by artist, year, genre or album. However, you can always browse your music as folders of files if you prefer.
Track information is obviously displayed for MP3, M4A and FLAC files. Album covers are perfectly well supported whether they're integrated into the files themselves or contained separately in the folder as a 'cover.jpg' file.
Album covers can be used to browse and select music in two different ways. The first is a kind of 'wall' of album covers displayed on one screen, and the second is a kind of 'coverflow' system that scrolls through album covers smoothly, using miniatures created when the NeoTV 550 scans your content. That's a nice feature.
Playlists are also catalogued and placed in a separate category alongside playlists created in the NeoTV 550 itself. During playback, you can press the 'Popup Menu' button to view upcoming tracks and skip tracks easily.
Photos: here too, the device uses a kind of catalogue system with categories including decade year, month and file type. Exifs data is well handled too as it's even possible to filter the photos on display in relation to the camera used to take the picture.
As with music files, you can view photo thumbnails as a page or a scrolling 'coverflow'. Each photo has its own thumbnail but they take an age to be generated by the media centre. For example, it takes thirty seconds for it to display thumbnails of around forty photos. What's more annoying is that there's no way of telling the machine to create all the thumbnails in one go, you have to go into each folder individually for the thumbnails to be created.
However, the good news is that once the thumbnails have been generated they don't disappear each time you turn the device on or off. In other words, when you go back into a folder you've already visited, the previously-generated thumbnails are displayed pretty much instantly. Finally, you can start viewing full-screen photos without having to wait for the NeoTV 550 to generate the thumbnails.
The display system is pretty smart as a full-screen version of the thumbnail is displayed while the media centre is loading up the full-resolution photo (which takes around two seconds, on average). There are zoom and rotation functions, both of which work nice and quickly.
Video: this is where the Netgear media centre stalls a little. For the moment, the manufacturer doesn't offer any means of retrieving information about films or series automatically from the Internet. However, you can still build a video jukebox.
Here, you don't get the two display options seen in the music and photo interfaces. You have to find film posters/DVD covers yourself and then manually rename them with the same name as the video file. It is, however, possible to get round that by using a third-party program such as Tvixie (configured for WDTV) or MyMovies to automatically retrieve DVD covers for you.
You have to seek out plot summaries yourself too, but a little program supplied with the media centre is on hand to help you create .tag files containing information such as the plot summary, cast list, director, etc. although you do have to enter all of that manually for each film. It's a bit of an epic task, especially if you've got a big collection of movies.
The manufacturer is only too aware of this limitation and has promised to work on a solution. Netgear therefore envisages integrating a tool to retrieve all this information automatically (DVD covers, fan art and plot summaries) directly in the NeoTV 550, like the NMJ application (Networked Media Jukebox) seen in PopcornHour media centres or the kind of function seen in the WD TV Live Hub.
Overall: the file catalogue system requires indexing information and miniatures to be created. As there's no internal storage space, you have to choose somewhere you want to store these files, which means hooking up a USB drive, a memory card or a networked device. We recommend you use a USB flash drive or a memory card, as data transfer will be much quicker than with a networked solution.
Compatibility: a few bugsThe decoder chip is similar to that used in the 200 series of HDI Dune and Popcorn Hour media centres, but with added compatibility for macrovision. Technically speaking, the chip is therefore very powerful and ensures compatibility with a very wide range of file types.
In practice, we found that the NeoTV 500 felt like a product that still needs time to mature with a few tweaks and firmware updates, even if Netgear has been working on developing it for a while. It did crash a few times during our tests (not very often, admittedly) and some features are still lacking.
Audio enthusiasts will be disappointed to hear that the Ogg format isn't recognised at all. Plus, some HD videos (MPEG-4 AVC in the 5.x format to be precise) are full of glitches. Netgear is apparently working on a solution, though. Note that .vob files can only be played if they're placed in a folder—just press Play when hovering over the folder. Finally, the .mov files we tried playing systematically made the system crash.
Internal subtitles pose no problem at all, but not all external subtitles files are recognised (see face-off). Nevertheless, 1080p MKV/x264 videos are played up to a maximum bitrate of 60 Mbps, which means you'll be able to play even heavyweight files. Ripped Blu-ray discs (M2TS files) are supported up to 90 Mbps, which is well above the norm for BDs.
Full Blu-ray support and 3D SbS compatibilityFull support for copied Blu-ray and DVD discs is one of this product's real strong points. Discs ripped to ISO and RIP format are recognised perfectly and have all the original menus. Once playback is launched, you can then change the language or subtitles as required.
Better still, external DVD and Blu-ray players can be hooked up to the NeoTV 550 via the USB or eSATA connection to access content on shop-bought discs! It might not be quite as sleek a system as what's on offer in the HDI Dune HD Max or PopcornHour C-200, but it's a good base for Netgear to build on in the future. You'll also need a USB flash drive or an SD memory card to access bonus content such as BD Live.
Shop-bought 3D Blu-ray discs aren't compatible with the NeoTV 550 as the decoder chip doesn't support MPEG-4 MVC. However, copied 3D Blu-rays in a 3D MKV side-by-side container (video 3840 x 1080 pixels or 1920 x 2160 pixels) are perfectly compatible. That means it's possible to watch 3D content on a 3D-compatible TV or projector. Software such as DVDfab can be used to convert a 3D Blu-ray into a 3D MKV file.
Dolby Digital and DTS are supported and can be downmixed to stereo via an HDMI connection to your TV speakers. Similarly, a raw audio signal can be bitstreamed via the optical output or HDMI connection so that an external amplifier can work its magic. Fans of HD audio will be pleased to hear that DTS HD MA/HR as well as Dolby TrueHD can also be carried over the HDMI connection.
Connections: Ethernet, eSATA and SDHCConnections at the rear are standard stuff with HDMI 1.3, component, composite and optical ports. There are two USB Host ports (one at the front) for hooking up USB flash drives, external hard drives or BD/DVD players. There's also an SDHC (not SDXC) card slot on the front and an eSATA port at the back.
Networking is covered by a 100 Mbps Ethernet socket and Wi-Fi is an optional extra available via a USB adaptor (list of compatible adaptors available on manufacturer's website). Files can be copied in all possible directions: from USB to network, from eSATA to USB etc.
Unfortunately, copying files seems to take an age. Over a network, data transfer speeds are no faster than 1.6 MBps! Copying files from the memory card of an HD camcorder to an NAS, for example, would take all night. It's not much better over the USB port either with data transfer speeds of just 4.7 MBps.
Thankfully, that's not the case for playback since, over the network, 1080p MKV/x264 videos play fine up to 60 Mbps and via the USB port you're fine up to 50 Mbps. That means you won't have to cut up big files and you shouldn't have any trouble with playback.
Our tests were carried out using an eSATA external hard drive.