What is the “perfect” digital media player?

by Damian on August 30, 2009 · 19 comments

in News

RiddlerEver since the dawn of man there has been one question that has challenged even the greatest of thinkers. It has nothing to do with the big bang theory or the meaning of life. Instead, the question revolves around digital media players, or more importantly, when will humanity get a media player to rule them all? What form will this media player take? Will it be a dedicated box, will it be integrated with a set top box, built directly in to a TV, or even possibly a chip embedded in every humans brain? OK, maybe I am exaggerating just a little, but odds are if you are reading this blog you have been faced with the question of what digital media player to get, spending countless hours and possibly sleepless nights researching, trying to find the perfect player. This got me thinking, what constitutes the perfect digital media player? Here are some thougts that came to mind:

  • Small form factor and footprint (energy efficient/quiet)
  • You name the codec/file format, it plays it (mkv, h.264, multi channel flac, 1080p, HD Audio, etc…)
  • HD Audio downmix
  • A NAS or Home Server is all that is needed, a stand alone PC is not required to unlock features or maintenance (such as accessing WMC in the Xbox 360)
  • WHS integration (using WHS as a tv tuner farm for the media player(s) to access, etc…)
  • An eye-popping stock UI. This includes integration of fanart and metadata in a jukebox type format. Having a functional yet boring UI is no longer acceptable and I don’t want to rely on a 3rd party app
  • RF Remote or ability to add IR Receiver so the player can be hidden from view
  • Parental controls
  • Room for an internal HDD (only important if I am looking for a player to be portable for traveling and family trips)
  • Online content, Online content, Online content…
  • Fast, delay free UI navigation
  • Photos/Music section not just an after thought
  • Excellent support forum/customer support
  • And of course, affordable

There are a handful of players that I can check off most of my requirements, but I have yet to find one that does it all, so I mainly rely on HTPCs. However, as digital media collections continue to evolve in households it is not practical to have an HTPC in every room which is why I am always keeping an eye out for the latest digital media players that promise to deliver the goods. The good news is that there appears to be increased competition in this field (in both digital media players and HTPCs) which is only good for consumers. The bad news is that some companies may try to expedite the release of their product to stay ahead of the competition, which can lead to consumers buying products that have not been properly tested or whose advertised specs turn out to be nothing more than promises.

So here is your chance to voice your opinion, what would you like to see in the perfect media player? Or will this conversation be moot in a matter of years as dedicated media players go the way of the dinosaur?

As a bonus question riddle me this, what would a chair look like if our knees were on backwards (like an ostrich)???

Article by

Hi, my name is Damian, and I'm tech gadget addict! Although I always had some interest in technology, it wasn't until I got my EX470 and more importantly found Mediasmartserver.net, that my interest became an addiction. My goal, aside from world domination and to see the Mets/Broncos win another championship, is to set up the perfect digital home where all my media is available at the click of a button. When I am not writing for Mediasmartserver.net you can find me over at my blog at http://www.adigitalhomeblog.com or follow me on twitter


Matt August 31, 2009 at 10:48 am

I have too spent many a sleepless night looking at my options and sadly, nothing quite hits the spot. I have considered many platforms but they all come back wanting in some way. Whether it be WHS integration, or interface, or HD audio/video capability … there’s always something.

The closest I have seen is the Networked Media Tank (NMT) Popcorn Hour series. I have yet to buy one, but they seem to put the highest of the priorities on top; which is nice to see every once in a while from the manufacturer.

Though it isn’t perfect and I have some hesitation that the interface is going to be really clunky till I get it ‘just right’ using third party coding projects. I also would really hate to run yet another media serving program on my WHS. I think the 5-10 I have is already plenty. It also might be picky and make me rework my music/video/picture collections … oh man, what a headache.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at. I would appreciate others chiming in to see what else has been tried.


Damian August 31, 2009 at 10:54 am

Thanks for the response Matt. That was part of the reason for this post, to get people talking about what they have experienced so far and what they are looking for, since it sounds like we are all in the same boat.

I have an Xbox360, PS3, SageTV HD200, and PCH A-110, and all of them leave something to be desired (the reason why I built two HTPCs which are the primary players for my media). I should hopefully have the Popcornhour C-200 in the coming weeks, so I can test out against the A-110 as well as other players and will do a write up here.

Zap Branighan August 31, 2009 at 3:21 pm

I have a Xbox360, eGreat 34a (PCH A-110 clone), and a HTPC. For my main viewing I use the HTPC. It was a pain in the ass to set up but does everything I pretty much want.

For bedroom viewing I use the eGreat. I used to use the Xbox 360 but since it doesn’t play MKV without a lot of hacking, it doesn’t get used very often.

The SageTV HD200 would have been a great solution if I used SageTV but since I use MCE, the HD200 is really a more expensive eGreat. It would be nice to get a Media Center Extender which could handle all the video files the eGreat can. But then I would also need a WHS with Media center capabilities.

Steve W. August 31, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Have you guys considered the HP X280N MediaSmart Connect? I’ve got one working in conjunction with a Mediasmart EX470. The interface is a clunky – I have to search through folders, but it supports many formats like MPEG 2, MPEG 4, H.264, WMV, DVR-MS, DivX, MP3, WMA, and AAC (unprotected) files.

Of your criteria, it doesn’t support mkv format nor fanart. But it supports many video formats, supports IR, HP Pocket Media Drive bay and dual USB ports for portable media.

However, I thought I read that HP was dropping production of these boxes somewhere, so they still look to be available, but ongoing support and upgrades may not be in it’s future.

Not perfect, but works well for my application.

DamianP August 31, 2009 at 6:44 pm

Yeah, I think HP is discontinuing the HP X280N. If you compare it against most other media players out there though it is pretty far behind as far as codec support (missing mkvs, Video_TS, etc….) as well as many other options. The key though is that it works for your setup, and I think that is what makes it so difficult to create the perfect media player, everyone has different needs.

Alex Kuretz September 1, 2009 at 9:11 am

I have the HP x280n “MediaSmart Connect”, and while it works pretty well at what it is supposed to do, it is far from my ideal media player. The main complaints I have are the slow UI and codec support (though it does do Video_TS, I’m pretty sure). It does work for my setup, so far, but I’ve been tempted by Klamath’s NVidia Ion media center PC.

Damian September 1, 2009 at 9:33 am

I could be wrong but I had read a few places that the x280n cannot play a single Vob, so you need to convert to MPEG for playback. If you have a Video_TS folder with multiple vobs you can only play each vob individually (defeats the purpose), or create one large vob to then convert to MPEG. I don’t own a x280n so I can’t confirm, just going off of what I had read online.

Alex Kuretz September 1, 2009 at 9:40 am

If you have a Video_TS folder with multiple vobs you can only play each vob individually (defeats the purpose), or create one large vob to then convert to MPEG.

This is true, I was doing this just the other night and was watching pieces of a movie in 10-15 minute chunks. :)

Rudy September 2, 2009 at 6:37 am

Hey guys,

I dont know if it has been officially announced, but i know DELL is coming out with a small form factor HTPC. Anyone else heard of this?


Damian September 2, 2009 at 6:44 am

Yeah, it is the Inspiron Zino HD. Unfortunately I have not heard much else with regards to specs, price, etc… but supposedly it will have desktop parts (i.e. vs laptop parts in some of the other small form factor pcs)


John Pombrio September 4, 2009 at 6:05 pm

I own the PS3, XBox360, the original Popcorn hour as well as a laptop and 3 or 4 computers. I took one of those computers and turned it into an HTPC and have completely stopped using the other boxes since. My worst problem with a regular computer (in my bedroom) is the heat, the noise, and the pretty blue fans I long ago put into it!
A small form factor computer with minimal cooling needed and a large hard drive would be just about perfect. The dual ATOM with an ION chipset is close, but is just a little too underpowered for my needs. The other issue is upgradability. Cannot go a swap out components when something better comes along like a full form HTPC.
One box solutions will always be behind the technology curve until the software and hardware can be upgraded.

KaKoRoT September 8, 2009 at 3:12 am

depending on your needs, I would say the old xbox 1 with xmbc is the best ever!! but i am seriously considering finding a smaller alternative, something like the apple tv thing but works like xbmc!

Jason September 8, 2009 at 2:01 pm

I’m about 90% sure I’m going to go with an ASRock Ion 330 BD. It’s small, quiet, and will do all that I need. I’ll be getting a WHS too so I can stream movies/music/photos from there. If I keep it for 4 years it will be cheaper than my cable providers STB and does mouch more.

Damian September 8, 2009 at 2:45 pm

@ Jason – the ASRock Ion 330 combined with WHS sounds like a great combination. I have absolutely no need for another HTPC in my house but am itching to see what this tiny bad boys can do!!! I may wait for the next round of Ion/Atoms which I think are due out by year end, but if anything that may just drop the price of the ASRock even further! Any idea what UI you would use with the ASROck (Linux w/ XBMC, W7 w/ WMC, etc…)?

Jason September 8, 2009 at 7:40 pm

I’ve had an MCE 2005 box since 04′. I have a new copy of Vista Ultimate so I’ll be going with that. Plus my wife knows MCE… so that helps me. I have thought about putting XBMC on a thumb drive…

I’m probably going to go with the Acer EasyStor WHS. Although my only beef is that it only handles 4TB…

Damian September 9, 2009 at 4:53 am

@ Jason – is it definite that the Acer only supports 4TB (I am wondering if with their advertising they were just multiplying the 1TB drive that comes with the acer for the 4 bays, as no reviewers specifically stated that 4TB was the max)? Also, you can use a USB enclosure or enable Esata port multiplication to get further storage.

Jason September 11, 2009 at 7:10 am

Well, listed max storage is 7TB, but from my understanding that includes added external.
I’m all about a clean, neat minimal cluttered setup. So I’d really rather have more internal capacity. Or, maybe I’m just too greedy? 4 TB is a lot. Besides, by the time I probably fill that there’ll be some cool new gadget out that I HAVE to have. Like 100 TB on a clear piece of plastic….. or I’ll have a Tron disc with everything on it. Yeah!

Matt September 14, 2009 at 9:32 am

I second the suggestion for XBMC. It can run on a variety of platforms: orignal Xbox, Linux, Windows, AppleTV, Mac. You can’t use an original Xbox for HD…hardware can’t handle it. XBMC has been around for a long time, before there were any real dedicated media player devices. I set up my first one almost 5 years ago.

It supports the most formats and allows so much customization of the GUI and the configuration that it borders on overwhelming. I have three of them currently configured to run my media using SMB and my HP Mediasmart server.

If there was a negative, it would be the setup and configuration is still at the “enthusiast” stage, especially if you want to put it on an original Xbox (softmod is required).

Damian September 14, 2009 at 12:18 pm

@ Matt – I completely agree with you. As a Windows user I would need to see XBMC support Hardware Acceleration first, otherwise using it on an Ion based system becomes useless. I just started documenting different XBMC skins on my blog a few weeks ago and it amazes me how there is always a mod to the mod to the original skin, it gets a little overwhelming. The members over on the XBMC forums are very talented, but for the average person to try and read through your head is going to spin.

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