Quite often I am asked what media player I recommend. Often, the question usually turns in to “Would you recommend the PCH C-200 or the Dune Base/Prime?”. Up until now I have been unable to answer this question as I have never used a Dune Base/Prime. Well, thanks to Mike @ Duneplayer.com for providing me with a review unit, I have been able to spend some time with the Dune Prime. I have been following the Dune on AVSForum for some time now, and there seems to be almost a universal praise of the Dune (which when it comes to similar media players is rare), so the question I was hoping to answer when I received the Dune Prime is does it live up to the hype? Now that I have spent nearly 3 weeks with the Dune BD Prime, lets take a closer look at what it brings to the table.
There are two models currently, the Dune HD Base 3.0 and the Dune BD Prime 3.0. The Base retails for USD 349.99 and the Prime retails for USD 449.99. The only difference between the Base and the Prime is that the Prime comes with an internal BluRay drive, whereas the Base just comes with an option to add an internal 3.5″ hard disk drive. Both players come with three USB 2.0 ports (one front, two back), eSATA port, Ethernet 100/1000(*) Mbit/s, HDMI 1.3, S/PDIF (optical and coaxial), 7.1 analog audio, 2.0 analog audio, component video, composite video.
- SATA HDD compartment for fast and easy HDD exchange (Dune Base)
- Playback of retail Blu-ray and DVD discs (Dune Prime)
- Playback of full Blu-ray structures from HDD and network (with Blu-ray menu, BD-J, BonusView, BD-Live)
- Playback of video, music, photos from any media source (HDD, PC, NAS, etc)
- Optical disc formats (when using an external optical drive): data discs (CD/DVD/BD) (MP3, JPEG, etc), Audio CD (PCM/DTS), DVD-Video (retail and user-authored discs), Blu-ray (user-authored discs)
- Support for modern video file formats (MKV, H.264, VC1, etc) with very high bitrate (up to 50+ Mbit/s)
- Dimensions: 420 mm (width) x 262 mm (depth) x 50 mm (height)
- Processor: Sigma Designs 8643
- Memory: RAM 512 MB, system Flash: 128 MB, expandable with a HDD partition or USB flash drive (2GB recommended)
- Media sources: built-in Blu-ray drive (Prime), internal HDD (SATA 3.5″) (Base), internal HDD (SATA 2.5″) (Prime), external HDD (eSATA, USB), external optical drive (eSATA, USB), USB devices (USB fl ash drive, USB card reader, etc), PC and NAS in local network (SMB, NFS, UPnP, HTTP)
- Video codecs: MPEG2, MPEG4, DivX, XVID, WMV9, VC1, H.264
- Video file formats: MKV, MPEG-TS, MPEG-PS, M2TS, VOB, AVI, MOV, MP4, QT, ASF, WMV, Blu-Ray-ISO, BDMV, DVD-ISO, VIDEO_TS
- Video output modes: wide range of supported modes and resolutions, including 23.976p, 24p, PAL, NTSC
- Audio codecs: AC3 (Dolby Digital), DTS, MPEG, AAC, LPCM, WMA, WMAPro, EAC3 (Dolby Digital Plus), Dolby True HD, DTS HD High Resolution
- Audio, DTS HD Master Audio, FLAC, multichannel FLAC
- Audio file formats: MP3, MPA, M4A, WMA, FLAC, WAV, DTS-WAV, DTS, AC3, AAC
- Pass-through and decoding of HD audio formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio
- Picture file formats: JPEG, PNG, BMP, GIF
- Subtitle formats: SRT, SUB, text/SSA/ASS (MKV), VobSub (MP4), PGS (full Blu-ray mode)
- Playlist fi le formats: M3U, PLS
- Filesystems: FAT16/FAT32 (read-write), EXT2/EXT3 (read-write), NTFS (readonly)
- Upscaling: high-quality upscaling and deinterlacing of DVD and other SD content to HD resolution (up to 1080p)
- Access to network: browser of network shares (SMB, UPnP), user-defined shortcuts to network shares (SMB, NFS), links to HTTP media streams
- NAS function: SMB and FTP access from network to the player’s attached storage devices
- IPTV: direct playback and recording of multicast IPTV streams (raw-UDP and RTP-over-UDP, SD and HD)
- Internet radio: HTTP/MP3
- Powerful file manager (copy, move, delete, rename, etc), built-in FTP and SMB file server (NAS function)
- Photo viewer: slide-show function, picture transition eff ects, picture rotation
- Playlists: music/photos/video, user-defined and automatically generated playlists, repeat and shuffle
- FullHD-quality, fast, convenient, customizable interface (with covert-art and icon browsing support)
The Dune BD Prime 3.0 came with the Dune BD Prime 3.0 (obviously), HDMI cable, IR Remote w/ 2 batteries, and component cables. You can see from the front of the player the Dune BD Prime looks like a Blu Ray player. The BluRay Rom drive is located in the center of the player. To the left of the ROM drive is a small lcd screen and the power button. To the right of the ROM drive are a few player related buttons (such as play, pause, etc…)
From the rear you can see an assortment of inputs/outputs including HDMI 1.3, Ethernet, 7.1 analog audio, and eSATA to name a few
One thing I think is necessary is to have a USB port at the front of the player. Some people complain that this takes away from the aesthetics of the player so Dune has done a nice job of tucking to the side the USB port. (Speaking of aesthetics I would get rid of “Blu-Ray Disc And Network Media Player” logo on the front of the player as I find it looks a little amateurish and takes away from the upscale look of the player).
Along the sides of the case and on the top cover are grills to allow for airflow. As we all know heat rises, so having a place for the air to escape is important.
Here you can get a sense of the dimensions of the Dune BD Prime versus the Popcorn Hour C-200. You can see that the Dune BD Prime is about half the height of the PCH C-200 and has more of a finished look.
Opening up the case you can see a very clean layout. The player is fanless which is very important to ensure a noise free environment.
Overall the Dune BD Prime is a solidly built machine. It is an expensive player, but you definitely feel like you are getting your moneys worth and not some hardware thrown into a cheap plastic case. At no point did I notice any sort of heating issues
When you first turn on the Dune you are greeted with the Home page. It is a fairly simple page. I actually like this home page over the C-200 home page simply because there is actually a text description next to each icon. With the PCH C-200 you just get icons so it is not entirely clear what each icon represents (especially since my wife uses the players in my house just as much as I do). You can add shortcuts to other Apps (such as a movie jukebox) which is a nice feature
The setup page is is clearly laid out, and really an area that should not need to be frequently visited.
Navigating through files is nothing special, with a simple Windows Explorer type experience.
Adding shortcuts to the Home screen is very easy. By hitting the popup menu button on the remote should bring up a popup menu. Simply select “New Network Folder” and enter in the network path details (either smb or nfs).
Once done you can see what my Home screen looks like with various shortcuts
Overall I like the clean layout of the UI. However, and I have said this about almost every player I have reviewed, I challenge Dune to step it up a notch and do something to really differentiate the Dune Players UI from the rest of the pack. Having a simple Windows Explorer type navigation is unacceptable, and although very useful, users should not have to rely on 3rd party apps to bring a more gratifying experience.
Also, adding some of the shortcuts such as Zappiti and My Movies shown above require having system storage available. I plugged in a USB thumb drive to the Dune and was able to use as system storage without issue.
The remote for the Dune Prime is an IR remote, which means line of sight is required. For the most part I found the remote to perform well. As long as I had line of sight all the remote commands got picked up and I wasn’t constantly pressing the same button 3 times to get a response. Navigating around the Dune Prime was quick, which is what I expected based on my experience with the PCH C-200 using the similar Sigma chip.
The Dune BD Prime is listed as Gigabyte but it is not recommended to use this. This is the same issue that plagues the PCH C-200, however unless you are transferring files to/from the Dune over the network 10/100 is plenty fine for streaming media. I only had a chance to test out smb performance (you can see how I set up here), and not once did I have issues playing back all my high bitrate content. Poor network performance can definitely dampen a users experience, but with the Dune I don’t expect this to be an issue.
As expected this is probably the area that most people care about. If a player cannot play back your content, then any other bells and whistles become moot. I have a variety of files I like to use when testing media players, and I am happy to report that the Dune BD Prime passed with near flying colors. (I tested with both the stable 1555 firmware and the beta 1032 firmware, all results below assumed to apply to both firmwares unless stated otherwise (it shoudl also be noted that the beta 1032 firmware is available to the public). Here is a description of what I tested and the results:
- mkv w/ chapters – chapters are not supported currently (FAIL)
- mkv w/ 480p internal IDX/SUB subtitles (PASS for beta 1032 firmware, FAIL for stable 1555 firmware)
- mkv w/ 1080p internal IDX/SUB subtitles (FAIL)
- mkv w/ internal PGS subtitles (PASS for beta 1032 firmware, FAIL for stable 1555 firmware)
- mkv with DTS(MA) and/or TrueHD Audio Track – bitstreamed without issue (PASS)
- (m2)ts with DTS(MA) and/or TrueHD Audio Track – bitstreamed without issue (PASS)
- mkv w/ VC-1 encoded video – played without issue (PASS)
- BluRay ISO (main movie only) – played with forced subs, chapter support, and bitstreamed HD Audio (PASS)
- BluRay Folder (entire disc) – played with full menus (PASS)
- DVD ISO and/or Folder Structure – played with full menus (PASS)
- 1080p quicktime (.mov) trailer – played without issue (PASS)
- avi/mpeg clips – played without issue (PASS)
The one item that I really hope Dune addresses ASAP is mkv chapter support, as this is a pretty basic feature that I see supported on many players currently in the market. Adding support for 1080p IDX/SUB subtitles would be nice but in the long run probably not important now that PGS subtitle support has been added. Otherwise the Dune played like a champ, with the only hiccup I encountered was due to one of the drives on my WHS crashing (yikes!).
Blu Ray ROM Playback:
I was real curious to see how the Dune BD Prime performed as a BluRay player since using the PCH C-200 as a BluRay player had been hit or miss for me. I tested 3 different BluRays (Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, Gran Torino, and Avatar). Harry Potter and Gran Torino played without issue. However, I did encounter issues with Avatar which I expected as the protection on this disc seems to launch little blue people into your player. When the disc first loads I had to hit the Popup Menu button repeatedly to get to the main movie menu, otherwise the disc would just hang. I had experienced the same problem with Avatar on my C-200 (which is how I knew to hit the menu button). As far as noise the ROM drive was relatively quiet, and I found it very quick to load the disc. With the PCH C-200 you had to install your own BluRay ROM drive, but it turns out that some drives were compatible and some weren’t. Also, since I used a BluRay ROM drive I had installed previously in my PC, the drive was extremely loud in the PCH C-200 and would be quite annoying if I actually watched discs frequently. Having the BluRay ROM drive already included in the Dune BD Prime I found to be a big step up and made me feel like I had a real BluRay player and not a hacked together device.
There is a web browser (which I honestly did not find very useful) and Internet Radio, but not much else. I personally find online content overrated but I understand this is important to other people, so I would hope down the road Dune will spend more time trying to develop this area. For the U.S market Netflix seems to be the most desired feature, and with more devices coming out that are online content friendly (Popbox, Boxee Box, etc…) this is definitely an area Dune should not ignore for too long. I have PlayOn but did not get a chance to test out on the Dune, mainly due to the previously mentioned hard drive crash on my WHS when I was planning on testing out PlayOn.
3rd Party Jukeboxes:
There are several 3rd party jukeboxes available that can help enhance the user experience. I decided to take a look at MyMovies and Zappiti, and at some point also look at yaDIS and Dune Explorer 2. Right now Zappiti is my Jukebox of choice as it supports TV shows and I feel the movie detail screen has a more polished look. I hope to have a Zappiti writeup posted in the coming days. For now see below for some screenshots of both Zappiti and MyMovies.
So lets go back to the question I started this review off with, does the Dune Prime live up to the hype? Well, the short answer is yes, most definitely. From a hardware standpoint it is very well constructed, fanless, and quiet. The Dune BD Prime is the first media player that I received where when I first plugged it in it just worked, plain and simple. The Dune BD Prime played back all my content without issue, and the only issue I ran in to was lack of mkv chapter support, something that I believe should be an easy fix in a future firmware update. I would like to see a little more attention put into taking the stock UI to the next level, not only for videos but also music and pictures. As well, additional focus on bringing in online content would be a positive.
The biggest challenge though that the Dune players face is price. There are going to be potential customers who won’t even consider the Dune simply because it is 2-3 x the price of most other media players on the market. To remain competitive and really spread the Dune brand I believe they need to come up with a sub USD 200 player, a “Dune Lite”, to compliment their premium players. Simply by removing the Blu Ray menus (licensing cost) and some of the inputs/outputs I believe they should have no problem achieving this.
Everyone who follows my posts knows I am an HTPC guy. Most likely I will always be an HTPC guy to some extent as I am too much of a geek to miss out on all the tweaking and trying out different software (and I still get enjoyment from building a PC). However, while testing the Dune I had it set up in my bedroom right alongside my HTPC, and I found myself actually bypassing the HTPC and using the Dune! The HTPC still offers a better experience when it comes to the UI and there is more flexibility you can use, but the Dune just works and it was simple (and to be honest I could use a little simplicity in my life these days!)
If you are in the market for a media player ready to go out of the box and are willing to pay a little extra, I would highly recommend the Dune BD Prime or HD Base. This is probably the first media player that I have tested where I can actually recommend without stating some sort of caveat which is nice! There are several online retailers that offer the Dune Players, but from my conversations with Mike at Duneplayer.com, the many positive experiences I read about from other Duneplayer.com customers, and Duneplayer.com’s Employee involvement on AVSForum, I would definitely recommend giving Duneplayer.com a look at.