Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
Apple TV may get all the press, but digital media geeks (especially those who don't like iTunes) have had their eye on the Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD since it was announced at CES 2007. The reason is simple--the Digital Entertainer HD plays more file types and has tons of features, plus it advertises its ability to play high-def 1080p video. The feature set is truly outstanding: it can stream YouTube videos, Flickr photos, live and recorded TV from a PC TV tuner, BitTorrent downloads, Internet radio, and even protected iTunes songs--yes, you read that correctly. In our testing, the Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD ($400 list, but widely available for $350) largely lived up to its billing: it delivers a currently unrivaled set of features, and offers a compelling, more enthusiast-oriented alternative to the Apple TV. On the downside, the lack of 802.11n wireless hurt the streaming performance of larger video files, and the interface certainly isn't as slick as Apple TV's. But the Netgear is arguably the most versatile digital media device we've seen to date, and with the addition of some firmware updates and fixes, there's no reason it can't get even better.
With dimensions of 1.5 inches high by 17 inches wide by 10 inches deep, the Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD looks like an average slimline DVD player--albeit without the disc tray. That's a contrast to competitors such as the recent Apple TV and the Mvix MX-760HD, which look more like PC-styled wireless routers. It looks big next to the Apple TV, but stacks perfectly in an A/V rack.
Aesthetically, the design is fairly bland but not unattractive. The front panel has only a single light for power, which unfortunately can't be dimmed or extinguished. The only button is the power button, and the rest of the front panel is blank, save for a USB 2.0 port, a headphone jack, and the infrared receptor. No front panel controls definitely give the Digital Entertainer HD a sleek look, but if you lose the remote you're out of luck (unless you opt for the browser interface--see below).
The included remote is pretty good, with mostly excellent button differentiation, which makes it easy to quickly find the page up/down rocker or the play button. We would have preferred if the stop button was in a slightly more prominent place, but it's more of a quibble than a knock. Overall, the remote design nicely complements the menu system, and it's pretty easy to get the logic of the Digital Entertainer after only a few minutes of playing with the device.
You need to install Netgear's software on your computer to get things working. After it's installed, you access and navigate the "software" in your Web browser. It looks a bit rough around the edges, but you won't really have to use it that frequently--if at all--once you've completed the initial setup. The browser interface essentially replicates the EVA8000's onscreen navigation--essentially, you also can use the software to remotely control the Digital Entertainer HD. It sounds redundant--and it is--but the ability to remotely control the EVA8000 from a laptop is useful if you're just streaming music to your stereo and don't want to turn the TV on.
The Digital Entertainer HD offers a solid jack pack, highlighted by HDMI and component video output, which are capable of displaying images in true high-definition. The rear panel also offers S-Video and composite video outputs for connecting to any old TV--something not offered by the Apple TV. For audio, you'll find both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs, plus a standard analog stereo output (red and white RCA jacks). Rounding things out are a 10/100 Mbps Ethernet jack, a USB 2.0 port, and a SCART port (for connecting to similarly equipped European TVs). The Netgear sports dual antennas for wireless networking reception, but it's limited to 802.11g--not the faster, state of the art 802.11n standard found on the Apple TV. On the front panel, there's also an additional USB 2.0 port and a headphone jack.
The USB 2.0 ports can be used for more than just thumb drives--we had no difficulty in playing music off iPods, which often give other A/V players trouble. We even hooked up a 160GB USB hard disk, and it worked perfectly. This is a nice option, as the USB 2.0 connection is fast enough for streaming video flawlessly and you can directly connect your media without worrying about the PC. Likewise, those who prefer PC-less network storage will be happy to know the Netgear should work with any type of networked attached storage, and it's DLNA compliant (though we didn't have any NAS drives on hand to test).
While we're on the subject of hard drives: keep in mind you will need some external storage device--or Web-based media--to be streaming to the Netgear. Unlike the Apple TV, it doesn't have an internal hard drive, so if you turn off your PC or external hard drive, you'll be limited to the online resources that the Digital Entertainer HD can access.
The main onscreen menu for the Digital Entertainer HD consists of seven choices: TV/Video, Music, Photos, Schedule Recordings, Internet media, News/Weather, and More, with the latter giving way to even more options and features. The first three options give you access to the media you have stored on your networked computer, network attached storage drive, or even on USB drives plugged into the Netgear itself.
Each of the categories has different (but similar) methods for sorting through the files. For example, the most useful categories for music are Artist, Album, and Genre, and the Digital Entertainer does a good job of picking up tag information. There are also additional categories, such as Year and Decade, as well as Folder, which is supposed to let you browse the file structure on your PC.
We had a small problem with the way the Digital Entertainer displays folders--across all media types--as it only gives you access to the deepest folder level. For instance, if you have a main folder for The Eagles and a subfolder called "Greatest Hits" (the album title), as well as a main folder for Queen and a subfolder called "Greatest Hits" (again, the album), both the The Eagles and Queen files will appear to be in a single folder called (you guessed it) Greatest Hits. It's even more troublesome for files like ripped DVDs, which are nearly always grouped into Audio TS and Video TS folders. That means that what appears to be a single "Video TS" folder will be filled with several files named "VTS_01_1.VOB," and you won't know which is which. We're hoping Netgear can improve this feature with a firmware update.
The menu system on the Digital Entertainer HD is clean and serviceable, but it's not nearly as slick or animated as the one found on the Apple TV. That said, one of the first things we noticed when we started playing with it is how fast the menus are--whereas other network media devices can lag a bit, the Digital Entertainer HD is extremely fast. It really makes a big difference when you're searching through thousands of media files. We also liked that the Digital Entertainer HD was fairly flexible in terms of being able to customize options. You can set the screensaver delay time and change the image, and there's also the ability to choose different skins, although we couldn't figure out how to access additional skins other than the default.
File compatibility and media support
One of the strongest points of the Digital Entertainer HD is its file format support. For video, it can handle MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, WMV, WMV-HD, MOV, H.264, DivX and lastly, VOB files from ripped DVDs--even though that last one isn't listed in the manual. This extensive file format support is a major advantage over Apple TV, which is generally limited to iTunes-friendly MPEG-4 and h.264 files. In addition, the EVA8000 also supports several types of Plays For Sure copy-protected video formats, such as WMV videos bought from online stores such as Bittorrent and MovieLink.
However, we can't say that protected video files played back easily. For example, we purchased an episode of Arrested Development from BitTorrent's new online store and tried to stream it over the Digital Entertainer HD. Our initial attempt was met with a "Media Protected" message, so we did some digging through the manual and determined we needed to upgrade to Windows Media Player 11 (we were running version 10). Once downloaded and installed, we gave it another whirl--and got the same message. Finally, after digging through some of the media sharing settings in Windows Media Player, we were able to get it to work, but there was no audio (Netgear is aware of the problem and is currently working on a fix). We did have success playing other video files from BitTorrent, but it was a pretty arduous process--and one that wasn't well-covered in the manual. By comparison, Apple TV's easy integration into iTunes means that anyone who's familiar with an iPod should have no trouble syncing and streaming to Apple TV as well.