HDTV

Dune HD - Base3D and TV-303D High Definition Media Streamers

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction to the Dune HD - Base3D and TV-303D

Streamers have been around for quite a few years. It took them quite a while to reach maturity. When this field was at its infancy, HD was just starting to get popular and Streamers offered a way to play back a DIVX or TS file without requiring a Home Theater PC in your living room. The beginning was very slow and tedious, early streamers were buggy and often had serious image, sound and build quality issues. Typically, you had to place your content in a hard drive inside the unit, or even burn a DVD containing your desired content - not exactly something that most people are prone to do.

As stability improved, streamers offered a way, particularly in areas where HD was not yet standard to play back a variety of files. Streamers had a unique value proposition - you could create a vast catalog of quality content and play it back. There were really no good alternatives for creating such a catalog (forget a multi room setup, even a single location catalog). Jukebox DVD solutions are still quite fragile and complex. kaleidescape offers a great solution, albeit an expensive one, but until recently limited to SD only...

The simplest and most effective way of maintaining an HD movie catalog was through streamers, particularly a catalog that needs to be accessed at more than one point in the house.

As HD became more and more popular and HD PVRs finally allowed one to keep stock of many different types of HD titles. Videophiles adopted Blu-ray, which finally offered a dramatic improvement over any other way of watching movies. However, OTT (TV over the Internet) solutions like Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and Amazon On Demand became popular - these streaming services have a huge catalog of accessible titles, but focused more on buffering and Quality Of Service, with image quality having a much lower priority. This evolution is pretty similar to how audiophiles lost high quality audio, first to digital media and then to low quality MP3.

The problem remains - there was really no simple way for someone to maintain a jukebox solution for high quality HD video. Streamers filled that void quite nicely. However, since the vast majority of users don't really need much beyond what cable, Blu-ray and Netflix offers, the market shrunk and is currently catering specifically to discerning customers and videophiles. I don't know about you, but Netflix video quality hurts my eyes... There is no way around the fact that Blu-rays offer the best video quality today.

Dune HD and Oppo are pretty much the only devices in town that allowed one to take a Blu-ray disk and view it (there are a few others, but these are by far the most popular Blu-ray compatible streamers around), while at the same time as allowing you to view backups of disks from a central location.

Oppo's solution was pure Blu-ray, but was limited to backups stored on SATA or USB storage. As many people will tell you, this is not a comfortable solution, particularly if you need the content accessible from more than one room in your house.

Note that streaming Blu-ray content around your house requires a fast network. I would recommend a 1Gbps wired Ethernet connection to every relevant room.

With the move to 3D, many are looking for a solution that would provide a jukebox Blu-ray solution , that can be streamed from a central location in the house. Videophiles are likely to have a variety of file formats, but likely also content such as an iTunes music collection, family photos and HD (or 3D) home movies. 3D content can come as a Blu-ray file, or a variety of file formats in either SBS (side by side) or Top/Bottom formats, depending on your video camera configuration.

Central storage for the house is pretty simple. I can personally recommend the DiskStation NAS products from Synology, which are high performance storage systems that can offer redundant drives and can stream high-bit rate content fast enough to all areas of the house.

Dune's last generation offering supported almost all of my requirements. Dune had 3 high end models that were relevant: Dune Base 3.0 (HDD local storage only), Dune Prime (Blu-ray storage only) or Dune HD Max (both a 3.5" internal storage plus Blu-ray drive). All 3 were fully capable and supported any file I threw at them, including playing back Blu-ray from the network storage.

Although 3D has not been taking off as expected, 3D content is really picking up and in the last few weeks we've seen an array of really great titles such as Life of Pi, Wreck it Ralph, the Hobbit ("a really long and tedious journey") and Rise of the guardians. What was really called for was a new type of streamer that is fully 3D compatible.

Options are scarce, the only alternatives were the new Oppo models (which supported Anavia, a deal breaker for many), the Popcorn Hour A400 (a great device, but far from stabile) and the new generation of Dune HD models. Dune HD is coming out with 3 different 3D compatible models this year: The Base3D is essentially a souped-up Base 3.0, the TV-303D and the upcoming Dune HD max.

DUNE HD - BASE3D AND TV-303D SPECIFICATIONS

  • Processor: Sigma Designs 8672/8673
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Flash Memory: 256 MB
  • Media Sources: External HDD (USB), External Optical Drive (USB), USB Devices (USB Flash Drive, USB Card Reader, etc), Built-in SD Card Reader (SD/SDHC), PC and NAS in Local Network (SMB, NFS, UPnP, HTTP), Other Internet and Local Network Media Sources (HTTP, Multicast UDP RTP)
  • Web Browser: Opera, WebKit
  • DLNA: DLNA (1.5 or 2.0) Client Support
  • Adobe Flash: 3.1 (Lite, Standalone) Supported
  • Video Codecs: MPEG2, MPEG4, XVID, WMV9, VC1, H.264; Support for Very High Bit Rate Video (up to 50 MBit/s and higher)
  • Video File Formats: MKV, MPEG-TS, MPEG-PS, M2TS, VOB, AVI, MOV, MP4, QT, ASF, WMV, BDMV, DVD-ISO, VIDEO_TS
  • 3D Video Support: MVC, Side-by-side, Top/Bottom
  • Video Output Modes: Wide Range of Supported Output Resolutions (up to 1080p) and Frame Rates (including 23.976p, 24p, PAL, NTSC)
  • Video Output Frame Rate: Automatic (according to the played content) and Manual
  • 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, multi-channel FLAC, Ogg/Vorbis; Support for very high quality audio (up to 192 kHz / 24-bit)
  • Audio File Formats: MP3, MPA, M4A, WMA, FLAC, APE (Monkey's Audio), WV Pack, Ogg/Vorbis, WAV, AC3, AAC
  • HD Audio Support: Pass-through (up to 7.1 channels) and Decoding (up to 7.1 channels) of Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD MA audiotracks (Blu-ray, TS, MKV), Pass-through (up to 7.1 channels) of Multi-channel LPCM Audiotracks (Blu-ray, TS, MKV), Decoding (up to 7.1 channels) of FLAC audiotracks (MKV, External)
  • Subtitle Formats: SRT (External), SUB (MicroDVD) (External), Text (MKV), SSA/ASS (MKV, External), VobSub (MP4, MKV, External SUB/IDX), PGS (Blu-ray, TS, MKV)
  • Picture File Formats: JPEG, PNG, BMP, GIF
  • Playlist File Formats: M3U, PLS
  • Photo Viewer Functions: Slideshow, Transition Effects, Picture Rotation, Zoom, Browse Playlist, Repeat, Shuffle
  • Audio Playback Functions: Browse Playlist, Repeat, Shuffle, ID3 Tags, Plasma TV Burn-in Prevention
  • Filesystems: FAT16/FAT32 (Read-Write), EXT2/EXT3/EXT4 (read-write), NTFS (Read-Write)
  • Ethernet: 10/100/1000 Mb/s
  • Wi-Fi: Internal Wi-Fi (b/g/n) Module - can act as an Access Point!

Dune HD Base 3D

  • Connectors: HDMI 1.4, 3x USB 2.0 (2x Rear, 1x Front), Composite, Component, Analog Stereo Outputs, Optical S/PDIF, Coaxial S/PDIF, Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mb/s, SD Card Slot (Front), Power Input, Power Switch (Back), LED Indicator (Front)
  • Internal Storage: Internal HDD Rack with Hot Swap Function for SATA HDD 3.5"
  • MSRP: $299 USD

Dune HD TV-303D

  • Connectors: HDMI 1.4, 2x USB 2.0 (1 x Rear, 1 x Side), Composite, Component, Analog Stereo Outputs, Optical S/PDIF, Coaxial S/PDIF, USB 3.0 Slave, Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mb/s, Wi-Fi 802.11n, SD Card Slot (Side), Power Input, Power Switch (Back), LED Indicator (Front)
  • Internal Storage: Internal HDD Rack with Hot Swap Function for SATA HDD 2.5". USB 3.0 Slave Interface and Provided USB 3.0 (Slave-Host) Cable Allow Fastest Possible Way of Transferring Data Between PC and Player
  • MSRP: $199 USD
  • Dune HD
  • SECRETS Tags: Dune, Media Streamers, HD, Video

 


The Design of the Dune HD - Base3D and TV-303D

The Base3D and TV-303D are very similar. Both use the Sigma designs 8672/3 platform, have 256MB flash and 512MB RAM. The major differences are in the housing and connectivity - the Base3D has a large wide housing with a blue-greenish front display, it looks like a Blu-ray player, and houses a single 3.5" swappable hard drive. The unit has both a passive heatsink as part of its design as well as a quiet fan that kicks in when the unit heats up too much.

The HDD is easy to take out and replace and acts almost like a huge movie cartridge. If you need to use this in a single location, the Base3D can store around 3TB of data on board, and is fully accessible from the network (so you don't actually have to take out the drive to place content in it).

The TV-303D is shaped like a rounded rectangle and is considerably smaller (it is about twice as big as the AppleTV). It has passive cooling, no front display and houses a single 2.5" swappable Hard-Drive - essentially a laptop Hard-Drive.

The TV-303D is extremely portable, so Dune added a USB 3.0 hosting solution, so you can take the unit and use it as a USB 3.0 portable drive. Speeds of downloading large files reached around 120MBps, around 3 times the speed I got from the same device and computer over a USB 2.0 connection. The USB solution is not available on the Base3D, which is larger and so impractical to move over to your computer.

 


Setup of the Dune HD - Base3D and TV-303D

Both units have both a wired Ethernet connection that supports 1Gbit Ethernet. Both units stream HD video and in particular 3D Blu-ray, perfectly over a wired network. Both units also have WIFI and can either connect to the network over Wi-Fi or become a Wi-Fi Access Point for your network. Both are limited to a 65Mbps connection but I regularly got a more realistic 40Mbps from them.

Both units have multiple USB 2.0 connections, allowing you to connect additional drives or thumb-drives to the units for quick playback, as well as SD card support for playing back movies and photos directly from your camera or camcorder.

Both units have SPDIF support, but the Base3D also supports analog audio, headphones out and coax audio. Base3D also has component YPbPr support. TV-303D supports an iR wired connection (it also comes with an IR sensor and extender cord) so you can place it in a closed cabinet and it will still respond to IR remote control commands. Finally, both units fully support HDMI 1.4, including HD audio (DTS HD MASTER and Dolby HD) as well as decoding these formats into stereo for 3D TVs that do not support DTS or HD audio.

As far as formats go, these units will consume pretty much any video format you can throw at them, with the exception of motion JPEG (mJPEG), which is used sometimes on some of the older compact still cameras that supported video. These two units will work with DVDs, Blu-ray directories, Blu-ray ISO files, DIVX, TS, MKV or QuickTime videos. The units automatically sense 3D files either by name (side by side video files should contain 3DSBS in their file names to automatically be detected, or use proper 3D flags in the container file itself). This is not only important for automatically sending this information to your 3D display or projector, but also in how subtitles are processed and shown in 3D.

 


Dune HD - Base3D and TV-303D In Use

Both units worked perfectly with NFS and SMB networks. UP&P (DLNA) is also supported, but high bit rate content had issues with it. SMB was benchmarked as going as fast as 14MBps (well past the maximum Blu-ray data rate).

To switch audio languages or to audio commentaries, the audio channels can be selected using the audio button, just as subtitles can be switched with the subtitle key. For subtitles, you also get additional settings, such as font size, position as well as a delay offset that lets you sync up subtitles if they don't quite match the actual source.

"Trickplay" options are really robust on the Dune players. You can fast forward or rewind in about 4 different speeds (The speeds can change depending on content type). You can jump forward or back by either 10 seconds using the horizontal D-Pad arrows, by minutes using the up/down arrows, or 10 minutes using the P+ or P- buttons. Number buttons let you jump to % of the content - so that pressing 0 will get you to the beginning of a movie, 1 to 10% of the movie, 2 to 20%, etc. Finally, you can also use the go to button to go to a particular point in time. You can also set up automatic bookmarks so that when you stop a movie it will automatically resume from the very same position when you play it again.

As far as videophiles go, these units are pretty amazing. They will keep the content's original frame rate (50Hz, 60Hz or 24FPS although I did see occasional missed frames in that configuration) and play the content back without ruining it in any way. Of course, you will still need a good display or projector to make good use of them.

Both units are very stable and do not exhibit the usual "beta quality" issues we see from similar devices. During my testing, the units did not crash. Bugs I did see included occasional frame loss (switching off 24FPS frame rate matching helps with that issue), and some audio glitches on occasion. There is also small lags when playing Branched Blu-ray releases (these are special Blu-ray releases that hold many different files and create playlists based on the version of the movie you want to watch) which are still pretty rare. As these are considered network streamers (DMP = Digital Media Players) they do not contain the awful Cinavia audio watermark protection. However, this also means that Blu-ray movies will play without showing menus or "upcoming releases" and trailers.

In the past, this was a showstopper for me. I really liked Blu-ray menus and watching trailers. However, Blu-rays are so dense these days with mandatory videos prior to watching the actual movies, that it can take 10 minutes from the time you put the disk in the player until you actually watch the first frame of the movie you purchased or rented out. So, this "BD-Lite" solution is a good workaround for that issue as well. Since movies can have several titles in them, you can set the unit up to either automatically play back the first title, or ask you which title to play before playing it.

In terms of User Interface, Dune-HD spruced up the user interface from its previous generation. It still has a very "plastic" and rigid feel to it - it is a bit similar to the Roku interface. I think this interface can really be improved and bring out the "inner beauty" of these devices. There are simply an endless barrage of settings on how the player should behave - what it should do if you select a DVD movie, what code page the subtitles are, what screen it should enter after it starts up, etc. It can be a bit daunting at first, but most settings really don't need to be touched and it is very convenient to have the player tuned to how the user wants things done, rather than vice versa.

In terms of video quality, the Oppo players remain kings of the hill, but not by much anymore. The real benefit of the Dune HD units, is the convenience of having a potentially endless movie catalog from multiple rooms in your house, without losing much audio & video quality. As firmware improves - many of the glitches in the first will be resolved as in previous Dune-HD models.

The main menu is organized into a few simple categories such as TV, favorites, sources, setup and applications. Favorites organize a list of specific content directories, while sources contains root directories for computers or storage devices around your house. This is a pretty simple concept and a pretty easy one to get a grip on. I ultimately like this, although unification of the "sources" and "favorites" into one list might be more usable.

The remote is well designed and comfortable, but it is not backlit. All functions are easily accessible and the "popup menu" feature lets you tweak anything you need with little effort.

For example, it will let me copy and paste movies between the local drive and the network, or even let me copy photos and movies from a camcorder SD card to the local drive or to the network. If you know how copy/paste works - you can figure this out very easily.

Dune-HD also has a Webkit (Soon to be changed to Opera) browser. This means that you can hook up a keyboard and mouse and use the unit as a browser. This works quite well, but is almost impossible to use with just the remote.

There are a few add-on software packages that do things like facebook and twitter. These use Flash applications and are quite rich in look and feel. There are also applications for SHOUTcast and IP radio, as well as various solutions for viewing IPTV on these units. However, ultimately there are note a lot of applications for the platform at this time. Dune is working an solution for this, which is likely to be ready in a few months.

One major drawback for me was the exclusion of an on-board Jukebox solution. Dune-HD units will work with external Jukebox software. However, what this means is that you will need to occasionally run software that goes through your catalog and ask you to clarify what movie a particular file is. This manual process can be done with software packages like Zappiti and Movienizer.

It works, but it's a tedious manual operation and it requires you to manually go over the movies to see what it detected. I would much rather have an automatic, albeit not 100% accurate, built-in method for doing this, like in the Popcorn Hour series of streamers.

the jukebox outputs are pretty similar - they will produce a grid of movie images. Once selected, you can see the movie details, images from it and the actors. Zappiti was the most attractive option, but it was also buggy and simply refused to work on one of my computers. Movienizer required a sharp learning curve - it was far from intuitive and has way too many options, buttons and settings. Ultimately it proved stabile and reliable, if not very attractive or intuitive, but it continually nagged me to buy a license (nagware) and unless I used the original movie background the movie description was bright against the background and was virtually unreadable.

 


Conclusions about the Dune HD - Base3D and TV-303D

Dune HD players have great build quality - they are not the most attractive players on the market, but they are well built. The units are very stabile and did not crash, require a restart or had any major issues. The unit can also be set up to check for firmware updates and notify you if there are major updates. You can also request more frequent updates by allowing it to check for beta updates, which are typically quite stabile and offer a surprising amount of feature improvements.

Dune HD supplies good iOS and Android remote control apps. I would really like to see more of the same - have more control over the units via these apps (like seeing what the unit is doing, have access to all of the favorites and play files back from these locations) as well as more "Airplay" like solutions.

Ultimately, the lack of content applications and a built-in jukebox were the only missing features from both devices.

The Dune Base3 is more of a videophile device, while the TV-303D is something that you can take with you or use in a bedroom or a kids' room. I really liked both units and use them both on a regular basis.

Ofer LaOr (Hometheater.co.il).