Media Servers

HD Digitech HDX900 HDTV Media Streamer

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

The HDX900 is an HDTV streamer based on the Network Media Tank (NMT) middleware platform by Syabas. If you don't know what a streamer is yet, think of the AppleTV but without any of the Apple restrictions. Consider a player that will play all of your movies, in file format, including Blu-ray, DVDs, or any popular format you might have on your computer hard drive, as well as pictures and audio, but doesn't require you to pay a monthly iTunes bill.

Not all of you might be familiar with the concept of "Middleware". Most new video streamers are now based on the Sigma Designs 8634/5 chipset – which is what most new Blu-ray players are also based on. Now, Sigma Designs only provides the SDK to access the capabilities that these chips provide, but if you want to be able to play files, browse the network, or actually use the device, you still need some kind of software that will do the actual playback. Some companies, like DVICO create their own software (in their case, Linux based). However, this is way too time consuming and expensive for most companies to be able to do in an effective manner.

This is where companies like Syabas come into the picture – they provide you with middleware, which does 99% of what you need. All you need to do is build your hardware and customize all the loose ends. The middleware for 8634/5 Syabas is called Network Media Tank.

Although I believe the original intent in the use of the word "tank" is a container holding all of your media files, the HDX900 manufacturer  (HD Digitech) took the tank moniker to its other meaning, the military kind.

Specifications

  • Design: Media Streamer
  • Connectivity: LAN 10/100 Mbs; Wireless 802.11n
  • Network Protocol: HTTP, RTSP
  • Video Formats Supported : MPEG1/2/4, Open DivX-HD, Xvid-HD, WMV9-HD, H.264
  • Audio Formats Supported: MP1/2/3, WMA, WMA Pro, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, AC3, PCM, WAV, FLAC
  • Connections: HDMI 1.1, Component, S-Video-Composite, Toslink, Stereo Audio, Ethernet
  • Dimensions: 2.2" H x 8.9" W x 7.5" D
  • Weight: 3 Pounds
  • MSRP: $240 USA
  • HD Digitech

The Design

The HDX900 feels very solid and uses thick anodized brushed aluminum covers. It feels like the good old days where putting a little bit of pressure on your audio and video equipment did not cause it to bend, break, or make scary creaking noises. The front panel can be ordered in either black anodized or silver. I got the black color, which fits the unit perfectly.

The HDX900 package includes a 2m HDMI cable, the remote, 12V power supply, the unit itself, and a very short manual.

The unit is quite small and is large enough to host a 3.5" harddrive. Inside the unit, one can see mostly air, as the unit is ready to accept a SATA hard drive. Problem is, there are no explanations, so I accidentally took off the back panel screws instead. I figured out my mistake quickly though, and put them back in, taking out the two small screws on the bottom. This reveals a small PCB board and some cables. A hard drive attaches to the bottom of the unit using four supplied screws. However, there are no real heat sinks and if you get a very hot drive (I have a 500G sata drive that can be effectively used to boil eggs), this can cause the entire unit to overheat and subsequently fail. Essentially, the entire case of the unit turns into the hard drive's heat sink, which caused my unit to feel extremely hot.


Setup

Setting it all up turned out to be a bit different than described in the manual, which describes a combination of two key presses that can preset the unit to specific settings (e.g., TV-OUT and then a number). However, the functionality described in the manual has since been changed and only TV-OUT + 0 (auto) worked correctly. Once I had the video running, I could start configuring it.

The setup seems a bit more like a configuring Windows software than that of a consumer device intended for the living room. However, anyone who is computer literate will immediately catch on and be able to configure this product. There are lots of different video configurations possible, and it should be noted that switching from 50Hz to 60Hz is not done automatically but needs to be done manually (this is on the company's to-do list for changes).

The back hosts several outputs, including network (10/100Mbps Ethernet), two USB cables (for flash USB keys, or external drives), an eSATA connection (no documentation was available about this, I'm assuming this will allow you to connect the internal drive as an external SATA drive to a host PC), HDMI 1.1 output and analog and digital audio outputs. The unit also hosts an VGA connector which can work as either component or VGA (no adapter was available, but breakout cables can be easily obtained).

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What's missing? I would have liked the unit to have separate preamp outputs for audio, and a USB host connection for attaching the unit to a computer (although this might not be usable, as you will read later on).

The front panel of the HDX900 is quite minimalist and contains an On-Off button, two LEDs, and an IR receiver. A small LCD display in front could prove useful in setting up the unit as well as accessing audio, but this is obviously a device mostly intended for video playback. When the unit is fully off, it does not emit any light. When turned on, a red LED light turns on, which is way too bright for my eyes and seemed quite distracting. The company does plan to address this in a future hardware release. After two days of use, I had to put some black tape over it. Strangely enough, when set to standby mode, the unit lights up two different color LEDs, both are also too distracting for me when watching a movie.

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The unit is able to pick up content from the network coming in quite a few varieties. It detected computers on the network which were sharing data using SMB shares (simple window shares), but for some reason, I had to define these manually to actually see their contents. This could be because my network is domain based, so a simple peer-to-peer (workgroup) home network should work well. In any case, once defined, I could access my network computers easily and view their contents.

The HDX900 also detects NFS and UP&P shares (both are high speed shares that can come from Network Attached Storage devices like Netgear's ReadyNAS devices). DLNA shares are also shared using software like Windows Media Player. All you need to do is set Windows Media Player to share its contents over the network and everything gets configured automatically. The unit can also pick up content directly from the Internet (YouTube services and other services are accessible directly!) and from USB attached storage as well as the internal drives. Media sources are added automatically to the list as they are detected, so in some cases it takes a few seconds from the time you turn on the unit until you see all of them.

So, video can come from either the Internet, USB based flash, or the network. Playback supports most major formats, including the infamous DIVX, its HD replacement: MKV, DVDs (menus, et al.), high definition recordings (MPEG-2, TS, H264) and Blu-ray files (MT2S) as well as high quality HDV recordings in AVCHD M2TS formats.


In Use

Picture and audio quality are fantastic. The unit only goes up to HDMI 1.1, which means it will not be able to play the new HD audio formats from Blu-ray files. However, it is able to bitstream LDPCM through HDMI to a compatible A/V receiver (in my case the Yamaha AVR 3800). More and more Blu-ray releases now include the new compressed formats (DTS HD, DTS-HD Master Audio, and Dolby TrueHD) rather than their PCM counterpart (which is the same quality, but has less sex appeal and takes up way more room on the Blu-ray disc), so this could be an issue in the future.

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Since the unit essentially runs Linux, it can do quite a few interesting things. Unfortunately, most of these require the internal hard drive to be formatted in EXT2 or EXT3 UNIX based disk format. If you keep the drive in NTFS format, you can still use its contents and play them back, but you will not be able to use the extended capabilities of the unit. What capabilities? The ability to use the unit itself as Network Attached Storage (NAS), the ability to access it through FTP or to use the internal Bit-Torrent client. Additional software add-ons are planned to be made available in the future (I can think of quite a few that would make life much easier).

I can see that I need to format the drive to something obscure like EXT2, and that should be addressed for the future. I also think that the company should consider making a unit that would be able to handle higher capacity drives by including better heat dissipation techniques that would isolate the main board from the heat generated by the harddrive. The reason why I assume the unit does not support a USB host port is due to the fact that the computer would not recognize the EXT2 format anyway, so this would be of little use.

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In my case, I had contents on the local hard drive, as well as content over the network, on a server, in SMB, UP&P (now called "DLNA") and myiHome formats. MyiHome is a dedicated software that is supplied for the HDX900 and seemed to provide support for the fastest bitrates. I tried very high bitrate content, including the first open source movie ever created Elephant's Dreams, which was downloaded from w6rz.net – and is MPEG-2 running at an amazing 48 Mbps. The results were fantastic, and I could see no problems with the video.

Pressing Info several times lets you see where you are located in the movie, as well as key information about the movie such as the total time, file name as well as audio and video file formats.

However, when you have the list of file names, they don't always scroll horizontally (long file names), and there is no way to know more information about the file. So, pressing Info just gives you the full file name, but not file size or anything else. There is also no sorting for the file names, useful when you have a Blu-ray directory and only one file contains the actual movie.

The difference between performance of the different source protocols is quite staggering. SMB failed to play back high bitrate content. Some audio and video formats are not detected by specific server software, and I also had problems with audio playback with some servers.


While audio is playing back, the HDX900 displays an interesting screen saver of underwater scenes, but I would really have liked more information about the track being played back.

Trickplay is usually the point where middleware-based systems used to have major flaws. However, it looks like Syabas did a great job for the software in the HDX900. There are several ways to jump ahead or jump back in time. The most trivial are the fast forward and rewind buttons. It might seem odd to most people, but I think these buttons are more suited for VCRs than for modern systems. I really don't see the point of using this to move ahead to a particular point in time. One other way to jump ahead or back in the movie is the numeric keys on the remote control. Pressing 1 will jump to 10% of the movie, 2 jumps to 20%, and so forth. This is a very easy way to get approximately where you want (particularly if you don't remember where you last stopped the movie) as well as for jumping to a random spot in a movie for the kids, who usually don't care where you start the movie.

The search function is a bit odd to use, you simply type the exact time where you want to resume the movie and it jumps there. This feature takes a bit of getting used to, particularly since you have to type in the entire time section. Unfortunately, if you stop a movie and forget where you stopped, there are no bookmarks and the playback does not automatically resume where you stopped.

A neat way to jump ahead or back is the 30 second jump (approximately) using the arrow keys. This is very useful for instant playback if you missed a scene, or jumping ahead past commercials in some recordings that may include them.

The system automatically finds built-in subtitles for supported files (e.g., MKV) and lets you play them back. I found this useful during those late night hours where you don't want to wake up the entire house just because your hearing has dropped off from your teenage years. For other files, you can have SRT files using the same name as the movie file and the system will detect them and use them right away. I was also impressed with the fact that the company invested the time and effort to support subtitle languages of all types, even including built-in Russian and Hebrew (which is quite difficult to implement due to the Right To Left flipping that needs to be done in order to support it).

Whereas the body of the HDX900 seems very high class and heavy, the remote feels very light and upbeat. It seems a bit of a mismatch, although the remote is both comfortable and useable. Most features are easy to find, and I think it works quite well.

I really like that the unit supports on-line video services like YouTube. Not all video services worked, and Syabas is designing firmware updates that will make these work better. The picture quality for these services is better suited for smaller computer screens than large flat living room displays, but this service works and works well. It is easy to search and playback YouTube contents.

More recently, some avid users made their own extensions to the NMT platforms, like the open source movie jukebox extension. Using this extension, one can build a jukebox display from a list of directories. The software scans through your hard drive and adds movie icons and synopses, so when you browse through your catalog you can select the movies graphically. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Apple TV concept, albeit a simpler design idea. I would hope that Syabas takes this to the next level and provides this functionality automatically as a built-in add-on for the unit.

Since testing the software of the unit, Syabas has made significant advances, but HD DIGITECH is waiting until their software stabilizes and comes out of beta. While that might mean that software updates will be fewer and farther apart, it also means that they are a lot more stabile and the updates will be quite significant when officially released. Looking at the staggering number of changes that Syabas has made since the last official HDX900 release makes my mouth water.

Conclusions

This HDX900 is a very capable and promising platform. It appears to have many untapped capabilities that would only become apparent as Syabas and HD DIGITECH expand on them and adds them to future firmware releases. The main limitations of the current unit is the lack of a front LCD display and HDMI 1.3 (which prevents bitstreaming of new Blu-ray contents), so these may require different hardware. Overall, it will be interesting to see how far along this technology can go.

The real advance in this platform is the concept of the plug-ins that can be configured and added on-board. The idea of having BitTorrent, or other applications physically run on this box can make these technologies accessible to most people. The next step is, of course, adding clients like Joost – which can let you have peer-to-peer access to the Joost network using something other than a personal computer. This seems like an obvious fit, and I assume we will have functionality like that in the foreseeable future.