- Written by Sandy Bird
- Published on 12 September 2008
So what's so great?
By now you have to be asking what is so great about this little box. The simple fact is it works. And it works really, really well. I have used HTPCs and other media extenders for years. For the most part they meet my needs, but I am continually tweaking them trying to get them to deal with different file formats properly, or properly send audio to my processor. I don't mind, but I am pretty technically adept to such processes. Other people are not and they struggle to get HTPCs working properly, or if they buy a media extender set top box end up discovering it won't play half the file formats they have.
An engineer in my office recently sold off his Blu-ray HTPC to buy a standalone Blu-ray player as he was sick and tired of the problems he was having trying to get it to work seamlessly with HDMI. While the ISTAR is not a Blu-ray player it does show that it is possible to make a unit that plays all the formats we need in a simple box.
The ISTAR just works. Every file I clicked on with the exception of lossless MWA played without a problem. Even .mkv files played without falter. This is very important as it allows the user to re-encode a DVD as an .mkv file and keep the DTS and AC-3 audio track, which is next to impossible with other media containers. .mkv files are not supported by very many media extenders at this time so it is refreshing to finally see someone implement it properly.
Web Media Sources
You might be wondering why there was an option to play web content from the media source. What is interesting is that the ISTAR can also play video and media directly from the Internet (or off a connected drive). It has options to browse YouTube and Google Videos, MetaCafe, etc. This basically brings some of the fun stuff on the Internet directly to your TV or Theater and can be a great way to pass some time while people are gathering before the movie starts.
The system can also function as a NAS (Network Accessed Storage) on your home network. Users can backup their files to the ISTAR or place media on the drive from another computer that may not be set up for file sharing.
Assuming you have a hard drive connected to the unit the ISTAR can also be a Bittorrent client. There are many legal and illegal ways to use Bittorrent so I leave the user to their own scruples on that feature. I don't use Bittorrent myself so I didn't try this functionality.
Software and Firmware Updates
In today's world it seems like everyone is in a rush to get products to market. In some cases (as we have seen with Blu-ray players) the software can be quite buggy when the hardware slips out the door, with the promise from the manufacturer of updating the software or hardware at a later date (when they get the kinks worked out). If the product has a good growth in the market, most manufacturers continue development on the firmware, and over time, the software usually lives up to the hardware's potential.
Something that makes the ISTAR unique, is the fact it is not unique at all. It shares the exact some chipset and underlying operating system as several other media extenders. A company called Syabas actually makes the OS. One other hardware platform that is quite popular is Popcorn Hour. Since multiple products use the same underlying chipsets and OS, it means new firmware is released on a regular basis for the ISTAR and the other vendors.
I upgraded the firmware to the newest version when I received the unit. The process was painless. I basically copied the firmware to a USB stick, plugged it into the ISTAR, chose the USB stick as the media source, selected the Web Content media option, clicked on the file and told it to upgrade, then waited for the unit as it re-booted with the new firmware. It was simple and painless.