ADS Tech  MEDIA-LINK
Review by Zip Pantalo  March 15, 2005

Hardware Media Streaming

        We just have to give the ADS Tech Media-Link top billing in a product category that is starved for products that work.



        In the topsy-turvy world of media streaming hardware products, we nearly gave up releasing a positive review about this exciting new technology.  I don't like to start any review with negative energy, but this product class nearly wore us out!   This was the most difficult review of any product group I've tested. We tested several well known and well talked about hardware media streamers and eliminated them within hours of bench testing.   I was shocked at how poorly they worked - or didn't work!  

The present crop of hardware media streamers better improve quickly if the makers want America to introduce these products to the living room.  Unit after unit failed to reliably perform even basic menu functions. Crashing, locking-up and even frying itself were the results we experienced with the streamers we tested.    But one unit did reveal itself as a competent and worthy unit.  This report is a testament to the Media-Link from Ads Tech.    We were very happy with this unit and it's performance.

The
ADS Tech Media-Link didn't start out as our favorite.    For a short while, this unit was not being considered for review simply because it didn't work at all.   While the other brands installed ok, they quickly revealed a dark and ugly side that prevented our recommended status which is required for a published review.  In a way, it is fortunate the Media-Link failed to install.  This is the only reason we stuck with the unit - in order to rule it out too!  If it were not for the comment of an ADS Tech technician named Marco, we would have give up.  But Marco assured us he had one at home and it worked just fine.  We believed him and decided to try a few more times to get it to work.  However it was another tech at ADS Tech that actually solved our problem.   The tech suggested we remove all Java runtime applications from our computer and let the ADS installation disk reinstall the Java for us.   It sounded crazy but we went along and sure enough... it worked!  The  result was nearly magical.   The ADS Tech unit began working like a champ!   It's truly a reliable unit and one that could possibly entice Grandma to give media streaming a try.

I would like to point out that mainstream success for home hardware media streamers is going to require the industry make their products so self installing and self configuring  that anyone can install it.   I'm not so sure we are there yet, but once installed, the ADS unit comes close.  It's been running rock solid now for 5 days and we can't seem to crash it no matter how many operations we ask of it.


The ADS Tech Media-Link multimedia streamer is a very slick product.  It lacks a few features that would be nice.  However, it was able to immediately begin streaming all types of media files from our massive collection on several servers we chose to create for this test.  A server is any PC on your network running the ADS Tech Media-Link server software.    You then connect the actual Media-Link receiver to your choice of Home TV, Stereo or Home Theatre.  You have the choice of Hardwire or 802.11G wireless  as your link source.   The 802.11G connection requires that you manually set up the configuration.   It would be nice for ADS Tech to make this automatic as well... for Grandma!

FREE TIVO FOR ALL!

In our configuration we also used a very good product from SnapStream called Beyond TV.  With the ADS Tech Media-Link  and Beyond TV (with your choice of supported TV tuner card),  you have the ideal TIVO like system but better in my opinion.   For one, there is no subscription fee.  You can also start a program recording at your home from Beyond TV's web site, or on the TV host Computer, or from any computer in your network using SnapStream's Link software.  .  Imagine being in Italy on vacation and deciding to record The Sopranos at home.  Yep, you can do it!  But more on this later (watch for our MEDIA CENTER article shortly)   As a side note, we also used an ATI TV Wonder tuner card.   Originally we used the recording software that came with the ATI card.   However it produced MPEG2 and MPEG4 Files that would choke all of the media players.  While the recorded programs would play fine with the ATI software on any PC,  they would not stream.  All units would choke and puke on the ATI created video files.   This was not the case with those produced with the Beyond TV unit.


WIRED OR 802,11G WIRELESS

ADS Tech  Media Link supports a large number of outputs for connection to your entertainment system.  It also supports a hardwired or 802.11G wireless link to your network.  For our test, we choose the hardwire connection.   While you can use the wireless connection,  we don't recommend it.    This is not a negative statement about  ADS Tech.  None of the wireless streamers could, at all times, maintain the throughput to maintain a live video stream.   Even when signal quality was good to excellent, wireless will glitch at times.  With wireless, there are momentary data rate dips which can affect the video stream.    These dips  go unnoticed when you are working on the Internet or adjusting a spreadsheet.  However when watching a feature film,  these drops can be irritating.   If wireless is your only option,  go ahead an try it, but don't be disappointed if you have an occasion pause in your video stream.


HDTV OUTPUTS doesn't mean HDTV

The Media-Link has a lot of options as to how to connect and display the video.  It includes component and DVI outputs and a configuration setting in the receiver for 1080 HD resolution.   I decided to use the component connections and the 1080 resolution and it looked great!  However it was not true HD, at least on my set.  

It looked more like DVD quality.  I wasn't able to confirm with ADS Tech that these component outputs actually produced HDTV quality images. But the images did have better detail  than the other streamers we tested.   Possibly we need a different source to view, or maybe we saw the best that the unit is capable of.  In either case, the images were pleasing to the eye.


GOOD PHOTO VIEWING FEATURES:

With the Media Link Receiver, you can easily view photos on your selected server.  If you install more than one server, the Media-Link allows you to easily select the server of choice the instant you turn it on.  You can also easily switch servers with a server "call-up" button on the remote.    The photos can be viewed one at a time, or you can select auto play on the immediate directory containing the photo files.  If you like, you can also shuffle first, then play them.  It takes a while for the Media-Link to begin showing your photos, so be patient.   One thing I dislike is the inability to start a music stream and then jump over to photo viewing.   You you can attach a music directory to a photo directory at the server but this requires you preselect your music ahead of your mood for the viewing.  Why not allow all of this control at the remote?   Another issue we noticed is we could never manually select a photo then advance to the next photo manually.  There was a remote option for this, but all it did was change the counter as in 29 of 200 to 30 of 200, but that 30'th photo never displays.   It seemed logical to us to allow a next button but we didn't find such a feature.   In manual mode, you can select any image from a catalog of thumbnails which prevents dealing with photos on a name by name basis.


GOOD MUSIC PLAYING FEATURES:

The Music player works very much like the photo viewer.  It will play a directory of songs in order or shuffled.   We were also able to manually select one specific song by the remote and also advance to the next song.   The sound was bright and crisp and sounded as good as the source encoding.   MP3's played beautifully.  We would would love to see ADS Tech add a feature to allow jumping from this menu and over to the Photo section to begin rotating a slide show or viewing individual photos one at a time.     We didn't see a way to establish a play list to your liking, such as all love songs across all directories.   It would be nice to be able to compile a category of music styles which span across different directories and artists.   Basically,  if you have a directory named "Garth Brooks" and 45 songs in that directory, you can auto play or shuffle, but you can't mix "Alan Jackson" in this mix from the remote.


FANTASTIC VIDEO PLAYING FEATURES:

In the case of playing video clips, the MEDIA LINK was better than all other units we tested.  We tried MPEG1, MPEG2 and MPEG4 sources.  With MPEG2 sources, we had two ways to advance through commercials and other boring moments.  The ADS Tech Media-Link had the best features to navigate through a video file of any unit we tested also.   One fast forward button would advance 1% for each push of the button.  About 5% to 9% advance will pass most commercials unless watching MTV (whew, what a lot of commercials!).  The other advance feature  button would fast forward or reverse thru the video file displaying clip shots as you zipped through it.   We found both advancing feature to be exceptional since many of the competing units could not reliably advance through commercials in spite of having such buttons on the remote.   One unit we tested completely ignored any FF or FR command.   Another unit would crash if you advanced too many times.  The ADSTech Media-Link was flawless. 


DECENT WEB FEATURES:

The Media-Link has a fairly good web feature that reads the favorites from the current selected server.  With a click of the remote, you can load and view web pages in your favorites list on Internet Explorer.  Manually entering web addresses can be done but it's just as difficult as entering names into your cell phone directory.  You are better off creating a list of favorites in your Internet Explorer and simply clicking your way through the navigation.   The unit can display simple web pages but not complex web presentations.   The Media-Link also will tun to a variety of web radio stations which is also a nice feature.



PERFECTION - NO 

SATISFACTION -  NO QUESTION ABOUT IT!

There are some issues with all Media Streamer systems we tested.  I want to point out a few glitches we noticed.   None of the streamers were smoothly responsive.  All of them required multiple retries on the remote to get them to accept the commands.  Or,  the commands were so slow we thought it took multiple tries.  The ADSTech unit is no exception but it was more responsive than the other units.  We also liked the sound feature ADS included which allows sound effects (clicks, pops, etc,) with each remote command.  It let us know that the command was received and if we waited for a result we waited knowing the unit was working on our request.    The one thing we dislike about the ADSTech Media-Link is the remote itself.   It's not very intuitive in it's design and doesn't feel great in your hand.  However, it is loaded with buttons and you can't complain about a lack of controls!  The remote also  has a narrow broadcast range or the receiver is very insensitive to  RF signals.    You must directly aim the remote and push the buttons.   Your not going to lay in bed and bounce IR signals off your ceiling to the unit.     It is our guess that many of you will have a Learning HIFI remote control which are generally more powerful than stock remotes.  Maybe transferring control to a high quality remote would solve this problem.    The ADSTech remote is not horrible, it's just low on our list of things we like about this unit.


HOW WE RATE THIS UNIT

We are rating the ADS-Tech Media Link very high in our ratings.   It is not a perfect unit but it is the best available of those we evaluated.  It's
a "hard-core" media streamer with pleasant features and virtually bug free!  In fact, we give  it  points for being the most bug free model we've tested.   The ADS Tech Media-Link  is the benchmark for the other current model media streamers.  It solidly scores 8.75 in our ratings which is a
VERY GOOD rating.   We have taken off 1/2 point for for lack of being able to run multiple operations at the remote such as starting music and casually viewing photos.  Having to set the music choices at the server defeats the sizzle of controlling your media files from your rocking chair.  We are are talking off  1/4 point for glitches and minor bugs in the firmware or hardware but none so severe to harm our "buy recommendation".   Finally, we are taking off 1/2 point for the design and uncomfortable feel of the remote. 


CONCLUSION:   BUY ONE!

When the chips fall as they eventually do in each review,  we would rather own this hardware than have to face another day without it!  Media-Streaming receivers are a really fantastic idea!  If you are a "geek" and don't own one of these, shame on you!   It's the best accessory you can buy for your PC!   We would be lying if we didn't admit a desire for more flexible features and quicker response to remote control commands.    A better instruction manual and refined remote design would move this whole package up a notch.   However this review considers that media streaming receivers are a new product category.  The makers have not yet had the time to bring us truly refined "state-of-the-art" products.  You can wait if you want, but the ADS Tech Media-Link is here now and it works very well!  In the future, these products are going to change everything we know about media viewing, home stereo and watching the TV.   It changed my habits already.  With the Beyond TV recording software and their excellent scheduling feature,  I have stopped paying attention to getting to my set for my shows.  Instead,  it's all being captured for me automatically and we can watch all our favorite shows on our schedule. 

If you are wondering which media streamers work,  save yourself some time and go straight to ADS and start with their unit.   However, we suggest you purchase any media streamer from a reputable retailer that also allows returns and exchanges.   In our case, we tried three others before sitting back in our easy chair with the ADS Tech unit.  We like ours so much we're not planning on sending it back to ADS unless they require us to.     Considering what we have experienced here,   we look forward to the next generation of ADS Tech Media Streamers.   Based on this product,  we have a high comfort level with ADS Tech.  This is a company that is staying on target with product research, development and advancement. 

I hope this review has been helpful to you!   Now I need to go.   I have some shows to watch on my Media-Link and the family is getting impatient.





AMERICAN PLUS AWARD!

ADS Tech is an American Based Company and is located in Cerritos, CA.   They design their own products and all technical support and engineering is provided from their headquarters in Cerritos.     While assembly and manufacturing could be elsewhere (as is the case with many consumer electronic products)  ADS receives our AMERICAN PLUS AWARD for being an innovative and supportive American based manufacturer.  Their tech support was first rate and every request for help was responded to quickly.  You can't ask for much more than that!    






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OVERVIEW:
Street prices -  $200 - 270

Summary:

The ADS Media Link MXL-581 will distribute audio and video and still pictures from your pc to any room in your house using your existing hardwired or wireless network.  The product works exceptionally well and streams all popular media from your PC to your home stereo and/or TV.   Media Server Software must be installed on the pc to host the multimedia files.

Sit back, use your remote, and play your media files on your home entertainment system!  The unit features "Universal Plug and Play Support"



ADS Media Link Specifications:
Computer Requirements:
The Media-Link Includes:
Relative Links to ADS

MEDIA LINK PDF

ADS Tech Main Web Site

MEDIA-LINK Specifiations


OTHER NEWS & REVIEWS

CDR Info page

Forbes.com

Sound and Vision Magazine


Consumer Chatter

Designtechnica Forum


ADS Tech Media Link Hardware media streamer for the pc and home entertainment system.
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