Iomega ScreenPlay Director HD
The Apple TV for the rest of us?
Review Iomega’s original ScreenPlay Pro network media player was a bit of a mixed bag. It had very good connectivity features, including a video input option that allowed it to capture video as well as simply playing audio and video files that were already stored on it. However, it was let down by its inability to play H.264 video – the format used by the ubiquitous iPod and numerous other devices.
Iomega's ScreenPlay Director
Needless to say, the first thing we did when we received the new Screenplay Director HD was to check whether it could handle H.264. It came through that test with flying colours, although we did discover a few other rough edges along the way. Even so, it’s clear that Iomega has put a bit more thought into this model than it did with its predecessor.
At first glance, the Director HD appears identical to the earlier ScreenPlay Pro. It’s a slim, glossy unit that looks like a fairly conventional hard disk, albeit with a few extra buttons on the front. Our review unit had a 1TB hard disk inside it and costs £179, and there’s also a 2TB version available for £309.
Around the back of the unit you’ll find an HDMI interface capable of outputting video at full 1080p resolution, along with component and composite video outputs and both analogue and digital audio output. Iomega sensibly includes HDMI and composite video cables, as well as a Scart adaptor, so that you can use it with most types of TV straight out of the box.
There’s also a 10/100 Ethernet interface for connecting it to your home network. Admittedly, Gigabit Ethernet would have been preferred, but there no problems playing 1920x1080 video files on the network. The composite video input found on the ScreenPlay Pro has gone, making room for three USB 2.0 ports that can be used to plug in additional storage devices.
The vent at the looks big but it's quiet when running
There’s also a fourth USB port that can be used to directly connect the Director HD to a single computer. This allows you to transfer a large library of audio and video files more quickly than using the 10/100 Ethernet interface, as well as allowing you to add or remove folders from its hard disk when organising your collection of media files. There’s a sizeable fan vent on the back of the unit, but the Director HD made hardly any noise while we were using it so that didn’t turn out to be a problem.
The initial installation process was pleasantly straightforward. When you turn the Director HD on for the first time it asks you to select a language and either 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio, and whether you want to connect to a network. Everything went smoothly here and the Director HD was able to automatically connect to our network without asking us to enter any additional settings.
The Menu options are certainly easy to follow
The Director’s hard drive also showed up as a network drive on both PCs and Macs on our office network, allowing us to transfer files onto it with no difficulty. That said, Mac users will have to reformat from the default NTFS format to FAT32 if they want to connect the drive directly to a Mac with USB. It supports UPnP and DLNA networking as well, so you can stream audio and video from a games console or other UPnP/DLNA devices.
After the initial set-up the main menu appears on screen, displaying large icons representing music, photos and video files. There’s also there’s a fourth icon – that wasn’t present on earlier models – for ‘online media’. The little remote control has a matching set of four buttons so you can quickly dip straight in and play whatever type of media you want.
We did encounter one problem here, though. The manual indicates that the Director HD should already have a default set of folders installed on it for storing your music, photos and video files. We couldn’t locate these folders when examining the contents of the hard disk, so we had to create them ourselves. That’s not a major hardship, but first-time users who haven’t used a media player like this before could get confused here.
You’ll also need to organise your files quite carefully too, as the browsing options are fairly limited. The Director HD only lists files or folders alphabetically, so you can’t browse through your files using criteria such as ‘artist’ or ‘genre’ unless you specifically create ‘artist’ or ‘genre’ folders and then organise all the files and folders yourself.
Music listings lack accompanying album art
There’s no option to display album artwork either. Rivals such as the AppleTV provide a much slicker interface and more versatile browsing options. To be fair, though, the Director HD is a lot cheaper than the AppleTV and provides much greater storage capacity as well.
We were also pleased to see that the Director HD handled all the test files we threw at it without any problems. Our 1920x1080 H.264 videos looked lovely, and we had no trouble with a selection of other file types, including AVI, DiVX and XviD, MP3 and AAC.
The On-line function offers a range of audio-visual media, and you can add your own links too
In addition to its support for H.264 video, the other interesting new feature is the ability to view online media. Press the ‘Online’ button on the remote control and you see a new menu that allows you to connect to a wide range of online audio, photo and video sources. YouTube is in there, of course, along with the ShoutCast Internet radio and delights such as the Dilbert cartoon and the Larry King podcast. You can also add links to your own favourite web sites, although you need to sign up for an account at Iomega’s web site to do this. There’s even a BitTorrent client to play with as well.
Our only other complaint is that the Director HD can be a little sluggish at times. It takes a good two minutes to turn itself on, and the on-screen menu system sometimes responds rather slowly when you’re using the remote control to navigate through some of the deeper sub-menus.
The Director HD is certainly an improvement on its predecessor. The support for H.264 video is welcome, and the online media options are good fun to play with. However, the browser interface could be improved to make it easier to quickly look through large collections of music and video files. It’ll be great for watching video and photo-slideshows, but could be hard work if you want to rip your entire CD collection onto it. ®
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