This is a review of the new Ziova Clearstream CS510 High-Definition Network Media Player. Ziova (nee Zensonic), a small Australian consumer electronics firm, announced this puppy at CES 2007, but just recently (i.e., last week) started shipping units out for review. After I submitted a review request to the company a few months ago, one landed on my doorstep on Friday and I put it through its paces over the past few days. Here are some initial thoughts.
First, what it is. The CS510 is a home A/V appliance that streams/plays content located on your home network (via Ethernet or 802.11b/g) or attached storage (USB 2.0) to your home theater (TV and/or stereo system). The CS510 differentiates itself from the unwashed masses of network media streamers by virtue of a few unique (or uncommon) features:
It serves up HD-quality video output (720p and 1080i) and 5.1 surround sound
It has the ability to play content directly from an attached mass storage device (i.e., no PC is needed to decode the content)
It offers up Windows network browsing via SMB
Below are some photos of the CS510 hardware and screen shots of its on-screen interface and output (if some of the screen shots look a little off-kilter or skewed, realize that I simply took handheld snapshots of the TV...the CS510's output was always completely orthogonal ;-):
The box. Sturdy enough for a 21-lb toddler to stand on.
Inside the box. This is definitely not Apple-style packaging here.
Contents. From upper left is: power cable, CS510, composite audio/video cable (wha?), installation CD (UPnP software, manual, etc.), Ethernet cable, remote control and batteries (woot!), and very decent printed user manual. A single USB 2.0 port is located on the front of the unit (why not one on the back, too?) along with the display and power button.
Rear ports. Most everything you might need.
The unit's serial number and both MACs are pre-printed on the user manual, a nice touch.
The remote is decent: big, squishy buttons, mostly in the right place, and a grippy texture.
Startup splash screen. Re-booting takes about 1 minute.
Main music menu. This allows you to select the source of the content you want to play (similar screen is used in Photos and Video). You cannot pull content from multiple sources (e.g., USB drive and a network share) during a single playback session.
List of folders (in this case, artists) containing music on a network share. And before you critique my taste in music, some of that is my wife's (all the non-cool stuff...yeah...that's it).
Video setup. Extensive options available for playback and output depending on what is hooked up to the unit's A/V ports.
Screen-shot of 720p output (this is shown on a 43" Samsung 720p DLP set) of an upconverted near-VGA-resolution (624x352, 132 kbps) Xvid file. I know it's impossible to get much information from this because it's a 600-pixel image down-rezzed from a 5MP digital camera image of a 720p TV's output of an upconverted stream of a compressed, resized video file transcoded from a recording of an OTA HDTV source. Suffice to say that the on-screen image quality was very, very good given the limitations of the file it was playing.
Another shot of different source material (640x352, 215kbps Xvid).
Yet another source material (640x288, 192kbps Xvid). The reason I didn't bother testing HD content as an input is that (a) I didn't have anything on hand better than 480p that was DRM-free (this unit doesn't handle DRM-laden HD video content), and (b) I assumed it would look better anyway (less upconversion going on). For me, the true test was how well it displayed the same content I play on my Treo and laptop when out and about.
Fast-forward 8X (see upper left of screen). FFWD goes up to 32X (way better than 11).
The dreaded hourglass...get used to this as you'll be seeing it a lot (more on that below).
Wha?! But...you were playing it perfectly well just a moment ago...
Yes, a weather channel (just in case you can't get the weather on your TV, your phone, your game console, your PDA, your laptop, or your AM/FM radio).
The unit has many desirable qualities, including:
Upconverted video quality is excellent. Even VGA-resolution MPEG-4 looks quite good at 720p (what I tested). Sound quality seems good, although I will be the first to admit that I do not have an audiophile's ear (all our MP3 music is encoded at 160kbps or 192kbps anyway).
Hardware offers good connectivity and lots of flexibility. Network connection can be wired (although not Gigabit Ethernet) or wireless (802.11g/b). The A/V outputs provided represent what most people would need/want. There are multiple ways of getting content into the unit, including UPnP media server, direct network share browsing, connected mass storage, and (in the case of music) Internet streams. Lots of options should satisfy nearly everyone.
Massively compatible with DRM-free content. The device decodes and/or streams nearly every common audio and video format. I know of no device short of a full PC that can handle such a wide variety of formats.
Menu system easy to navigate and understand.
Direct network content navigation via Windows SMB means that you can play content on the network without running TwonkyVision or any other media server software. That's a very handy feature and sets the standard for other network media players in terms of accessibility.
The remote feels good. It has a rubbery coating very similar to that on good D-SLR cameras.
Future promise. The unit seems capable of doing a lot of interesting and useful things. The weather channel seems like a preview of that. Plus, firmware upgrades could resolve a lot of the things that weren't so appealing about this unit...
In my opinion, there are several ways the unit fails to live up to my expectations or could stand improvement, such as:
For all but the most basic use, you need to use the TV to interact with your music collection. There are no navigation buttons on the CS510 itself and the unit's front display, which only shows a single line of 12 characters, is quite irritating to use as the only means of navigation. Scrolling through options is much slower when you can't see a few items ahead. This makes it a relatively poor audio player (at least compared to the reasonable 4-line display on the SMC EZ-Stream) since there's really little reason to have the TV on when you're just listening to music (and many reasons to want it off). Some may find a 1-line display adequate; I did not.
Sloooooow, especially when managing large media collections like ours. Our music collection includes some 16,000+ tracks, and bringing up a menu of all artist folders via the network took roughly 5 minutes. Doing the same task via USB took almost 3 minutes. That's unusable in my opinion. Plus, there are lots of little delays, like the 5-6 seconds between pushing the remote's "Menu" button and the main menu actually appearing on screen, which further impair the user experience.
Can be flaky when interacting with UPnP servers other than TwonkyVision (e.g., likes to lock up when trying to get content via Orb). To be fair, Ziova doesn't claim that the CS510 will work with Orb, so that's probably an unfair and inappropriate complaint. I only mention it because many people have their favorite UPnP server software and don't want to have to switch to something else if they don't have to.
Fast-foward and Rewind on streaming video takes FOREVER to actually engage. Hitting FFWD twice on the remote to go to 4X forward resulted in the video pausing for 57 seconds before it actually started fast-fowarding. I asked the Ziova rep about this and he basically pointed to the limitations of the Sigma EM8620L chipset that handles most heavy lifting done by the CS510. That chipset contains a rather meager 166MHz processor (!), only 64MB of RAM, and is neither upgradeable nor can it address any additional external memory. So, the unit is less responsive than ideal and you get situations like this. Ziova did engineer in both a "seek" feature and a "skip ahead X seconds" feature to help overcome this FFWD/RWD malaise, but they aren't exact substitutes.
Exiting from 16X and 32X FFWD (by hitting Play) often results in the player locking up. The only recourse I found in that situation is to cycle the power.
Inconsistent 802.11 connectivity. The CS510 often lost connection to our router despite the router sitting just 3 feet away from the unit (it was the only device in network to exhibit that issue). The Ziova rep said this was an issue they were currently working on and should be resolved in a future firmware update.
No detailed media information shown in lists. For example, no ID3 tag info (e.g., year, artist, genre, album, etc.) is displayed for MP3 tracks when scanning through lists of songs.
Currently no way to concoct a playlist of music on the device itself. Moreover, content can't be streamed from multiple sources in the same session (e.g., you cannot tell the CS510 to intersperse music from a USB directory and a network share during the same continuous play session; instead, you must play content from one source, switch sources, and then play content from the other source). This seems like a very silly limitation.
Interface is utilitarian and generally not very inspired. Compared to more innovative interfaces like Apple's Front Row, the CS510's interface is very me-too in the same vein as Windows Media Center and Myth TV (functional but unexciting). A minor quibble for someone who favors function over form most of the time.
Lots of setting changes require rebooting the unit. Want to enable UPnP support? OK...reboot. Want to change your LAN connection mode? OK...reboot. That gets old pretty quickly, especially when the unit I tested seemed to occasionally lose its ability to find UPnP servers on network and the only way to re-enable that was to go into Settings, turn UPnP support off, reboot, turn it back on, reboot, and then scan for UPnP servers. Not the most fun way to spend 5-6 minutes.
I was pretty excited about this device when I heard about it. Now that I've had some hands-on time, I'm optimistic that the next version of the CS510 may be something I would be willing to purchase for home use. At a $249 MSRP, I can't say I heartily recommend this unit -- it just has too many niggling deficiencies for me to say it's a good choice. But, it's close. If you're desperate to play back digitized content on your home theater, want lots of flexibility, willing to put up with some strange behavior and waiting time, and don't already have an HTPC set up, the CS510 might be just what you're looking for.