May We Serve You? Page 5

DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 17 x 4 1/4 x 15 inches WEIGHT 16 1/4 pounds PRICE $1,500 MANUFACTURER ZapMedia, Dept. S&V, 1355 Peachtree Rd. NE, Suite 250, Atlanta, GA 30309;; 678-420-2700

ZapMedia ZapStation The ZapStation Universal Media Player is a music server - and more - that began life as a collaboration between ZapMedia and Harman Kardon. The latter company decided to step back from the project, so even though the ZapStation's styling bears more than a passing resemblance to Harman Kardon's current audio lineup, it's strictly a ZapMedia product.

The ZapStation remains a music server at heart, storing musical selections on its hard drive in the MP3 and WMA formats, or as uncompressed PCM digital audio, with flexible playlist and search options. However, on top of this foundation the ZapStation is also a DVD player that can operate more or less conventionally, an Internet radio and streaming-video receiver, and a live news browser using text-based content from USA Today Interactive. (On its Web site, Zap Media promises even more such features in the future.) To help you navigate these riches, the ZapStation includes both a wireless infrared keyboard and a preprogrammed universal remote control.

Using the ZapStation as a music server was fairly straightforward thanks to the colorful, intuitive onscreen menus, which have the most elaborate graphics of the four servers that provide an onscreen display. (You can operate it from the front panel thanks to a cleverly implemented two-line, multicolor dot-matrix readout, but it's easier with the onscreen display.) Ripping tracks from CDs, creating playlists, and browsing among about two dozen Internet radio stations are mostly self-explanatory, though the menu levels can get fairly deep. (For example, getting from the "home" menu to a custom playlist requires traversing five levels.) Unfortunately, you can't do anything else while ripping a CD besides listening to that disc.

Web access is via a stripped-down, WebTV-like browser window on your TV screen as well as a direct-link page called the Zap Zone. With a broadband connection, everything came through in suitably snappy fashion, but the graphic quality and text readability were poor, as is generally the case when you use a TV as a browser. And, of course, the ZapStation can't hope to compete with a PC- or Macintosh-based browser in flexibility and customizability.

As usual with streaming audio, listening to Internet radio was a hit-and-miss affair - sometimes a station would be available, sometimes not, and "connecting" to a station (buffering the streaming data) could take a minute or more. The direct link to "the latest music" for download turned out to be a handful of tracks provided by mp3 .com in each of 14 genres. Almost all were by unknown artists or else cutout-bin fodder like the blues genre's Robin Trower cuts (all of which were fairly pathetic). The streaming-video features proved to be even more stripped-down: a handful of movie trailers, short subjects, and weird old films (like early Bruce Lee kung-fu epics or Godzilla vs. Megalon) in painfully low-resolution, low-frame-rate transfers.

The ZapStation worked fairly well as a conventional CD player, and it played DVDs conventionally in most respects, but my sample was unacceptably buggy. For example, it erratically but repeatedly displayed a distinct video hiccup - a momentary jerkiness through a handful of frames, usually near the very start of every disc I tried. It also rejected a couple of DVDs that I know are good with a "contents corrupted" error message, though it played both of them on a second attempt. Its four-speed fast-search function sometimes froze on the two highest forward speeds (8x and 16x) and on any backward search. Picture quality was mediocre with a standard composite-video link, better with an S-video connection.

Of course, whatever the ZapStation's shortcomings as a DVD player, Internet radio tuner, Web browser, and so on, its abilities as a digital music server are the main draw. Fortunately, these are very good, and the excellent onscreen displays make it easy to get the most out of them.

The Final Serving If you have the impression that none of these five servers is ready to play a starring role in a top-quality audio or home theater system, you're right - and wrong. Right, because they're all lacking in one significant respect or another, sometimes more than one. Wrong, because when it comes to music servers, you've got to leave your traditional A/V sensibilities at the door.

Remember that in terms of technology, these servers are in many ways more akin to desktop computers than to conventional CD players, even megachangers. Every one of them except the Onkyo can have its internal operating system (OS) upgraded via the Internet - I actually downloaded the latest Rio OS during this test. So any evaluation of one of these servers' features, usability, and stability is subject to change as the design evolves.

By the time you read this article and go looking for these servers in stores or on the Web, any or all of them may be - indeed, probably will be - different in some respects from the ones I played with at home and tested in the lab. The one thing we can be sure of, now that the digital audio genie has been let out of its optical-disc prison and freed to roam around on hard drives, flash memory, and the World Wide Web, is that music playback will never be the same again.