Media Receivers Page 2

About the ChartMedia types refers to the kinds of program content the receiver can handle, getting it from your network and sending it to your audio and video gear. Basically, it comes down to music (M), photos (P), and video (V). Later in the chart we get into the specific formats for audio, images, and video, but the first question is just what kind of media receiver you're dealing with.

The next question is how the receiver, also known as a "client," receives content. Most have an Ethernet (RJ-45) port built in or as part of a PC Card (a.k.a. PCMCIA card) that slides into a credit card-size slot. You run an Ethernet cable, sometimes included, from the receiver to the multiport router that forms the hub of your network. The router also accommodates a cable from your computer, which acts as the "server" in which your music, photos, and videos are stored, and one from a cable or DSL modem. (You don't need a broadband connection to transfer photos or videos from your cameras and music from your CDs, but the slow speed of a dial-up modem limits your ability to download from the Internet.)

Media receivers are increasingly Wi-Fi savvy, using either an extendable or embedded antenna, or a Wi-Fi PC Card that slides into a slot. A few receivers have a USB port so you can plug in a Wi-Fi accessory that has its own antenna. Outputs indicate how a media receiver can connect to your audio receiver and TV. Most models have onscreen interfaces, and all those have standard composite-video outputs, so we don't list them; usually they also have S-video outputs, and we do list those. While component-video outputs are becoming common, VGA and DVI (Digital Visual Interface) connections are still rare. Since all media receivers have standard RCA-jack stereo outputs, these aren't listed. Some models have two types of digital audio connections, so these are indicated. Models without video outputs convey information via a front-panel display, an LCD screen on a two-way remote, or synthesized voice prompts.

Audio, Image, and Video formats refer to the streaming formats a media receiver can handle. Virtually every model plays MP3 files, and many play Windows Media Audio (WMA) files as well. You're less likely to find a receiver that can play WAV (uncompressed audio), mp3PRO or AAC files. (Receivers can play mp3PRO tracks as MP3 but without certain quality enhancements.) While a maximum or minimum bit rate will sometimes be given, receivers typically can handle music encoded at up to 320 kilobits per second (kpbs). Media receivers often recognize playlists you've assembled on your computer using popular song-management programs like MusicMatch. (We haven't indicated playlist formats.)

All media receivers that support slide shows can handle JPEG images. BMP or TIFF files might be automatically converted to a format the receiver can output, but the net effect is that you can store them on your PC and view them on your TV. Media receivers often let you view slide shows while listening to music, but some let you call up a song on the fly while others make you first attach the music to the slide show.

Video formats supported range from the popular MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 to newer ones like MPEG-4, DiVX, and DVR-MS. Media Center PCs use DVR-MS for recording TV shows (see "Extending a Media Center PC").

Dimensions vary from no larger than a thick, hardcover book, like the last Harry Potter novel, to the size of a standard, stackable A/V component.

Additional features/notes indicates if a media receiver is a hybrid component that, for instance, doubles as a DVD player. Some receivers also let you browse the Web. And some stream music from Internet radio stations or services like Radio@AOL or Rhapsody that typically require a monthly subscription. All of these receivers come with remote controls. Most of the remotes are infrared models, so make sure you can see the receiver's front panel from your couch or bed.

Consider inviting a media receiver into your home to liberate all those pictures, songs, and videos you have trapped on your computer's hard drive.

PDF: Media Receivers Listings