The home theatre system is going to become an integral part of any home computer network soon. Itís a growing tendency. In the past decade when everyone used VHS cassettes (if we look back weíll see that the quality of the films recorded on cassettes of this type was awful around here) playing them back on bulky TV-sets with cathode-ray tube, computers were not considered at all as means of playing back video. And ďhome theatresĒ of those days were nothing but ďanalogĒ.
Now the situation has improved a bit. An average DVD player costs $40-80, a DVD disk can be purchased for $15-30. Itís not that hard to find disks of a good quality while linking up a computer is one of the most topical issues today. It costs a lot but the owner of this system gets a very versatile player at their disposal which is easy to update both programmatically and hardwarily. The only disadvantage is that it will cost you $300-600 depending on its configuration.
Thereís another disadvantage Ė the HTPC takes a lot of place, though it depends on the size of its case. But you donít really need a big case. Moreover, you can purchase a very compact nettop for $200-300 and watch movies using it. And itís not the most optimal variant Ė you can get the desired result even for less money.
There are so-called network media players. Itís something like a network attached storage (NAS) which is capable of decoding different formats and displaying them on the TV. Itís a very handy thing Ė its software is ďcustomizedĒ for remote control and you may turn out to have a couple of hard disks ďat handĒ which you can easily replenish through a network. Apart from that, you can reach for the hard disks installed on the computers through the same network. And to make you completely happy - the most functional devices can autonomously download all the necessary stuff from the internet through BitTorrent. In this case even the most functional of them cost less than $250.
But ... have you already guessed? Thatís it! Itís not an ultimate limit. And the ďlimitĒ Ė here it is: we remove local data storage, connection with the internet ability, Wi-Fi and even cut off NAS functions. What is left? Thatís it, chip-decoder, a couple of video outputs for connecting to a TV, Ethernet connector and USB. Apacer AL460, a network media player, appears to be this ďmiracleĒ. Its ultimate goal is to transmit video/audio stream to the TV. Do you think it costs a lot? From our point of view, itís not so much Ė about $100. But can there be any problems with the device? We have been investigating it.
AL460 Ė is not the first experience of creating media players by Apacer. There was another model before it which was up-to-date a couple of years ago. It handled many formats but HD video was beyond its power. However much depended on bit rate and resolution but it wonít be able to cope with modern formats. AL460 is to solve the problem. Letís have a look at its specifications.
As we have already mentioned, the data source for AL460 is external storage devices such as USB flash, card-readers or HDD. Itís a pity that storages attached to the device are not accessible through a local network but NAS functions are cut off intentionally in order to reduce the cost even more. Through the network the player will see everything that is accessible through CIFS/SMB protocol or, in other words, Windows shares for general use or resources accessible through Samba server for Linux and Mac OS X.
Itís very good that NTFS file system is supported. It would be great if there was compatibility with Linux systems which are often used on hard disks installed in NAS but itís not critical.
We are going to tell about ports a bit later. We are impressed by the list of the formats it supports. With the help of AL460 you can watch virtually anything that you come across on the Internet. Why virtually? Because Blu-ray images are not supported. You can try and play back all the files from the folder in succession one after another but the player doesnít always cope with its correct sorting. There shouldnít be any other problems though. Anyway, the most popular films are coded with MPEG-4 codec now. And here you can come across both compact files with low resolution and FullHD compressed stuff with Blu-ray. But there are no problems with DVD either even with ISO images. We have checked it out ourselves Ė everything functions smoothly, even DVD menu.
Video is displayed with the resolution of up to 1920x1080 pixels and it speaks for itself. It is enough for any modern film. Besides you can view any photos as long as pictures with the definition of more than 15 MP are supported. You can come across a higher resolution only in professional DSLRs but they are few. As for audio, the bit rate of 320 Kbit/s is supported and we are going to tell about peculiarities of its decoding below.
All this becomes possible due to chip-decoder produced by Realtek, accurate model of which we have failed to reveal. Apart from this AL460 has main memory of 128 MBytes and flash memory of 256 MBytes. It goes without saying that flash memory is not accessible for the user and is only used for command system running.
The device weighs very little. We can even say that itís virtually weightless. And its outer dimensions are not that big Ė you can put AL460 anywhere Ė it wonít take much room.
Design and slots
The design of AL460 is both simple and original at the same time. If you take a detached view the ďboxĒ of the media player resembles a small stand but with USB input-output ports on the front panel. Thereís nothing on top of the device. Square surface has glossy reflecting covering where fingerprints and scratches are clearly seen if they happen to appear. So youíd better not use as a stand for something although it may seem to look like one. The edging of the player is light blue and made of plastic.
The side faces are on-the-upright-mitre growing narrower at the bottom. You can find vents, stickers with some technical information and four rubber lags on the bottom.
As we have already mentioned AL460 has two USB at the front and itís very handy as you donít have to ďtake in the reverseĒ if you happen to need to get a flash drive connected. Though, if you constantly keep an extern hard disk connected to the player as one of the main sources of the content, the aesthetic aspect is going to be spoilt a bit. Apart from USB the front face also has IrDA for remote control.
All the other ports are at the back. Component and composite outputs, HDMI, RJ-45, power connector and on/off button can be found there. There is nothing except vents on the sides. As for component and composite outlets, they have a diameter of 3.5 mm, which is smaller than ďordinaryĒ ones. We want to draw your attention to the fact that regular cables wonít fit Ė if you lose prepacked ones, youíll have to look for their more compact substitutes.
The assembly quality is good, the case doesnít have any backlashes though it caves in the centre, so youíd better not put anything on it. Apart from this, AL460 doesnít get hot at all despite passive cooling. So, you wonít get either noise or heat from it, except on very cold winter evenings and if the central heating is off.
The Apacer AL460 packaging arrangement is not bad on the whole though there are some shortcomings. We have found the following inside the small box:
- short user's manual;
- composite audio (stereo) and video cable;
- component video cable;
- CD with a user's manual;
- remote control, two batteries for it;
- power supply.
Itís very useful that there are two cables: for composite and component connections, and itís bad that it lacks HDMI. It doesnít cost much, though. A short cable can be purchased for $4-6 but itís nicer when itís included in the set. However it would upvalue the player, whose main advantage is a reasonable price.
As for remote control, you wouldnít call it very handy because of its small size and the shape, in the first place Ė it doesnít feel as comfortable in the hand as many of its ďTVĒ analogs. The buttons are rubber ones without any micro-light. They are pressed resiliently with little effort. The main block for navigation on the menu is handy and quickly sticks in memory by touch. The 16 bottom buttons are not that handy. In our opinion, the fast forward and reverse buttons might have been marked out.
Now a few words about how to use AL460. You should start with connecting it to a TV. We decided to take a soft option and connected it to a TV with the help of our own HDMI cable. Both devices recognized each other and quickly ďmade friendsĒ.
However those who donít have an HDMI cable and donít want to (or canít) purchase one will have to use the composite output for both video and audio. Though they will have audio only in stereo format Ė the playerís decoder converts it in a proper way. In fact itís the easiest way, though for a better quality image, especially with HD, weíd recommend to use a component video-output in addition to a composite one.
By the way, itís fun to learn that component output or HDMI can be connected to another displaying-image device Ė the player then duplicates the signal for one of them. It can be useful, say, in a small cafe or applied to two TV in your apartment.
As for the sound, if you want a digital sound it can be performed only through HDMI, which is a pity. The decoder is able to ďcopeĒ only with Dolby Digital while youíll have to use a special receiver for DTS. Itís an advantage that AL460 can transmit pure non-decoded sound Ė itís specified in its settings.
Now we pass on to the settings and the player control interface.
The main menu operates on the net principle. A similar variant can often be found in many devices of the kind as itís handy and easy for perception. Only System Setup has more than two subpoints, as for the rest, you have to choose between either LAN or USB, i.e. data source. Besides, all the horizontal points, except System Setup, are merely a filter for music, photo, video, or you can choose to display all the supported content.
The easiest thing is ďto get through toĒ USB. Once you have chosen the necessary filter you can see a list of the connected storages, which are assigned a letter of the logical drive, like in Windows, and you can also see the file system type. Further n the navigation is performed like in any program such as Explorer in Windows or Finder in Mac OS X.
Network resources manipulation is carried out in the same way, except for My_Shortcuts folder where you can find pointers for resources whose data were entered singly: the computerís name, the userís name and the password. But the pointer is made solely for the computer, not for a particular folder. We have failed to find out what the folder My_Neighbors is intended for, but the rest are a list of available workgroups. On entering any of them youíll see a list of the computers, the rest is like in a regular Windows net.
Network resources available on the computer are all displayed, even those that are hidden by Windows Explorer. Though on entering there may appear a password and userís name request. Apart from opening a folder you can set playing back the whole of it, there are also options for its renaming and deleting. No doubt, USB can be used as well if there are all the required access rights.
Having got through to the desired content you can see a list of supported files displayed together with folders. On the right you can see preview. If you deal with a photo, itís displayed right there. If itís a film, you have to ďplay backĒ at first and then again press [Enter/Play] button on the remote control in order to switch over to the full-screen mode. It works in the same way for the photo. Music is played back in the way you see it in the picture - no sliders, no ďprogress barsĒ, etc. Thereís only an ID3-tag on the right, timer and a bit of technical information at the bottom Ė itís all that is available.
DVD is played back by opening an ISO-image or an IFO file. Diskís menu runs perfectly and is remotely controlled.
While viewing you can operate the following options:
Technical information about the film
There are many installation-specific settings for subtitles. You can codify them, correct the time to synchronize it with a film, choose a colour, size and shear on the screen.
Weíd also like to say a couple of words about the rewinding. Itís carried out with the help of four buttons on the remote control. Though you canít rewind by just holding the button - you can only specify speed of playing back. The 1.5x and 2.0x modes preserve the sound. In our view, such navigation through the film is not the handiest. It should have been thought over more thoroughly. Itís compensated in a way, though Ė in the event of cutoff the player saves the position in a particular file in memory and on restarting resumes playing back from it.
Now we pass on to the installation settings.
All the settings as well as the list of files/folders are displayed on the left while their current values are displayed on the right, if there are any. In the main system settings you can choose the menu language, code (by the way, there have been no problems with names of files in Russian), firmware update and return to the standard settings.
The sound settings include a Ďnightí mode for more comfortable listening in a quiet atmosphere. Here you can specify the sound output format through HDMI: LPCM or RAW (without processing it).
In Video you specify screen format for displaying an image, image brightness, image contrast, noise reduction mode, output format, video output mode (PAL/NTSC).
Now letís talk about the most ďinteresting partĒ Ė network settings. AL460 can get an IP address automatically through DHCP or you can specify it manually. Manual entry results in some ritual dancing as at first you have to type figures on the ďscreen calculatorĒ for about 5 minutes and then fail to save everything youíve typed. As it turns out, for saving what you need you should have performed another dance that we have called Option button on the remote controlĒ for convenience. On pressing it you see the menu where you could have chosen settings saving. As a matter of fact Option button proved to be useful Ė itís like right mouse-click Ė it activates the menu with additional options in different menu sections and different playback modes.
The cordless connection setting has daunted us a bit because thereís no Wi-Fi module in the Apacer player. It has turned out that it can be connected through USB. Though we have failed to find out which of them is compatible with AL460 Ė those that we ďpalmed offĒ were majestically rejected accompanied by blinking of the lamp on the front panel.
There are other settings, where you can specify some other stuff like background music, switching over to slide-show effect, wallpaper and other.
In our view Apacer AL460 proved to be a rather interesting device. Of course, what matters most of all is its low price Ė for only $100 you can upgrade your home theatre enabling it to play back most of the modern formats. Such a device, in any case, is handier than any DVD player which ďdemandsĒ disks therewith. With Apacer AL460 you only have to connect it to the computer in the next room and enjoy viewing.
The player successfully coped with everything we had palmed off: from photo and DVD video to 1080p format films supplied in popular MKV container. Thatís why much of what you can download from the internet today should be played back on AL460 without any problems.
Are there drawbacks? There are no serious ones. All the rest are due to its low cost. For instance, there can be added NAS function, Internet connection, internet radio support and so on. As a matter of fact such players do exist but they cost more. This one performs the most important tasks: plays back video and audio, and the quality is high. Itís a pity that there is no HDMI cable as a unit, but itís not reasonable to expect it from a low cost device. But all the other cables are included, so you wonít have to rush to the shop at once.
On the whole, as one of the cheapest variants HTPC Apacer AL460 proved to be an excellent device. So, if you are pressed for money or simply donít want to start with something very functional, you can try AL460.