When I first saw the specs for the Play@TV NMP-400, I was sure it was the media player of my dreams. Like the KiSS DP-500, it supports server-based playback of movies, photos, and music. The Play@TV box eliminates the DVD drive though, which significantly reduces the price of the box, and also cuts way back on its size. The Play@TV box is an attractive, little unit that looks nice while remaining quiet and unobtrusive. You wouldn’t have any trouble putting this in your media center.

The Play@TV Unit

The NMP-400 not only looks nice on my shelf, it also cuts down on cable clutter by having a PCMCIA slot available for wireless use. I can plug an 802.11b card into the NMP-400 and get immediate access to my wireless network without the need for an external box, as with the KiSS DP-500. Nice.

Unlike the KiSS unit, Play@TV has features galore on both the server and client side – it really meets my expectations. The Media Organizer on my server lets me import and categorize my movies from all over my hard drive, or even all over my network. I can add information to each movie such as directory, actors, release date, and so on. The organizer will extract thumbnails from the move that are used in the menus on the client. All quite nice. I can even use the organizer to watch the movie on my PC, although that’s a bit superfluous.

Info on the current movie

Just as an example, the screen shot above shows the type of info I can see during the playback of a move on the NMP-400. A nice on-screen display showing how long the movie is and where I am in the current view. Just what I was hoping for in the Kiss DP-500.

The folks at Play@TV have a much better handle on the presentation of your movies, videos, and photos. In each case you have a lot of nice choices of how to sort titles, use thumbnails, create playlists, and more. And despite the fact that unit appears to have been entirely engineered in Korea, the US localization is excellent.

The Play Media Organizer

Given all this, it is with a very heavy heart that I have to say the PLay@TV NMP-400 is complete unacceptable as a client for your home video jukebox. The simple reason for this is that the NMP-400 does not support DivX or any other MPEG-4 movie format – it requires an MPEG-2 stream.

Play@TV Advertising Materials

I’m a little bitter about this shortcoming. The Play@TV is clearly advertised as supporting DivX. (See the capture above taken directly from their web page.) But immediately after pulling up the help file, I ran into some text that was clearly taking me into an unhappy area:

Note: What is a codec? Here, the word codec refers to software that implements an encoding/decoding process when digital content is stored (encoded and compressed) and played (decoded and decompressed) on your PC. Because Play@TV depends on your PC’s ability to play such encoded content, you will need codecs installed on your PC that are appropriate for your content. As an example, popular codecs for digital video include MPEG1, MPEG2, and WMV.

What’s worse, I see much later in the document that Play@TV specifies requirements of a P4 CPU running at over 2.4 GHz for even MPEG-2 files. This is just crazy, all the CPU on my server should have to do is shovel bits onto the network!

After doing some more digging, it turns out that the whole enterprise is a giant hack built around the slightly anemic player. Since it can only support MPEG-2 streams, everything on the PC has to be transcoded. In other words, when I am viewing a DivX movie, it is being decoded on my PC, then recoded as an MPEG-2 stream. And Yes, Virginia, that does take a lot of CPU power.

It gets worse, of course. Even if you were willing to watch content ripped straight from your CD, you would still be in trouble. That 5 Mbps stream just won’t fit very well on your network, so the Play@TV server software has to transcode it down to a smaller size, and possible do some frame dropping, in order to make it through your narrow-pipe 802.11b. (And despite the presence of a PCMCIA slot, forget about 54 Mbps 802.11g – that’s not supported either.)

Finally, even if you swallowed hard, bought 3X the disk space, and connected your client player via a wired network, you would still not be out of the woods. The first time you tried to fire up two clients at the same time your PC would be completely out of gas. (Unless you have a liquid-nitrogen cooled 5 GHz P4.)

I feel bad getting snookered by these folks, but at the same time I have to admit that the Play@TV box gives me some optimism. If the engineering team in Korea would just add a DivX decoder chip to the motherboard of this device, it would be my dream machine. Somebody will ship that machine in 2004, and I hope it’s these guys.