Media Servers

ISTAR Mini Network Media Tank

ARTICLE INDEX
ISTAR Media Tank

Introduction

Every now and then you run into a product you are so impressed with you just have to share.  The ISTAR Mini Network Media Tank is one of those products.  By all accounts the product is another media extender set top box that you plug into your TV that plays video, music and photos from an attached hard drive or home network.

There are lots of these products on the market.  Some are cheaper and some are more expensive, but no matter how you cut it, most of them are lacking in some way.

Specifications

  • Playback Specifications follow
  • $168.00 USA
  • IStarHD

The ISTAR is no exception, so it also has its limitations, but its simplicity and expansive format support have won me over.  The HDMI implementation is better than most  I have used and if you have a new HDMI receiver I am sure you want to use it.

Before continuing, let me explain what a Network Media Tank is, and define a few more terms that can be confusing.  Network Media Tank is an Operating System and Software distribution (no different than MS windows with Media Center or MAC OS X with iTunes) that is placed on hardware like the ISTAR.  A Media Server is something that has a hard drive that has media files on it (combination Hardware/Software).  A Media Streamer is something that accesses a Media Server over the network and plays files on an Audio or Video system (combination Hardware/Software).  A Media Extender is a fancy media streamer that only works with Microsoft Media Center (Combination Hardware/Software).  Network Media Tank is software made by Syabas to be placed on hardware made by multiple vendors (like ISTAR) to turn their hardware into a media server and streamer.

ISTAR Media Tank Connections

Hardware

What an ugly little box.  Really!  It is light, made out of rough metal and plastic and doesn't even have a power light to tell you when it is on.  You don't get much.  On the front there is a physical power button and an IR receiver.  The back has the gamut of IO connections including HDMI (1.1. in this case but there is another version with HDMI 1.3), VGA, Ethernet, spdif (coax and optical) composite video, stereo RCAs, and a USB port.  There is a SATA/eSATA connector on the side.

ISTAR Media Tank Side

The ISTAR was well packaged and contained most of the cables you need to get started.  To be truthful the cables were fancier looking than the unit itself.  The remote is really basic, and almost all the buttons are the same size (I hate that) and no backlight.

By all accounts, this product is not up to the same standards I usually expect from my Home Theater hardware.  I like amps that weigh 100 pounds and processors with copper plates on the bottom that add weight and the perception of good build quality (whether or not true).   However, I had to give the little unit a chance.

For the technical geeks out there, the version of the ISTAR that I have uses the Sigma Design SMP8635 rev C multimedia processor, has 32MB of Flash RAM, 100Mbit Ethernet.


Getting started

To begin, you just turn the power switch on, then hit the power button on the remote and the unit comes to life (as long as you have it plugged into some form of display, otherwise you wouldn't have a clue if it was on or off).  It takes a minute or so for start up (boot if you want to call it that) to complete.  During your wait-time, you are presented with an "ISTAR loading" screen.

Once the unit has booted, it has a very simple menu structure.  Going into the setup allows choice of what resolution you want to output to your display (ranging from NTSC to 1080p including 24fps, 30fps and PAL based frequencies).  The composite video stays active, outputting 480i all the time regardless of what output resolution you have chosen for the HDMI/VGA jack.  You can choose default sub-title and languages for audio-tracks, provided the source you are playing supports that (it did work with the ripped/archived DVDs I tried).

The same setup menu allows you to choose, if you want, to send audio over HDMI and to select what to do with sound encoding like AC-3 or DTS (convert  to LPCM or send bit stream).  It is important to note this particular unit can only output DTS via bit stream, but I believe the newer version will decode it to LPCM and also support Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio via bit stream.

You can set up the unit to get files from just about anywhere on the network and support just about every network file sharing method I can think of, including SMB (or Windows file sharing), Bonjour Service (MAC), FTP, NFS (Standard UNIX flavors), etc.  Each location you set up, from which to get files, shows up as a media source from the top menu.  Any device plugged into the device via SATA or USB also shows up as a media source.

In Use

The entire user experience is driven by choosing a media source first and then selecting what type of media you would like to play from that source. Choosing the source then presents the user with an option to play Videos, Music, Pictures, or Web Content.  Choosing any of these options presents the user with the file structure of that media source, allowing the user to navigate to media files. Clicking on the file (or folder, in the case of an archived DVD) plays the media.  In the case of clicking on an archived DVD, the system supports the full DVD menu structure, selection of different audio tracks, subtitles and even the FBI Warnings. This is completely backwards to 90% of the other media extenders and HTPC front ends which present you with the media type first then the navigation of the media sources.  Honestly, it doesn't matter which way it works because you end up with the same result.

Browsing the media sources is somewhat slow.  It takes a few seconds everytime you click on a new directory or media source.

Picture browsing is about the same as any other media extender, but you cannot edit files like you can using Vista Media Center (VMC) or some of the other HTPC front ends.  The Music option is also pretty simple, but has all the basic requirements.


File Formats

This thing will play just about anything.  Here is a list of specs from ISTAR:

You can basically play any sort of SD/HD content available today with this.  Samsung's CEO even stated that Blu-ray  has a life of about 5 years, only,  so units like this may be the future of how you watch movies in your home.

Playback Specifications

Support Media Containers:
  • MPEG1/2/4 Elementary (M1V, M2V, M4V)
  • MPEG1/2 PS (M2P, MPG)
  • MPEG2 Transport Stream (TS, TP, TRP, M2T, M2TS, MTS)
  • VOB
  • AVI, ASF, WMV
  • Matroska (MKV)
  • MOV (H.264), MP4, RMP4
Supported Video Codecs:
  • XVID SD/HD
  • MPEG-1
  • MPEG-2
  • MP@HL
  • MPEG-4.2
  • ASP@L5, 720p, 1-point GMC
  • WMV9
  • MP@HL
  • H.264
  • BP@L3
  • VC-1
  • MP@HL
  • AP@L3
Supported Audio Codecs:
  • AAC, M4A
  • MPEG audio (MP1, MP2, MP3, MPA)
  • WAV
  • WMA
Supported Surround Sound Containers:
  • DTS, AC3
Supported Picture Formats:
  • JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF
Other supported Formats:
  • ISO, IFO
Supported Subtitles:
  • SRT, SMI, SUB, SSA

 

So what's so great?

By now you have to be asking what is so great about this little box.  The simple fact is it works.  And it works really, really well.  I have used HTPCs and other media extenders for years.  For the most part they meet my needs, but I am continually tweaking them trying to get them to deal with different file formats properly, or properly send audio to my processor.  I don't mind, but I am pretty technically adept to such processes.  Other people are not and they struggle to get HTPCs working properly, or if they buy a media extender set top box end up discovering it won't play half the file formats they have.

An engineer in my office recently sold off his Blu-ray HTPC to buy a standalone Blu-ray player as he was sick and tired of the problems he was having trying to get it to work seamlessly with HDMI.  While the ISTAR is not a Blu-ray player it does show that it is possible to make a unit that plays all the formats we need in a simple box.

The ISTAR just works.  Every file I clicked on with the exception of lossless MWA played without a problem.  Even .mkv files played without falter.  This is very important as it allows the user to re-encode a DVD as an .mkv file and keep the DTS and AC-3 audio track, which is next to impossible with other media containers.  .mkv files are not supported by very many media extenders at this time so it is refreshing to finally see someone implement it properly.

Web Media Sources

You might be wondering why there was an option to play web content from the media source.  What is interesting is that the ISTAR can also play video and media directly from the Internet (or off a connected drive).  It has options to browse YouTube and Google Videos, MetaCafe, etc. This basically brings some of the fun stuff on the Internet directly to your TV or Theater and can be a great way to pass some time while people are gathering before the movie starts.

File Sharing

The system can also function as a NAS (Network Accessed Storage) on your home network.  Users can backup their files to the ISTAR or place media on the drive from another computer that may not be set up for file sharing.

Assuming you have a hard drive connected to the unit the ISTAR can also be a Bittorrent client.  There are many legal and illegal ways to use Bittorrent so I leave the user to their own scruples on that feature.  I don't use Bittorrent myself so I didn't try this functionality.

Software and Firmware Updates

In today's world it seems like everyone is in a rush to get products to market.  In some cases (as we have seen with Blu-ray players) the software can be quite buggy when the hardware slips out the door, with the promise from the manufacturer of updating the software or hardware at a later date (when they get the kinks worked out).  If the product has a good growth in the market, most manufacturers continue development on the firmware, and over time, the software usually lives up to the hardware's potential.

Something that makes the ISTAR unique, is the fact it is not unique at all.  It shares the exact some chipset and underlying operating system as several other media extenders.  A company called Syabas actually makes the OS.  One other hardware platform that is quite popular is Popcorn Hour.  Since multiple products use the same underlying chipsets and OS, it means new firmware is released on a regular basis for the ISTAR and the other vendors.

I upgraded the firmware to the newest version when I received the unit.  The process was painless.  I basically copied the firmware to a USB stick, plugged it into the ISTAR, chose the USB stick as the media source, selected the Web Content media option, clicked on the file and told it to upgrade, then waited for the unit as it re-booted with the new firmware.  It was simple and painless.


ISTAR Media Tank Remote Control

What is not to like?

Nothing is perfect.  As mentioned above, the unit isn't as fast as I would like.  The current firmware only allows me to fast-forward at 8x(this may be fixed by the time this has been published), and as I mentioned before, it isn't pretty.  The remote is not as friendly as others but a universal remote like a Harmony will take care of that.   Overall a minor set of gripes.

Conclusions

At $169, the ISTAR is a steal.  There is a $215 dollar version that support HDMI 1.3 (and sending TrueHD and DTS-MA over HDMI), if you need those functions.   I am sure the interface will get prettier and faster as new firmware is released.  For now I would say this is one of the simplest most complete media extenders on the market.

If you are thinking about trying one, just go order it.  The re-sale value of these units on eBay is almost the same as the retail price, and whether you buy the ISTAR or the Popcorn Hour, I am sure you would be able to sell them if for some reason you were not happy.  The Popcorn Hour unit is a little prettier so if you care about looks, that might be the way to go.