It seems only appropriate that I follow my recent review of the Apple TV with a look at another digital player, the Nixeus Fusion HD. This product is another example of a multi-media streaming device. It has the ability to play back a wide variety of formats for video, still photos, and audio. To this it adds Internet functionality in the form of a web browser plus access to services like YouTube and Flickr. It also offers file management in the form of BitTorrent and easy connectivity with your networked computers via Ethernet or WiFi.
Nixeus was founded in 2010 with the initial goal of providing digital player products like the Fusion HD. Rather than marketing expensive and complicated Home Theater PCs, Nixeus decided to simplify their offering into a simple-to-operate media-bridge. The Fusion HD connects your home theater system to your already installed computers and to the Internet and lets you stream that content with a single all-encompassing interface. An on-board hard drive lets you store large high-bitrate files if you want quicker access to your content. An external SATA port allows you to connect a PC for easy the transfer of files to the Fusion’s internal drive.
Before delving into the inner workings of the Fusion HD, I should offer a brief disclaimer. This device falls into the category of digital media players which is literally the latest thing in AV technology; truly the bleeding edge. Only a few products are currently available so an established frame of reference just isn’t possible at this time. After looking at and researching some of these components, I’ve concluded, for now, that the defining feature must be the user interface. All these products have wide format and codec compatibility, and are generally easy to install. The thing that sets them apart is how easily and intuitively they can access your content whether it resides locally or in the cloud. Therefore, this review will focus as much on the user experience as it will on the quality of playback.
- Design: Streamer for Audio and Video
- Processor: Sigma Designs 8655
- Video Containers: AVI, WMV,MPG, ISO, VOB, IFO, MP4, ASF, TP, TS, M2TS, MOV (h.264), MKV, Motion JPEG
- Video Codecs: MPEG 1/2/4 SD/HD, AVI, H.264 HD, WMV9, VC1
- Audio Codecs: MP3, WMA, AAC, Dolby Digital, DTS, FLAC, OGG, MPEG 1 Layer 2, PCM, WMA PRO
- Pass Through: Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD MA
- Graphics Decoder: JPEG, PNG, GIF, Bitmap, TIFF
- Video Output: HDMI (480p, 576p, 720p50, 720p60, 720p120, 1080i50, 1080i60, 1080p24, 1080p25, 1080p30, 1080p50, 1080p60), Composite (CVBS)
- Audio Output: HDMI, Stereo (CVBS), S/PDIF (Optical or Coaxial)
- Networking: Wired 10/100 Ethernet, Wireless 802.11b/g/n
- Supported OS: Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7
- Media Storage Support: Internal SATA Hard Drive up to 2 Tb, External via USB and eSATA
- Inputs: 2 USB, 1 eSATA
- Outputs: 1 HDMI, 1 Toslink, 1 Coax Digital, 3.5 Mini-plug (Composite Video/Stereo Audio, Adapter Included)
- Dimensions: 3″ H x 8″ W x 5″ D
- Weight: 2 Pounds with Hard Drive
- MSRP – $199.99 USA
The Fusion HD is a small box, about the size of three stacked paperback books, made of shiny black plastic. If you use the WiFi connection as I did, a small antenna sticks up the back. Being that it is far smaller than typical components, it cannot be stacked. You must set on a shelf or on another device. The front has a small LED to indicate power on or off. An additional LED flashes in response to remote commands. Front inputs include eSATA and two USB ports. The rear panel has an RJ-45 Ethernet port, another USB input, digital optical and coax jacks, a 3.5mm jack for composite video and stereo audio (adaptor included) and an HDMI output. The rear USB port is used for the WiFi antenna.
Codec and format support is fairly complete with most all popular file types in evidence. I won’t regurgitate the specs here. There were no gaps in video support that I could see. It would appear that every way video can be stored digitally can be played back by the Fusion HD. Audio support is almost as complete. I say almost because Windows Media Lossless is missing from the list. This surprised me a little since WMA Lossless can be played by the majority of streaming devices I’ve used. And of course, I have some music stored in that format. I could see the files on my computer but the Fusion HD refused to play them. Perhaps a future firmware update will add this format. The list of audio codecs is complete as well. Lossless formats like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio are passed through as bitstreams or, in the case of DTS-HD, you can downmix to PCM.
The non-backlit remote is quite comprehensive, almost to the point of being too complicated; but every important control is at your fingertips. In addition to the usual transport and menu navigation keys, there are many buttons that directly access the features of the Fusion HD. You can change the video output from digital to analog on the fly. There is direct access to the setup menu. Hotkeys are even provided for some of the file management functions. All of these features can be accessed in the menu system but the inclusion of hotkeys is a real plus. It took me a bit of getting used to since I am more accustomed to the simplicity of a universal handset. Programming the Nixeus into a Harmony system for example would require many special keys to cover everything this box can do. I also found the buttons a bit small with even smaller icons indicating their function. It did however become intuitive the more I used it.
The first thing I had to do after unpacking everything was to install a hard disk. The Fusion HD does not include one, which is not surprising given its $199 price tag. Any 3.5-inch SATA drive of up to 2 terabytes will work. Nixeus provided me an 80-gig unit pre-loaded with several HD movies and some music and photos. I had to take the cover off the box to put in the disk drive with a set of included screws. Once this was done, I connected an HDMI cable to run the player through my Integra prepro, a USB WiFi antenna, an Ethernet cable and of course power.
I tried both wired and wireless network connections with the Fusion HD. Hard-wiring is recommended when streaming hi-def video and this advice is not to be taken lightly. Streaming HD over a WiFi connection showed unacceptable stuttering and frame drops. It’s suitable only for streaming music or standard-def fare. While I had little difficulty with the computer-speak setup menu, those less fluent might have trouble. Everything you need is there and works as advertised. I just found the terminology a little less intuitive than it could have been. Fortunately, this kind of thing can easily be fixed with firmware updates. This has become a fact of life as our traditional receivers and disc players slowly morph into full-blown computers. While it’s nice to think a product should work flawlessly from the outset, updates not only allow bugs to be squashed; they allow features to be added. A device like the Fusion HD has, in theory, almost limitless potential because it’s not as firmly tied to its hardware as something like a Blu-ray player.
After downloading the latest firmware, which took all of five minutes, I ran through the setup menus. Everything you need for network connection is there. Some of the terminology was unfamiliar but I quickly figured things out. For instance, the wireless password item is called Key Value instead of the more obvious, Password. These were minor quibbles though. I had the unit connected and running within 15 minutes or so. Video and audio options are similar to a disc player with a few picture settings and controls for audio formats, screen aspect and the like. One thing I had to check right away was the output refresh rate. Fortunately, there is an Auto Sync setting which will change from 60Hz to 24Hz for appropriate content.
Another thing you’ll want to attach to the Fusion HD is a keyboard. Typing with the remote is quite annoying and I tired of it quickly. Any standard PC keyboard, wired or wireless, will work. I plugged one in and it was recognized instantly. You can also connect a mouse but you’ll use up both USB ports if your keyboard doesn’t have one. Fortunately, many do. Obviously, a wireless keyboard and mouse with a single USB dongle is the ideal setup.
I started with the content Nixeus included on the internal hard drive. Obviously there are no bandwidth issues with files located on the local storage device. All the movies displayed without stutter or issue except one title, Chloe. For some reason, there were audio dropouts and loss of sync between audio and video. Since every other title played fine, I attribute this to a less-than-perfect rip of the original movie. I only mention it because this is a new issue one must be aware of in this new-age of discless media. Errors in file transfer or conversion can cause artifacts and other problems if you aren’t careful.
The Fusion HD Home Screen
Included file formats were mkv and iso. Iso is of interest because it represents an exact image of the original disc. This way you can preserve the menu system and any interactive features. It does take up more drive space however. Mkv rips strip out the extra content and menus so you’re left with only the movie. There is no discernable difference in audio or video quality between these formats. An iso version of Predators looked no better or worse than the mkv version of Alice In Wonderland. I didn’t get a chance to try any lossless audio with the Fusion HD. The movies I received were either Dolby Digital or DTS.
As I said earlier, Windows Media Lossless is not supported so I wasn’t able to stream any music from my computer. Apple Lossless is also a no-go. I tried a few DRM-free MP3s and had no trouble. They sounded compressed of course but this wasn’t the Fusion HD’s fault. The player reproduced the content faithfully. The output level was a bit higher than my Oppo BDP-83 but this was easily compensated for by adjusting the output level with the remote.
Browsing movie titles
A list of music selections
At no time did I detect any coloration or alteration by the Fusion HD in either video or audio content. The playback quality is directly affected by the quality of the files themselves. Obviously higher resolutions and bitrates will look and sound the best. You are only limited by storage space and the Fusion HD allows for unlimited amounts of that. You can use a large internal drive and pretty much any external drive array you wish. With hard disk prices being so low, there is no reason not to load up.
I did encounter a few problems when I accessed the Internet functions of the Fusion HD. Several apps are included for services like YouTube, Picasa, Flickr, ShoutCast, Live365 and Fusion Channel. YouTube provided an OK interface but every video I tried to load had no sound. Buffering was quick and the image ran smoothly but unfortunately the audio would not work. After a talk with Nixeus, I discovered I had to set the AAC audio to PCM rather than Raw in the setup menu. Unfortunately, the manual is not a lot of help here. While it describes the settings and features of the unit, there is very little explanation of options like this. When I first tried ShoutCast, the app would not load at all; issuing a “Network Not Found” error message. This issue turned out to be due to an upgrade of the ShoutCast server. A firmware update on the FusionHD took care of the problem. Live365 is an Internet radio service that has literally thousands of feeds from all over the country. I was able to access stations in the Most Popular category but many of the other providers required a subscription which I did not have. When browsing the feeds, a padlock icon indicates which services require signup. The Fusion Channel showed me lists of video feeds and categories but they did not all work. After my conversation with Nixeus, I learned this is a problem with the various providers’ servers. Most of the channels I tried did work and the video quality varied from poor to decent.
The Fusion HD has a rudimentary web browser which defaults to Google search but you can create lists of favorite websites too. Unfortunately, its compatibility is somewhat limited. There are no plug-ins for file types like PDF for example. Loading Secrets’ website gave me an error message and links would not work. Web browsing can be tedious using only the remote but fortunately, the Fusion HD supports a keyboard and/or mouse through a USB port. This ran me into another limitation, only two USB ports available. If you’re already using one for the WiFi antenna, there’s only one left for additional peripherals. You could plug in a hub if you need more ports.
Despite a few flaws, it’s hard to fault the Fusion HD too much given its low price of only $199.99. A full-blown home theater PC will cost you at least 10 times as much for only a little more functionality and a lot more complexity. An Apple TV is cheaper and works better but is limited to a few Internet apps and content from either your iTunes library or the iTunes Store. I’m not sure I personally would have a use for the Fusion HD in its current form but I believe it shows a lot of promise. If you want to use it strictly as a movie server, it will work just fine. The interface is not as slick as some much more expensive products but the vast majority of users will have no problems figuring it out. As I said in my review of the Apple TV, having your media at the call of a button is quite compelling. It doesn’t seem like dropping a disc in a drawer would be a big deal but having a screen full of movie choices on your TV is extremely cool. You will view your content in a whole new way and the convenience level is more than a little bit higher.
Since products like the Fusion HD are still emerging, it’s tough to compare them without an established frame of reference. I saw much potential in this box and I’m sure with future firmware updates, it will only get better. Nixeus has delivered a reasonably solid component at a killer price. If you want to experience movie server convenience without dropping thousands on high-end systems, you might want to give the Fusion HD a shot. For less than $200 it’s hard not to recommend it. Just remember, this is a new category in media delivery, teething pains are inevitable.