Astone AP-100There have been plenty of recent developments on the Network Media Tanks (NMT) front.  The latest offering to land at DigitalReviews is the Astone Media Gear AP-100.  Has the Astone AP-100 got what it takes to snatch the crown from the current leader of the pack reviewed here, the iBox Z400W?  Thanks to Achieva Technology Australia for making a unit available for road testing.

First Impressions
The Astone AP-100 is by far the smallest and lightest NMT that I have encountered thus far for review, the unit is not much larger than a “toughened” external portable hard disk of the 2.5″ variety.  Not surprisingly due to the size, there is no provision to add an internal hard disk to the AP-100.

To achieve the feather weight, the AP-100 casing is compose entirely in black plastic which is actually not too bland and the tiny size makes it an unobtrusive addition to the home theatre rig.

The fascia of the AP-100 has two USB ports, a power button and two LEDs indicating power and USB access respectively.  On the back panel is the power input, TOSLINK, Video (CVBS), Audio L/R, YPbPr, HDMI and Ethernet ports.

Back viewUpon the first start up the AP-100 requires you to select the system language, resolution and aspect ratio of your television system.  For HDMI output the cable should be connected first and the AP-100 will auto detect the system resolution.  It was a pretty painless exercise up to this point.

Network connectivity is achieved either by the onboard ethernet port, or an Astone AW-N290 external wireless USB dongle.  Whilst the cap of the Astone AW-N290 is stickered over with a “install driver before connecting” label it does not apply when it is being use with an AP-100.  All you had to do is to plug the AW-N290 into either of the two USB ports of the AP-100 and it will be recognised automatically.

Unfortunately for me and my complex WPA2 key the AP-100 onscreen keyboard only supports a subset of symbols.  There was no way for me to enter my Wi-Fi encryption key because the CAPS function on the keyboard does not give me any of the symbols normally associated with the numeric keys.

Plan B required a long CAT6 cable to be thrown over a high partition wall and use the ethernet port but at least that worked flawlessly.

In Action
As most of my media sits on a bunch of hard disks hanging off a server, network connectivity is important and so is support for the right protocols.  I already have CIFS and NFS shares as well as uPNP configured from previous reviews which should cover all bases.

KeyboardThe Astone AP-100 discovers the domains on my network without drama.  Whilst it found my notebook, it was unable to see my test domain controller at all.  There was no way of manually specifying an IP address to give it a nudge for that matter so I resorted to copying some test files to an USB drive and sharing it from my notebook over Wi-Fi just to make things a bit more interesting.

I added a shortcut via the AP-100 menu which allows me to enter my credentials and saving it so that I do not have to enter it every time.  Unfortunately if you are restricted by a complex password policy then you will have issues with the crippled symbol support on the onscreen keyboard.

Once I gain access to my network share, I threw the Astone off the deep end of the pool so to speak.  Just to recap on the configuration, the AP-100 is physically connected to a gigabit switch port (note the AP-100 supports up to 100 Mbps only).  The media I intend to play are on a WD Passport USB2.0 connected to a Dell notebook with a draft N certified wireless network card.  The notebook is running an x64 version of Windows 7.

The first file I threw at the Astone AP-100 in this configuration was a 2.6 Gb high definition movie file.  First the AP-100 verifies your network speed, decodes and plays a preview on screen as you scroll to the entry.  The playback itself was flawless with no lag or distortion from network latency.  I also threw a 7.9 Gb x264 codec media file at it which played smoothly as far as the video’s concern but there was no sound.  In defence of the AP-100, every other NMT I had on hand and even my notebook couldn’t even get the video going despite my best efforts.  I know the file is good so it can only be a codec issue.

I was also please to note that Real Media format is natively supported on the Astone AP-100.  As for standard AVI files, subtitle files in English SRT format were tested without any issues.

Other Features
Remote controlThe Astone AP-100 supports an external USB DVD or CD-ROM drive for media playback.  On top of that, it can also be put into a NAS controller mode so that you can remotely manage media files on storage that is attached to the USB ports. With version 1.6 of the firmware additional features have been introduce to show history of the playlist.  There is also now an ability to copy media files from USB to Network, or vice versa, or any other of the combinations.

The remote control is a good size with enough buttons to make things happens without being overly complicated or simplistic.  Combined with clear on-screen instructions for the coloured buttons it is actually quite effective.  One feature I particularly like is the fast forward and reverse works like the old VHS tapes where you can see the media play forward or back instead of having to guess when to go back to normal speed.

As with all NMT there are provisions for music playing and photo displays.  What is interesting is that the specifications states it support JPG files up to 40 megapixel without limitation of resolution.  Unless you have got some serious camera gear I doubt anyone is going to reach that limit in the near future.

* Disc format: FAT16/FAT32/NTFS (Read only)/UDF/EXT3
* Subtitle: Chinese Traditional/Chinese Simplified/UTF8
* Resolution: 1080p
* Aspect ratio: Pan Scan 4:3 / Letterbox 4:3 /16:9
* Interface: Video: CVBS YPbPr HDMI 1.3
* USB: USB 2.0, 5V-1000mA
* USB DVD-ROM: DVD Disc playback
* USB Wireless dongle: Astone AW-N290 802.11n dongle, SAMBA client, UPnP
* Movie Video: MPEG-1 (DAT / MPG / MPEG); MPEG-2 (MPG / MPEG / VOB / ISO / IFO / TS / TP) MPEG-4 (MP4 / AVI / MOV); DivX 3/4/5/6, Xvid (AVI / MKV) H.264 AVC (TS / AVI / MKV / MOV) VC-1 (TS / AVI / MKV / WMV); WMV 9 (WMV); Real Video HD 8/9/10 (RM / RMVB); FLV (FLV)
* Movie Audio: Dolby Digital AC3, DTS, MPEG-I Layer 1/2/3, MPEG-II Layer 1/2 multichannel, Real Audio, MPEG-4 HE AACv2, LPCM; Support 7.1 audio channels
* Movie Subtitle: srt, sub, smi, *idx+sub, ssa, DVD subtitle, DivX subtitle
* Music: MP3, WMA, WAV, ASF, AAC, OGG Vorbis, FLAC, iTune, M4A(AAC), M3U(Playlist)
* Photo: JPG (40-mega pixel without limitation of resolution, Baseline), BMP, PNG, GIF, TIF, TIFF
* Power rating: 12V 2A
* Size: 101 x 146 x 30.6 mm (L x W x H)
* Operation temperature: 40 C

In the Box
Main menu* 1 x AP-100 HD Media Player
* 1 x power adapter
* 1 x remote control unit
* 2 x AAA batteries
* 1 x mini jack to RCA YPbPr cable
* 1 x RCA cable
* 1 x Installation CD (with user’s manual)
* 1 x quick installation guide

There are not many issues with the Astone AP-100 but the one major gripe I have is a deal breaker for me personally.  I simply do not understand why the keyboard character support is crippled.  Yes many users will probably have very simple passwords but encouraging weak security is really not in the best interest of the technology world. The battery cover of the remote control has a bit of a rattle to it but nothing that cannot be fixed with a bit of sticky tape.

Size comparisonAs a simple NMT relying on USB based storage, the Astone Media Gear AP-100 does an admirable job.  The interface is logical enough for the average user just for playback purposes.  Upon detection of an USB device it will even automatically ask if you want to browse that drive which saves a user the hassle of picking USB from the main menu.

The overall look and feel of the interface is tidy and functional but I would not say greatly polished.  It is better than the Elektron EHP-606 interface but does not have the quality finish of the iBox Z400W.  Codec support is extensive and native support for Real Media is a definite plus.

In all honesty the keyboard support issue can be fixed via firmware if Astone is inclined.  At the price point however it is highly worthy of consideration as long as can live with the shortcomings.

The Astone Media Gear AP-100 is priced at AUD$149 and the optional wireless module, the Astone AW-N290 is priced at AUD$30, both are available here.