Netgear, better-known for its NAS boxes and routers, has for some time also been producing network devices of another type – media players. One of its stable is the NeoTV 550, which, thanks to its lack of Android, Boxee, etc, feels reassuringly traditional. It’s not out-dated, though – as well as networked content, the player gives you a choice of some online material, and the ability to feed media into it via USB or SD cards.

A no-nonsense slab of a device that can be positioned on its side courtesy of a tabletop stand, the 550 is well-featured in terms of connectivity. In addition to the front-mounted USB port and SD slot are analogue component, composite video/stereo analogue audio (a 3.5mm-to-phono cable is supplied for this purpose), optical digital audio, eSATA (for external hard drives) and HDMI 1.3a port. Connection to your network is via Ethernet, although the 550 can connect via Wi-Fi provided an optional dongle is plugged into a second rear-panel USB port. It’s a shame that Wi-Fi it isn’t integrated.

The accompanying handset is neatly designed, and provides quick access to all functions. A setup wizard gets you going quickly, although configurations can easily be changed later courtesy of a comprehensive menu. One of the most useful features can be found in the audio settings menu. Every key audio standard – e.g. DTS, AAC and Dolby Digital – can be decoded, or passed through as a bitstream. If your AV receiver cannot handle a format, then the 550 will convert it into the linear PCM format that all home cinema gear can deal with.

Interestingly, DTS and Dolby’s hi-res audio formats are supported, too. And indeed the 550 can deal with network-stored BD rips – although the region selector that’s also buried in the menus may be somewhat redundant, as the unit doesn’t seem to support USB-connected BD-ROM drives.

However, there’s little else that the 550 cannot cope with. All of the test files I tried worked fine, from DivX clips to DVD ISO images (complete with menu access). Subtitle files, if present, are synchronised with the video, and SMB, NFS and uPnP standards are all supported, thereby covering the majority of network storage scenarios.

Access to media is very quick. A nice touch is that photo selection is icon-based for quick access. Thumbnail versions of the images are cached, either on a network drive or – for speed – a USB storage device. A list view is offered as an alternative. Other well-considered features include a ‘fit screen’ video mode, which does as it says (use this with your TV’s aspect ratio mode, if available), media information popup, parental controls and a lip-sync adjustment. A wide range of display modes (from 480i/576i to 1080p/24) is provided. Picture and sound quality are in essence as good as the content allows.

Compared to some other players, the amount of online content is rather limited – and has an American slant to it. However, most of the important ones are there. YouTube, Flicker, local weather forecasts and ‘net radio are present and correct. In addition, you get access to either RSS feeds or video/audio podcasts from the likes of CNN, Wired, ESPN, NBA, ABC, NBC, Reuters, NPR and Engadget. A concession to us Brits is a comprehensive selection of BBC audio podcasts. iPlayer is, however, conspicuous by its absence.

In all, the NeoTV 550 is a decent media-playback package, with a simple handset and sensible menus – but if your tastes stretch beyond the confines of your own network then you might want to consider the alternatives.


HCC VERDICT

Netgear NeoTV 550
Price:
£120 Approx

Highs: Decent connectivity; well thought-out setup and use; excellent media compatibility
Lows: Wi-Fi isn’t built in; limited selection of online content

Performance: 5/5
Design: 4/5
Features: 4/5
Overall: 4/5


Specifications

HDD: no (but eSATA and USB external drives supported)
Connections: 100Mbps Ethernet; HDMI 1.3a (up to 1080p/24); eSATA; 2 x USB; SD slot; component; composite; stereo analogue audio; optical digital audio
Video file format support (verified): MOV; MPEG-1; MPEG-2; MKV/x.264; XviD; DivX; WMV; MP4; AVC-HD; BDMV; ISO; VIDEO_TS; TS; M2TS
Audio file format support (verified): M4A; FLAC; MP2; MP3; WAV; AC3; DTS; DD+; Dolby TrueHD; DTS-HD MA
Dimensions: 432(w) x 38(h) x 254(d)mm Weight: 2.0kg
Features: Some online content; Blu-ray compatible; HDMI/optical digital audio passthrough modes independently selectable for different audio codecs; thumbnail navigation (photos, cover art) or list-view; subtitle support; AV sync adjustment; photo slideshows; SMB, NFS and DLNA/uPnP support