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Review: ZapStation Media Box 131

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the shoehorning-it-all-into-one-box dept.
I've been excited about the ZapStation since I first saw it at ALS a few years ago. At the time it was at a good price point, and appeared to be a solid contender for the convergence media box that I crave. It took more then a year for them to release a product and for me to formulate an opinion. Now's your chance to read it. Don't get excited all at once now.

Let me get this out of the way right up front. It's just too damn expensive. They want $1500 for what is essentially just a stripped-down PC with a 30-gig hard drive. You're paying twice what you would pay to build this system yourself. You're paying that premium to get a nice pretty box to put into your stereo rack, and for software that ties the whole thing together. Now I'm a vain person and will pay extra to have something pretty in my stereo, but not $1500.

The device itself is designed to be that media convergence box that will change the world. Sorta. It is a sort of swiss army knife for media. It connects to your TV (but has SVGA output too) and ethernet. It has a webbrowser, the ability to stream a variety of video and audio sources. It can play DVDs. It can rip CDs. It can import them from an FTP server. You can snarf MPEGs and watch them easily on your TV. It has a wireless keyboard as well as a regular remote so you can control it easily from your couch.

The ZapStation has an optical audio cable, as well as standard RCA audio ports (although only one will work at a time and you need to power cycle to activate the other). It has composite and S-VHS video outs (same note about power cycling) as well as SVGA. And ethernet.

Let's talk about what most people will use this box for: Ripping CDs and playing MP3s. It works quite well for this. Ripping is quick and several options are provided for ripping into MP3 or WMA formats. The ethernet port happily uses DHCP and handles CDDB lookups on the tracks. Nice and simple. You can rip CDs and play them back at the same time, but doing so reduces the rip process to 1x. Normally it rips twice that fast. Simply playing CDs is easy and they sound good.

Fetching audio from other sources is not so simple. You use FTP, but I had problems using anonymous FTP servers. It didn't like symlinks very much. And trying to do larger imports caused the whole unit to freeze up solid and require a power cycle. Very bad.

Eventually I had to import MP3s in blocks of a few hundred megs at a time just to prevent the machine from hanging. Very uncool.

My imported tracks lost their order. They all had ID3 tags and every MP3 player I know of respects those numbers... but importing a couple hundred albums only to lose the order of the songs is very annoying. Ripped CDs retained their order just fine. Once while importing tracks I somehow got out of the import menu. From then on, I couldn't do anything because I was importing -- but I couldn't stop importing because I couldn't go back to the import menu! Only a power cycle fixed it!

It has USB ports for future expandibility and hopefully for feeding MP3 portables. I don't have anything to test, which doesn't matter because I don't think the current version supports much.

Playing back audio is relatively easy. You navigate to my audio, and select playlists or albums or artists. There is no easy way to say 'Shuffle my entire collection' -- which I find annoying since that is how I usually listen to music. I like not hearing the same song for weeks at a time. Nifty little visualization graphics are available, but I sure wish they were fancier then they are, and included an option for full screen visualization.

I wish they were available for the regular CD player too -- the box really separates audio types, but to a user sound should just be sound and managed and played back in the same ways. The worst part is that I hear a 'pop' in between each track when listening to audio from the optical cable. Amazingly annoying. If they had the functionality of xmms-crossfade it would be super smooth.

There are a lot of problems with the UI. The screen is cluttered and it is sometimes difficult to figure out where you are going. Some simple changes (making the menu font bigger for example) would help, but it's just confusing since audio sources (streams, local mp3s, CDs) are all in separate parts of the system instead of clustered together. If I want music, I should be presented with my music, and not be forced to worry about the source. As an experiment I unplugged the ethernet, and was unable to navigate menus to the DVD player.

There are other problems too, like there is no good concept of a queue, so once you start a playlist (be it artist, genre, album, or playlist) you can't change it. So there's no way for me to queue up the next album I want to listen to without stopping the current playlist. Very frusterating.

The web browser works quite nicely. It's a little difficult to get used to it, but you can cook right along once you get used to not having a mouse. Most pages I visited rendered fine, although plug-ins cause problems. You can import audio and video very easily from the web.

Video playback is the unique thing here. You can store MPEG files just like MP3s and watch them on your TV. It does a pretty good job playing them back. I watched an MPEG of the Buffy musical a reader hooked me up with (I don't get UPN. Cursed cable company thinks UPN isn't a broadcast station like FOX and NBC so they want me to subscribe to 'Extended Basic Cable,' except that I have a dish. The FCC and the cable companies conspire to prevent me from watching my Buffy!) It's very convenient, and it looks as good as you would expect: the quality is dependant on the quality of the file you are playing back. There's not a lot of room on the box, so the fact that the video is organized as a simple list isn't a huge hindrence. It would get hard to find items in that list if you could fit more then a few dozen shows on the unit.

Notable here is the lack of formats. For a box like this, DivX, sorensen QuickTime, and Real should all be supported. But they aren't -- we just have MPEG. Supposedly at least some of these formats will be available later. But it's really unfortunate since these days MPEG is sort of bloated by the bitrate standards of the newer formats.

Lastly the unit functions as a DVD Player ... poorly. I found playback to be much brighter then my DVD player. Also it was pixelated and jerky. The audio quality was quite good, but my reciever was decoding the surround sound so its hard to mess that up :) The aspect ratio tool screws up non-anamorphic content. If you tell the system that you have a 16:9 screen, it slashes resolution on 4:3 content to make it fit ... which looks like crap if your TV can handle the translation itself. The lack of component output make this an even worse choice for DVD playback. Perhaps the box really could have shined had they opted for a progressive output.

I guess by this point you see where I'm going. There are a variety of things that can be improved in this unit, and many of them are software changes that will likely be rolled into future versions. I reported all of my bugs to Zap. The folks there are really nice and I'm sure the bugs will be fixed soon enough.

As it stands, if the ZapStation was $500, and the code was open source, I'd have no problem recommending this to someone who wanted to hack a bit. Or if you have tons of dough, and just want to rip your CDs and play them back, this is a very expensive but simple way to do it, but lockups and lack of track order made importing pretty crappy.

If you're a digital video junkie then this is a good system too, but 30G of disk space isn't much for digital video (my old 9 hour Tivo demonstrates that all to well).

Personally for my MP3 playback, a $300 PC, a $200 100G hard drive, and an AudioTron does most what this does and won't fill up any time soon. That leaves enough cash to buy a decent progressive DVD player. You could get a scan converter cheap and play back MPEGs and have 3x the space.

What could really make this worth it? The ability to rip DVDs would be amazingly cool in this box. And built in PVR functionality. And a 100G hard drive. Support for popular video formats. A touch pad on the keyboard would make navigation much easier. Progressive DVD playback and component video outs.

The box looks absolutely lovely, but the software is immature. And the pricing is that of a high end component ... and this just isn't that. The ZapStation is the jack of all trades, master of none.

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Review: ZapStation Media Box

Comments Filter:
  • by skrowl (100307)
    So what does it do that a computer + a video capture card can't do? ... ALOT cheaper I might add!
    • Re:Umm... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by booch (4157)
      Actually, it doesn't even do video capture.
    • Agreed.

      I think you could pick up a comparable system at CircusShitty for about $450, and it would play games and/or run Linux to boot.

      That would leave a spare grand in your wallet to buy anime DVD's (or what have you).

      - Freed
    • Re:Umm... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by biglig2 (89374) on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:05PM (#2670970) Homepage Journal
      It looks like a stereo component. So perhaps the answer is for some company to build cases that look like a stereo compnent for the build-your-own users. You could probably take a rack-mount case and do something similar?
      • I've been screaming for hardware makers to build stereo equipment style cases for years. The closest you get is NLX form factor "bookshelf" computers. I'd personally love a machine I could "hide" right with my stereo gear. If I had the cash I'd form a start-up myself. I bet I could snag at least 25% of slashdots readership without a problem, just on the "cool" factor.
        • I'm taking the easy way out--my stereo components are all racked so I just need a pretty faceplate...the actual box behind can look like crap since you never see it.
      • Re:Umm... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by alleria (144919) on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:44PM (#2671183)
        Head over to AVSForum [avsforum.com] for a look at their HTPC (Home Theater PC) section, they already have some interesting sources.

        These guys are, of couse, looking to build a pure home-theatre PC system (turns out software line-doubling is far cheaper than hardware line-doublers for their DVD players), but the problem with housing their PCs is the same. They've been looking into various cases and solutions that are worthy of sitting on their AV rack for a long time, and have come up with some good looking cases, as well as leads on where to source them.
    • I already have this... A PC with Video Capture Card / Output Box, DVD drive, cd burner, and 100 gigs of space. Hooks right into the Receiver...
  • Prediction (Score:5, Insightful)

    by onion2k (203094) on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:06PM (#2670973) Homepage
    Its $1500 dollars now. In 3 months they'll drop that to around $799. And the Slashdot headline will read 'ZapStation now affordable'. This sort of market just begs for this kind of ploy. Sell way high to start with and recoup development costs from the early adopters with pots of cash (plus its Christmas), and then drop down to a sensible (?!) price.

    The fact the media gives loads of free advertising to it when the initial production run is finished and the machine is market tested is the icing on the cake.

    Examples where this has happened before? The Sony Clie, PSX, Dreamcast, PS2, lots of hifis.. if its desirable home entertainment, then this is the obvious sales plan.

    Moral of the story? Wait and save.

    • Heck I can remember when double speed CD players first came out. It was in April or May of whatever year it was at CompUSA. There was a combo package with 50 bazillion games and so on that cost for just under a Thousand dollars USA!

      Fast forward to the month of August, the price was about 400 bucks, and so on.

      I know this because I know of at least one guy who got nailed by this. (not me!) He wanted to get a refund from the store for the price drop, but they only did that for the first month, not the several that had past. The guy was seriously bummed out.

    • Unless you're referring to software, I don't believe this is the case for PS2. It was hard to get a hold of when it came out, which may have allowed certain people to sell their PS2 at higher prices, but I stood in line the day of release (no pre-orders) and got my PS2 at what I believe is still the official price. I don't remember now what that price was... I think maybe $299. Has the official price fallen? (I thought I would have noticed if it had.)
      • From what I've read in the past, game consoles are pretty much always sold at a loss and the company makes their money licensing the boot loader to game makers.
    • Even at $500 I don't see this being very useful.

      At least, not until they fix the bugs that were mentioned in the review.

      I can't see using this as a DVD player - ever. It doesn't support component video. I bought my current TV specifically because it has component video jacks.

      The big advantage to the Zapstation should be its UI - which according to the review has several usability problems.

      Sounds like they tried to make a jack-of-all-trades, but ended up with a master-of-none.
  • Specs (Score:3, Informative)

    by BigRing (216273) on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:12PM (#2671018) Homepage
    Here are some specs for the ZapStation.

    http://www.zapmedia.com/products/specifications. ht ml

    Meeting these specs could prove more challenging than one might think with "cheap PC hardware" and "a little software".
    • You might want to take those specs with a grain of salt though. 16bit audio S/N is listed at 96dB...i.e. 0% noise. Dynamic range is listed at 94dB. Unless they are using a new form of magical output stage, I find this somewhat difficult to believe. Can anyone cite an IC that has this kind of performance at 16-bit resolution?
      • Re:Specs (Score:2, Interesting)

        by joetee (13215)
        (I'm a HW engineer at ZapMedia)
        "Can anyone cite an IC that has this kind of performance at 16-bit resolution?"
        To have superior audio specs we use a custom audio board, not just a SB16.
        The ZapStation uses a 24 bit resolution DAC. The Texas Instruments / Burr-Brown PCM1748 chip.
        (Which are EXCELLENT I must add!)
        It uses a 32 to 96 Khz clock depending on the data stream, and reproducing 16 bit 44/48 Khz CD audio is quite trivial for it. Remember that WMA _adds_ noise, and MP3's are compressed, so the ZapStation plays them about as truly as they possibly can.

        FeeCee's sound & video cards are far noisier than a ZapStation in _every_ way including the fan(s)!!!

        Joe Torre
        • I'm not convinced. The PCM1748 appears to be a decent IC(104-106dB dynamic range if you are using the better -KE part), but I'm skeptical that the *system* performance allows a 96dB dynamic range with only 16 bits to work with.

          I'm looking at the datasheet for the CS43122, a 192kHz multibit D/A chip with a nominal 117dB dynamic range at 24 bits. Even this chip has a stated dynamic range of 95dB at 16 bits, and we haven't even started discussing the external low pass filters.

          Are you really asserting that the ZapStation, input-to-output, has 96dB unweighted dynamic range by the EIAJ method when fed with a 16-bit input?
    • by tnak (163802)
      Hard to beat? Not really.

      Video:
      • Ati All-Wonder-Radeon beats their video specs including time shifting.
      • Pricewatch prices starting at $145 for oem.

      Audio:
      • Midiman Audiophile 2496.
      • J and R price == $169

      The rest is just a basic Celeron box. Admittedly, $750 might be pushing it a little with the high end audio, but at least with this box you could upgrade individual components.

  • If someone from Zap is reading this, what I would like is for it to support the ogg/vorbis audio format, use DivX for video ripping, and have some kind of "expert-level" access to the underlying OS for people that want to tweak it. Oh, and get the price down under 800$.
  • by swordboy (472941) on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:15PM (#2671033) Journal
    The Xbox is the end of it for everyone in the convergence media box solution business. Think about it. Microsoft was the only one smart enough to use a console to promote DirectX (read:Windows). Now that Xbox is trickling out, they can begin working on PVR features. After that, they can start pushing the box to cablecos and satellite TV providers (provider?). They've got the money to subsidize the product down to the lowest common denominator. Anyone who is anyone will require one to watch and record TV, view DVDs, play video games, manage digital media and communicate with the rest of the convergence that is on the horizon.

    Did anyone not see this coming? The Indrema thingy was the only other box close to what Xbox will do. The fact that the company died and threw all development away leads me to believe that there was Microsoft involvement.
    • As much as I liked the idea of the Indrema, I never read ANYTHING that suggested there was any business potential. Just sounded like two garage guys with an enthusiastic idea that they thought would magically take off.

      I seriously doubt Indrema was ever on Microsoft's radar. As a gamer *I* wasn't even interested in the thing. I just thought it'd be cool to poke around it.

      I highly doubt Microsoft had anything to do with it's failure. Indrema basically self destructed.
    • Good and true except for one thing... Cable and Sattelite companies are the sworn enemies of PVR manufacturers because they are seeking totally different behaviors from their customers... Heehee unless of course Microsoft colludes with them to install anti commercial skipping software in the X-Box at which point they're at odds with THEIR customers... Of course if all digital broadcast starts going out in CSS then according to the courts we can't do shit except watch it the way they pipe it... It's pretty complicated, it's far from a done deal yet.
      • Cable and Sattelite (sic) companies are the sworn enemies of PVR manufacturers

        Except Bell Canada! Their recent dish commercial feauture a PVR prominently.
        "Hey Joe what are you doing?"
        "Going home, watch some TV."
        "But what's on at this hour?"
        "Anything I want."
        Cut to Joe at home cueing up his PVR menu and selecting some show.

        As I said in a previous thread, I'd love to get ahold of a cheap PVR, no extra 'learning' or other feature's I'll NEVER use, just to reduce the wear on my VCR. Most of what I use it for these days is just time-shifting anyways, so why not go digital?

        I'm still investigating some USB-TV dealies, but need Mac compatibility. I think ATI has one...

      • Cable and Sattelite companies are the sworn enemies of PVR manufacturers

        This is good news for Microsoft because they can leverage Windows Media and licensing issues. Everyone is happy and Microsoft just strengthened their operating system.
      • Cable and satelite companies are all over building PVRs into their boxes. Don't confuse these companies with the networks that make most of their money from advertisers. The Cable and Satelite companies will be on board with _anything_ they can sell you.
      • Cable and Sattelite companies are the sworn enemies of PVR manufacturers...

        Which, of course, is why all satellite systems have a PVR option (eg. Direct TV's DirecTivo), and even AT&T's cable division will sell you a model of Tivo exclusive to them.
        • It's always instructive to float a comment when you don't know what the hell you're talking about... okay so I stand corrected... It's actually vaguely encouraging that the people who are carrying content aren't taking the people who are, what would you call it, syndicating the content's desires into account...
    • ... not with only a 10gig drive! Plus, remember that the XBox is currently a "loss leader" - MS loses money on each box sold until sales are in the millions (Sony JUST started making money on PSones). MS hopes to make money on the GAMES, not the HARDWARE. There's no incentive for them to bring out a competing product (Call it XBox Converge, or something else silly), for YEARS.
      • There's no incentive for them to bring out a competing product (Call it XBox Converge, or something else silly), for YEARS.

        Microsoft is a SOFTWARE company. They are losing money on the hardware because they want to be able to sell you software. The "XBox Converge" will be a software update. If it requires new hardware to function, it will be a plug-in. Not a new console.

        -
        • The XBox does not have the hardware features to act as a competitor to the Tivo, for example the HD is too small and there is no video capture. Producing a second box that combines the functionality of the XBox and their Ultimate TV might be a worth it but having all your entertainment served by one box would cause problems if anything broke or you wanted to upgrade one feature.
      • There's no incentive for them to bring out a competing product

        Every game that is made for Xbox becomes tied to a proprietary graphics platform. That is lots of incentive as every game sold pads the Microsoft operating system.
  • s-vhs would be that high-definition video tape technology that failed enormously because each take cost $50. i think you just mean "s-video"
    • yes, I think he meant s-video, but fyi, s-vhs didnt fail miserably, it just didnt have a place in the consumer market. it has been *widely* used in tv/broadcast industry for a long time. It is getting a bit long in the tooth now that more and more digital solutions are coming to market, but at this point I think it is still pretty much the standard, at least for most smaller/local tv stations. I have a cabinet full of about 50 of them I inherited from an x-girlfriend who was a producer.
      sorry for the offtopic reply...
      • I thought they mostly used betamax.

        PS - Shiner Blonde kicks some ass as well.
        • Betamax equipment tends to be more towards high-end broadcast equipment.

          an S-VHS Camera Setup for Electronic News Gathering can be assembled for a couple thousand dollars, so it tends to be favored by smaller stations/college production courses (where I used it) etc
    • S-VHS didn't fail, but it isn't used much by people who aren't demanding of video quality. S-VHS VCR's are no longer very expensive (under $150 at entry level), and the tapes aren't anywhere near $50, try $5.

      I use S-VHS, and I like it very much. It records an S-Video signal, which likely has something to do about the S-VHS S-Video confusion.

      BTW: VHS sucks. S-VHS is much better.
  • You've already posted this story [slashdot.org] to this "news"board.
    • You've already posted this story to this "news"board.

      For the reading impaired, I will quote from the aforementioned story...

      1. I have a model for review coming my way so I'll give a detailed report when I have time to plug it in and give it a beating.

      The poster promised a review. This is the review. What's the problem? Yes, he mentioned it was coming out in the last article. In this article, he has one and has used it, and posted his thoughts after using it.

      My only question is why this company chose not to include even a rudimentary DVR (Digital Video Recorder) type technology into it. If it hooks up to the TV, and has a hard drive, one would think that a basic DVR functionality would not be too terribly hard.

    • If you would follow your own link, you would have seen that it was an announcement that it was being released and that CT would be getting a review up once he had played around with his review unit. I realize that /. has a tendency to repost the same articles. This time he was just following through with what he said he would do. Give them a break.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Do you really think having the source
    would improve the product?

    Give me a break!

    I want to buy something that plugs
    in and works.

    I don't want something I can buy
    and fix myself.

    They should just make it work right in the first
    place.
    • This is the type of appliance that really needs a CE like OS running it. I have computers in my apartment acting as appliances right now. For example, I have a PVR I built up just so I can keep up on my favorite TV shows, then archive them to CD so I can drag them out next year and watch them again.

      I *could* have bought a Tivo to do this, but my needs were that I could archive them and come back to them later, something a Tivo doesn't let me do.

      The main drawback is that it is still... a PC. If something goes wrong, it takes roughly 30 seconds for it to come back up. Is this a bad thing? Well I'm not really complaining, particularly because the OS I'm running is rock solid.

      If I could do the same thing with CE, then a power cycle would be 5 seconds. Now *that* would be really cool. I still have the ability to upgrade it to new technologies, but the OS itself is more suited to appliance technology.

      Like or hate CE, it is cool to have a PC that comes on within moments.
    • Do you really think having the source would improve the product? [...] I don't want something I can buy and fix myself. They should just make it work right in the first place


      So you buy your closed-source product, and it works as advertised. Then one morning you have an idea... "it would be SO great if only I could make it do X".... and your write the company asking them to implement feature X. 2 years later, you're still waiting for feature X--and if it ever does appear, you'll probably have to buy the new model to use it anyway ($$$).


      Contrast that with the open-source product. You buy one, and it works as advertised. One morning you have your idea. You go on the web, and at www.openzapstation.com, you find that some geek has had the same idea and already uploaded a patch that implements that feature. You download and install the patch, and the next day you have your feature X.


      That is how open source improves a product.

      • Hey, wipe the OpenSourceHappyDust(tm) out of your eyes, you're missing the point. The esteemed AC wants an appliance!

        AC said: Do you really think having the source would improve the product? ... I want to buy something that plugs in and works. I don't want something I can buy and fix myself. They should just make it work right in the first place.

        Your reply assumes that everything will be addressable in software. What about hardware changes? How will Open Source software make a difference if I what I want is a way to control the box using Bertrol Rays? It's irrelevant, isn't it?

        More importantly, is it too much to ask for a finished product, that doesn't require tweaking of ANY part, just to perform when purchased?

        Jeremi said: Contrast that with the open-source product. You buy one, and it works as advertised.
        If you read the review, in this case, the device doesn't work as advertised (that is, simply, easily, and correctly, given it's relatively high price.) That's why it wasn't recommended for purchase.

        • The poster asked how open-source would improve the product, and I answered. Whether or not the product is bug free and works as advertised is a separate issue from whether it is open or closed source.

          And yes, obviously not all changes can be made solely in software. That doesn't reduce the value of having available source to zero.
    • It would be nice to have access to quality hardware though. I'm currently interested in an A/V computer, but it is difficult to find quality I/O cards. A GeForce with Powerstrip is a great HDTV output device, but there are few options other than SDI for inputting high-quality video, and it would be nice to have CVBS, Y/C, SDTV component, S/PDIF etc all in one place for easy hacking.

      What we really need is someone to put together a cheap input solution around a TI or Analog Devices video decoder (pref. with component in) and a Conexant chip. This would provide an input solution up there with the quality of the Rock, with no need to write additional software drivers.

      BTW, anyone know of a Conexant-chipset card that has Y/C input and is not plagued by Macrovision problems? I'd like to use Dscaler [dscaler.org] but I want DVD and VHS input, without buying a Sima SCC or a hackable DVD player.
    • Having sources available means that somebody who's interested and capable that is independent of the vendor can do something about improving things.

      Certainly, it's good for the thing to "work right in the first place;" that goes without saying. (Well, what with Microsoft's "beta-testing" of insecure software, that doesn't go without saying...)

      If sources are available, and it's easy enough for some folks to demonstrate improvements, this can feed back to "sheeple consumers" in as simple a way as SHAME. If significant improvements can be demonstrated by outsiders, that can SHAME the vendor into providing the improvements to their customers. It's not guaranteed; life doesn't quite work that way.

  • by Ledge (24267) on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:23PM (#2671075)
    People do not want a one component does everything system. Look at the el-cheapo stereo systems on the market. What do they all have in common? CD, cassette, tuner and all in one enclosure. Decent equipment is separate, as it should be. Say a better DVD system arrives in 2 years, but I already have a kick ass sound system. Why would I want to replace everything? Putting everything in one box is foolish. Do one thing, and do it well. A digital music system shouldn't try and do what a TiVO or a DVD player does. Granted, they share the similarities in hardware and media, but combining the two will only lead to mediocrity for both. Thats why my TiVO doesn't have a VCR deck in it, and my TV doesn't have a built in VCR.
    • by Bangback (471080) on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:51PM (#2671218)
      I disagree. Look how popular the tiny, fairly high quality (for their market/price range) "executive stereos" are. Interfaces make things harder for users, demand a more difficult user interface, (and for us high end) require very expensive cabling. Having Dolby Digital decoding on the DVD player (which saved significantly on the amp) means I have about $200 in cables (70% of the player price) on the back end.

      Why do I buy integrated amps instead of amps/preamps? Because I can find the same quality in a unified package which is at a lower price (largely due to case/sales/interconnects). For amps, why do people buy 5-channel amps instead of single channel monoblocks? Price.

      Integration is only suitable for stable technologies. In a fast changing market I'm glad I have a nonintegrated DVD since I can swap it out for a new progressive/DTS after two years. But VCRs haven't changed meaningfully in over a decade. So I'm perfectly happy with my TV/VCR combo in my bedroom that's been running fine for a decade. The user interface on the combos are far, far better than a normal VCR and TV. You hit play the VCR plays, hit stop and you're back on TV changing channels. My parents have an expensive VCR in their living room they haven't used for years because control is too difficult -- but the el cheapo combo in the kitchen is used everyday.

      The other advantage of an integrated box in this scenario is shared infrastructure. Your VCR and TV have no common parts, but your Tivo, MP3 audio component, internet video component, digital radio component all share a hard disk, processor, etc. Therefore the potential cost savings are far greater, especially for high-cost items like networking or high-quality video interfaces.
      • You make a valid point, but I would also offer, in this disposable society that we live in, if one component in a unitized system croaks, all of the related components also die.
        • True, but how important this is to you depends on how often you upgrade. If you're upgrading every couple of years, this is not as much of a concern if you're one of those people who wait every 5 or 10 years to get something new.

          And if you're one of those people, this product isn't for you anyway.
      • Yeah, you are right about the technology convergence, but for people who would be willing to pay >$400, they likely already have a DVD player and/or a CD player, so now you have redundancy in your system.

        Alternatively, you have a new system purchaser and the incremental benefit of the device is minimal (yeah, you can rip on the device and read USA Yesterday news). It's going to be a tough sell.

        Better to take one of the MP3 server appliances and add ripping software and a graphical output for control and be done with it...sell it for an incremental cost of $100 (cost of SW and video), so figure it is a $600 box. Now you're getting to a price sweet-spot as well as not duplicating components with inferior versions at high cost.

        Just IMHO.

        Dave
    • i believe that the only succesful device that can do more than one thing is the clock radio.

      everything else has failed!
    • Putting everything in one box is foolish.

      While I agree that this is true when dealing with media devices like videotapes, CDs and DVDs, I don't see why you would eventually want an all-in-one box when dealing with all digital media files. I mean, isn't that what most modern computers are anyway?

  • WMA? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Levine (22596) <levine AT goatse DOT cx> on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:43PM (#2671177) Homepage
    The specifications page [zapmedia.com] lists the device as running Linux, and has WMA in the list of Supported Formats under audio/video playback and audio recording. From what I've heard on here, I thought this was all but impossible. Confirmations?

    Cheers,
    levine
    • by Arkham (10779)
      No, it is running Linux (originally based off Red Hat, but not looking much like it anymore), and it has real WMA codecs licensed from Microsoft. The box played REALMedia at one point too, but Real wouldn't sign a reasonable licensing deal.
  • Inside the company (Score:5, Informative)

    by Arkham (10779) on Friday December 07, 2001 @12:45PM (#2671189)
    I used to work for ZapMedia. It's a great company, but (at least until recently) a very poorly-led one. While I was there the company went from 40 people to 120 and then down to 20. They blew through some $20 million in capital. I was laid off in the 5th round of layoffs (can you believe that)?

    We were almost bought out several times. The box was even going to be marketed as a Harmon Kardon DMC-100 [harmankardon.com] box, until we ran out of money and decided to keep the profit margins. We talked to several companies (who I should not mention since I could get sued), but every one of the deals fell through. One of the companies even has a competing box on the market now. Another one has a PVR box for sale, which is something we all wanted to be added to the Zapstation.

    When I left in September, the box still crashed a lot. I wish them the best of luck. From the sound of this review, they're going to need it.
    • One of the companies even has a competing box on the market now.

      Could this mysterious other company possibly be Hewlett-Packard [hp-at-home.com]? (Hint to Slashdot - I'd like to see a review of this next.)

      Another one has a PVR box for sale, which is something we all wanted to be added to the Zapstation.

      Umm - well then why didn't they add this in? It seems like a natural.

    • Of course we're curious. If you're afraid of legal repercussions, post as AC. That's why they allow anonymous posting in the first place!
      • Of course we're curious. If you're afraid of legal repercussions, post as AC.

        The AC system is not totally anonymous unless you've taken precautions on your side. IP's, etc are recorded. According to the FAQ they are kept for 48 hours, but I'm guessing that legal implications force them to be kept longer. I don't know if someone could legally force OSDN/VA Software to give up the IP of an anonymous poster, but I wouldn't like to be the test case.

  • So what exactly does it do that my PC doesn't?

    (in case you are wondering, yes, my video card has a TV-out).
  • Let's talk about what most people will use this box for: Ripping CDs and playing MP3s. It works quite well for this

    Holy cow, like I'm going to pay over a thousand dollars for these "innovative" features? If I really wanted to mix my living room life with my comptuer room life, I'd just move the TV in the computer room (or vice versa).

    It's almost as if this whole convergence motif is starting to mean redundant electronics. I wish we would see more small, cheap devices that work well together (like UNIX!) instead of cramming do-it-all computers in every conceivable nook and cranny. This particular paradigm shift can shift right along with me...

  • I went to the website [zapmedia.com] expecting to see this amazing product that he talked about. Instead I am greeted with yuppies relaxing on their plush red couch, a "Back to the Future" clad Michael Fo... Er Connie Chung, and Andre the Giants son trying to "sell" me their product.

    Frankly, I was a bit scared by their index webpage. Their front page should focus more on their product rather than having weird people trying to make the product seem enjoyable. Show me that it's enjoyable in other ways, with more info, interactive demos, reviews and pricing. I want to feel like I can relate to this product (by having a need for it in my house/office/etc.) instead I feel like I'm not the target audience they're trying to reach.
  • Sounds like you could use a laptop and Show Shifter [showshifter.com]. This allows you to use it as a PVR, play MP3's. You could always download some sort of MP3 / DVD ripper / encoder. Use this with IrMan [evation.com] and any remote. And you have pretty much the same thing.

    Plus with a laptop you can take it to your friends and move it anywhere else in the house. And any recorded shows can be watched on the move.
  • Over at www.media-box.org [media-box.org] they've got what looks like a more mature product than this, though, alas, it runs only on (yeeech) Windows (/yeeech). There are also a couple of projects over at Sourceforge.

    Yes, you need to have your own hardware for these, but I see that as a benefit rather than a drawback. For example, I don't live in NTSC-land. So, that makes the ZapStation unavailable to me. But, with Media-box, that's no problem.

    Also, with Open Source projects (like Sourceforge and, I believe, Media-Box), if you don't like something, you can just replace it or improve it.

    I would think these solutions would also cost a lot less that U$1500.

  • i think its funny that this machine runs on linux yet it boasts about being able to play windows media files...
  • Simply playing CDs is easy and they sound good.

    Sorry, but I'm an audio electronics engineer. Simply put, I really don't think such a compact "Swiss Army Knife" box is capable of producing decent CD sound. Maybe it's "good" compared to MP3s (*gag*), but it will almost certainly pale in comparison to high-end CD players.

    Methinks Taco is getting kickbacks on ZapStation sales. "Think geek", indeed.
    • I don't know. If the CD player is feeding directly into the sound card if might not be bad. After all its output is optical (and I assume into his reciever). Done right, I think this could easily compete with high-end consumer CD-Players. And at $1500 it had better be "done right".
  • If you get the PS2 Linux distribution when it comes out, you have most of what this thing does anyway. Plus it plays some killer games.
    • Sorry, but despite recent Slashdot stories, SCEE STILL maintains that PS2Linux will not be released outside of Japan, or for non-japanese spec consoles. (http://www.ps2linux.com/eng.html)
  • by geekoid (135745)
    The FCC and the cable companies conspire to prevent me from watching my Buffy!)
    so they ARE good for something ;)
  • S-VHS != S-Video (Score:2, Informative)

    by rizzo242 (165630)
    It has composite and S-VHS video outs

    Okay, this is one of my little pet peeves...

    S-Video is the name for that connector on the back of your DVD player that looks like an old-style Apple ADB keyboard/mouse port (mini-DIN 8 connector) that carries separated ("component") video signals rather than combined as in RCA cables ("composite"). It gives you better video signal quality, and you should use it whenever you have the capability. S-Video is presumably what CmdrTaco mean to say here.

    S-VHS (Super-VHS) is a videotape standard like VHS, except it defines the use of different magnetic coatings and what-not for broadcast-quality resolution on Super-VHS tapes. In addition to the wildly-expensive professional rackmount broadcast equipment, you can buy stripped-down Super-VHS VCR's these days that are priced for prosumers. The resolution is similar to Hi-8mm.

    Now, you'll find that just about any SVHS VCR has S-Video connectors on it in addition to composite RCA connectors, but S-Video connectors can also be found on lots of other things that are not related to Super VHS, like miniDV camcorders.

    </rant>

  • I am in the process of building my own system like this. My intention is to build a PC to arhive and play, music, PC games, emulated games (MAME and others), TV in/out. I painted the case and the drive bezels black to match my other A/V equipment.

    I'll be up front and tell you it is going to be a WinXP box but I am sure you can do it on Linux.

    Depending on your budget your equipment list may vary ... I know I could have gotten cheaper parts or prices.

    Enlight desktop case: 55
    Abit KGR7-RAID: 144
    AMD 1600XP: 139
    512MB DDR RAM: 90
    FD: 15
    ATI AllInWonder Radeon: 156
    Hercules Game Theater XP sound card: 115
    Plextor 16X CDRW: 145
    Intel Wireless Keyboard, Mouse, Base station, and 2 game controllers: 89
    IBM 20GB HD: 79
    Sub total: 1,027

    Two larger drives will be mirrored to store all the data (MP3s, MPEG, DIVX, etc). Approximately 150 x 2

    Adding a DVD drive shortly for approximately 50.
    Estimated total: 1377

    Sure I went overboard but that happens sometimes :-)
  • I did some contract work for zapmedia a while back (before they layed off 2/3 of their work force) and I was unimpressed by the zapstation. It was too expensive, buggy, and hard to navigate/use. Of course, I'm sure they've solved a lot of the problems they were dealing with. But the main problem is that there is a discrepancy between what you have the functionality to do and what you actually CAN do with the zapstation. Example, at least when I was there the concept was to have content providers serving up all the material. Well, what they were getting was basically crap. Like I said, maybe they've done a lot since then, but just consider that back then they were talking about releasing it at $300 a pop. I doubt they added $1200 worth of value to it.
  • Heh, funny...

    I've got the beginnings of something that can do ALL OF THE ABOVE.

    For less than $200 I was able to pull together a computer [lowendpc.com] that has part of the picture: it can play DVDs really, really well.

    Swap out the Xpert128 for a PCI All-In-Wonder Radeon, add a nice audio card like the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz, and I'm good to go. I figure it will cost me less than $400 all told.

    This machine's got brownie points because it runs on Linux, but barely. Yeah, I run this box on 2K Pro, but that's because ATI hasn't released specifics about their DVD acceleration to the Open Source community. Bug 'em until they do.

    Even without that, and with a beefier processor to handle software DVD decoding, you could do this for a third of the price using commodity PC hardware. $1500? No freakin' way! Get the fsck out of here!

    • Swap out the Xpert128 for a PCI All-In-Wonder Radeon, add a nice audio card like the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz, and I'm good to go. I figure it will cost me less than $400 all told.

      That includes all software? You're using Windows 2000 - how much did you pay for that? And the various playback functions and formats, plus the UI to tie them all together into a coherent package - did you find all that for a reasonable price (or for free) or are you writing them yourself?

      Keep in mind that even when you can download some components for free (realplayer, quicktime, etc), you won't be allowed to redistribute them for free. If you are claiming that you could "build a ZapStation for a lot less" you have to remember the licensing fees for whatever you didn't write yourself.

      (Likely this is why they went with Linux, not for "geek brownie points". They still had to license some things like the Windows Media codec.)

  • Other similar boxes (Score:2, Informative)

    by rsnodgrass (131564)
    So two other similar boxes are currently offered by:

    * AudioReQuest (www.request.com) built on QNX and support MP3, CD ripping, and supposedly a host of new features soon. I doubt it will support video playback of any kind since you really need a higher end graphics card than what they have in their box now.

    * Imerge (www.imerge.co.uk) boxes which look really cool and promising. They were just released and will be shown at CES 2002.

    Everyone has to understand that the prices WILL drop on these units...but it is VERY expensive to create the initial versions. Look at the TiVo...the 14 hour unit cost $1499 when it was first released!!! It's not a $199 (or is it $99 now) box.

    It will take about a year for the prices to drop to something around $500 based on how quickly PVR boxes dropped in price. And for note some of these boxes were ORIGINALLY being sold for $800 or so...for instance the ARQ. I bought my 20GB version refurbished for $500 a while back and quickly upgraded it to 80GB.

    The benefit of having a real UI over a PC interface or hacked together set of scripts is huge...the majority of the market isn't technical.
  • feature(s) of the zapstation:
    Audio Playback
    MP3, Windows® Media Format(TM) V7, Dolby Digital* (AC-3) 5.1 Channel Surround, Dolby Surround (AC-3), DTS Digital Out**

    Video Playback MPEG, Windows Media Format V7, DVD-Video, VCD

    my 130$ (in june) apex dvd player already has multiple format surround sound out, plays DVDs, VCD's, CD-r/rw mp3 cd's. it plays almost any media i need it to. i doubt most home stereo component customers have the technical experience to rip their own cd's, instead of easily downloading them offline.

    if i want computer functionality, i use a computer, not a crippled highend of the middle of the pack PC. if i want sound, i use my dvd player/30$ goodwill reciever. the 14" tv i have is sufficent for the occasional ps1 game, i don't even watch tv anymore, the ps1 is the only thing i plug into it; the last time i plugged the tv into a walljack/antenna was sept. 11.

    i think that although the average american watches 2-3 hours a day more tv than i do, using the tv as your computer/'media station' in the livingroom dosn't give the user the same feeling of using his or her time wisely/well. when you use the computer in the office or study, you're not in the public domain of your livingroom, and are more at peace of mind that nobody;s looking over your shoulder as you send a private email or the likes. i think people would prefer to buy several cheap products that do their job very well, instead of an all-in-one device like this. There's a reason why most people don't own one of the printer/scanner/copier/fax/phone devices found at compusa and office max in someone's study or next to their quake III box.

    just a thought.
  • I dunno about you guys, but I sure hate the fact that I have to run my MP3 collection off my computer with $50 speakers at home, instead of through my $3000 amp and $2000 worth of speakers. I've been searching for months, but I can't find a rock solid MP3 stereo component with a built-in hard drive. I don't want a DVD player that plays MP3 CDs, I want something as smart and functional as my ReplayTV to handle my growing collection of tunez. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
  • It states in the specs page the machine's OS is Linux but state many times it can play Window Media files and streaming. Are they using Wine?

    Just wondering.

[Crash programs] fail because they are based on the theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month. -- Wernher von Braun

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