All-in-one media centre a bust


We find it amazing how uncritical the industry can be when it buys into what appears to be a cool idea. Case in point: the ZapStation from ZapMedia Inc., a computer-based device that is designed to do everything from rip CDs to play DVDs and tune into Internet radio.

This device was hyped for years and even won awards before it shipped! In 2001, Popular Mechanics awarded it its Editor’s Choice Award, and recently a reviewer who shall remain anonymous wrote of the device: “If you are looking for a one-stop shop for audio and video needs, the ZapStation is not a bad choice.” This person must have been heavily medicated.

In principle, the ZapStation is a terrific idea. In a standard amplifier-sized box the company has put together an audio player (MP3, Windows Media Format V7 and SHOUTcast Internet Radio) and a video player (MPEG, Windows Media Format V7, DVD-Video and VCD), both with a choice of Dolby Digital (AC-3) 5.1 Channel Surround, Dolby Surround (AC-30) and DTS Digital Out. There’s also an audio recorder (MP3 and Windows Media Format V7), and you can rip CDs, burn CDs, use it as a music and video jukebox, receive Internet Radio, browse the Web and access ZapMedia’s entertainment portal.

The engine driving this is an 800-MHz Intel Corp. Celeron running Linux with 128MB of RAM and a 30GB hard drive. The front panel houses a CD/DVD drive, a power switch and a user interface based on a three-colour display with “soft” buttons (the function of each button is shown on the display). We found the usability poor. There’s also a four-way rocker switch with a central component, the combination of which works like a mouse.

The back of the ZapStation sports an RJ-45 Ethernet connector, a USB port (currently only used to download music to the Rio 500 Digital Audio Player), S-Video out, SVGA out, composite video out, digital audio out (coax and optical), analogue in (for a cable or satellite converter, for example) and analogue out.

By now you have probably started thinking “Wow! That’s a lot of technology in one package!” And therein lies a problem: trying to get all the parts to work together. On the ZapStation, some work well: DVD playback is very good, and the audio is excellent. But other features, including the Internet and network support, are abysmal, and the user interface is eccentric.

Because of ZapMedia rethinking its marketing strategy and scaling back its Web plans, the unit we were using would time out while trying to access ZapMedia’s site, even at 1 a.m. (The original business model called for subscribers to pay to access content on ZapMedia’s site.)

Because of these timeouts, we couldn’t access the company’s list of Internet radio stations after 10 tries, so we never got to try this feature. The ZapStation itself appeared to be somewhat unstable: we managed to crash our system in five minutes by going to the network setup, examining the settings and selecting cancel. It took two reboots before the system sorted itself out.

You can rip CDs to the internal drive. You also can import music files (and for that matter any other media the unit can handle) from a network PC but, again, engineering triumphed over design. To perform a media file transfer you have to have an FTP server running on the PC and specify that machine’s IP address in the ZapStation’s FTP client that is presented through the unit’s Web browser. ZapMedia provides a downloadable ActiveX component that you can install on the serving PC, but we can’t imagine a consumer doing this.

Once media is on the ZapStation you can only export to one type of supported Rio device. This is because of Microsoft’s licensing requirements, which prevents direct disk access so Microsoft Corp.’s Digital Rights Management system can’t be defeated. The system is so locked up with encryption you can’t even upgrade the disk or add drives.

We could go on about the flaws in the ZapStation, but the bottom line is that we wanted to like this product but just can’t. The company tells us it is considering making changes to future versions but until then, this product is not, at US$600, worth buying.

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