On of the most frustrating aspects of designing a home theater system is the task of managing entertainment. Different user interfaces with multitudes of menus and sub menus serve as an endless source of confoundment. Even a well designed universal remote, with endless delays, page flips and button changes can offer little assistance. As home theater moves closer to pure digital content (dragging a stubborn CI channel along with it), manufacturers search for ways to create simple, fun ways for us to access our movies and music.
Stepping up to the plate with a new line of media servers dubbed “Vision”, Escient has nearly hit one out of the park. There are a couple of things preventing this from being an absolute home run, but overall, it comes very very close.
This all-in-one media device allows you to rip CD’s and DVD’s to a central hard drive, store digital photos for playback on your HDTV display and gives Rhapsody music service subscribers access to the millions of songs available in their digital library. Easy to set up, and easy to use, Escient has hit one nearly out of the park with this new device.
The lineup consists of four total pieces: A 500gig server client ($3,999), 1TB server client ($5999), 4TB server ($7,999), and a stand alone client ($1,999). By adding up to four clients in addition to a server, families can stream up to five movies to five different rooms. The units support all current tv resolutions including 1080p, though it is important to note that there is not a Blu Ray player on board, only a DVD tray. This is the first stumbling block. I understand limited hard drive space doesn’t make ripping Blu Ray an effective solution. Still, at such a large price point, the unit should include Blu Ray playback capability. This at the price point Escient is asking consumers toAs far as Blu-Ray playback goes, Escient is banking on compatibility with future Blu Ray mega changers, such as the mock up Sony showed at this September’s CEDIA convention. The changer would connect to the vision via an HDMI cable for picture and sound, and an RS-232 cable for control and meta data.
So what’s there to like? Well, let’s start with the GUI. It’s amazingly intuitive. If you’re familiar with Apple TV, you’re familiar with the Vision interface. it couldn’t be easier to search for music or movies, and the response is extremely fast. The on screen menu is bleeding edge sharp. One advantage of Vision over Apple TV is the multitude of search options which let you find movies by genre, actor, director, title, etc. My feeling on any high end home theater device is if Johnny Loungechair can’t figure out how to use it, then forget about anything else.
Ripping movies and music is a snap. Simply load a movie and hit “ok” on your remote. A standard DVD takes about twenty minutes to record onto the hard drive. Escient creates a bit for bit copy of the DVD, meaning you can’t strip a disc of the menus or often ignored special features in order to conserve hard drive space. The advanatage of this is a near perfect copy of your disc. After downloading the latest software upgrade (v1.1) meant to improve video quality the image might be a hair softer than the disc itself, but overall it is nearly indistinguishable. Searching for titles is a breeze and there’s what I like to call a high “belt hitch” factor, the first time you scroll through DVD titles the same way you search for albums via your itunes library. It simple looks James Dean cool.
Stored music operates under the same principles as movies: load a disc, hit “ok” and within a couple minutes you’ve got tunes. You can also drag and drop music from your computer onto the Escient hard drive as well (the exception is DRM protected tunes, though there’s a ton of online scuttlebutt that this travesty is going to go the way of the dod bird soon. It’s about time).
So let’s talk about the two easy-to-overlook-but-no-less-awesome features of the Vision: digital photo playback and Rhapsody music service. When you stop to consider the staggering number of digital cameras in homes right now, then think of how few people actually share those pictures with friends and family, this service make perfect sense. Take the pictures you’ve already uploaded to your computer, drag them over to your open Vision folder, and within a couple seconds you’re sharing pictures on your high def display in full 1080p glory. You can jazz up slideshows with music playing behind your pics and different slide show transitions. This is a much snappier way to show of your vacations, baby pics, kids recitals, graduations, soccer games, etc.
Finally, there’s Rhapsody. For $13 a month, you get access to their entire music database, currently over six million songs strong. I don’t buy music at anywhere near the rate I did even a few short years ago (if it weren’t for Newbury Comics and the mid to late 90’s being the golden age of pop-punk and beard rock emo music I would have owned a house by 25), so this service has been the best entertainment money I spend every month. I’ve been able to find pretty much anything and everything on here, including tiny indie bands like Amateur Party, The New dumb, Atom and His Package, Tim Barry, Chuck Ragan and more. I’m not (too) embarrassed to admit that I’m rediscovering my undying love for grunge music under my “let’s all watch little mad guy and go to Denny’s at two am playlist”: Ministry, soundgarden, nirvana, mudhoney, pearl jam, screaming trees-all my grunge favorites in their flannel glory. There’s a 100 or so internet radio stations with every genre under the sun. if you’re jonesing for big band music fro Swahili with a hip hop twist, featuring barnyard animals on percussion, there’s a pretty good shot you’ll find a station that specializes in it.
So what would i improve? For one, there’s no Blu Ray player on board. At this past Cedia, Sony showed a mock-up of a 400 disc Blu Ray changer the Escient should be able to control, but that’s still a ways away. I understand not having Blu Ray storage on board as that would eat up way too much HD space, but with the cost of Blu Ray drives hitting new lows, there’s no reason it can’t play back Blu Ray and rip DVDs, especially when you’re pitching a product as all in one convergence, with one GUI.
The second addition I’d like to see is integration with my Netflix account. I’m currently doing this through an Xbox 360, and it’s a feature I love. Over the next couple of years it is easy to imagine most of your content coming via streaming ‘services rather than a prepaid envelope. If Escient can come to an agreement with Netflix (or vudu, or any streaming video company) all it would take is a simple software upgrade to enable the service. I’m already getting most of my new music through a subscription based service where I don’t “own” a physical disc. I’d have no problem getting my movies by these means as well.