Hands-on with the Netgear EVA9000 Digital Entertainer Elite

Looking to get a bit of a headstart on the madness that is CES, Netgear invited a handful or two of media members to a pre-CES showing tonight in San Francisco. While they asked us to keep hush about a few of the items they had on display until January 8th rolls around, they gave us the go ahead to blab away about the EVA9000 Digital Entertainer Elite media streaming box – so blab we shall.

Oh, and for anyone planning on complaining about the photo quality: go cry elsewhere. The room they were showing stuff in was about as dark as it gets before people start running into stuff. While it made the environment nice and laid back, it wasn’t exactly conducive to awesome photography.

Now, on to the good stuff. The EVA9000 is a digital media streamer for your TV, purposed for getting pictures, audio, and video into your living room. According to the spokesperson , it’ll retail for $399 with a 500 gigabyte hard drive – we’ll verify all that as soon as Netgear sends a press release or spec sheet our way. It should start shipping “soon”.

If you’re wondering what justifies the $399 price tag over that of, say, the $329 AppleTV, stop right there. Picture an AppleTV. Rip out the movie rental junk. Up the specs across the board. If you’re not looking for something that you can give to grandma for Christmas, the EVA9000 stomps all over the AppleTV, and does a good job belittling Media Center Extender and the Xbox 360, as well.

So if it’s not for grandmas, who’s it for? Pirates. Netgear wouldn’t come right out and say it, but that really is the biggest market for a piece of hardware like this. I mean, come on – it supports Matroska ( the general format of choice for Blu-Ray/HD DVD rips) and FLAC (lossless audio goodness). While Netgear can write those off on people who just like to have backups, we all know who it’s really there for.

On the matter of codecs/formats, this thing supports pretty much everything I could come up with off the top of my head. AVI? Of course. DviX and Xvid? Yep. M4V? MPG? ISO? IFO? M2TS? Greenlights all the way across. When I asked if he could think of any video formats it didn’t support, the spokesman said “Hm.. really, really old MOV files?” While I’m sure there are whole lot of obscure types it won’t touch, chances are you’re good to go on any audio or video you may have .. obtained.

Once I started geeking out about specific codecs and comparing it to software solutions like Boxee and XBMC, the Netgear rep got into some of the nittygritty. Here’s what I recall:

  • Streaming over the network works with Samba, iTunes library streaming, and ReadyNAS.
  • Internet radio streaming uses Nullsoft’s Shoutcast. Top 150 or so stations are listed by default, and you can add new ones with their .PLS files.
  • USB on the front is currently only purposed for wireless keyboards and external storage. No mouse support yet.
  • It has RSS feed support. Video RSS feeds play as expected, and text/images show for standard feeds. It’s not full html, but it’s adequate for light perusing.
  • When I asked how much hacking they expect users to do, the rep said while the EVA9000 runs on a version of Linux, things are “closed pretty tight”. If the mobile world has taught me anything, it’s that things are never as tight as their developers expect.
  • Software updates are done by a “Check for new software” button, or the user can manually select an update package from their storage. For anyone looking to hack some fun stuff onto this one, that manual update option ought to make things a bit easier.
  • Skinning support! Skinning “won’t be easy”, but it’s there for anyone taking the plunge. Unless some third-party gets around to crafting a creation tool, skins will be handmade with good ol’ XML. They plan to offer at least a few professionally made alternative skins, though only the default will ship on the unit. No word yet if these new skins will cost anything.
  • Youtube support is built right in, and it’s compatible with the new “HD” and widescreen stuff.

While the hardcore enthusiast might scoff at the idea of buying a pre-built box rather than building their own, there exists a massive market between the grandmas wanting to rent “Get Smart” without leaving the house and those looking to piece together a MythTV kit from the ground up. After spending less time with it than I’d like, I’d say the EVA9000 fits that bill. We’ll (hopefully) be getting a review unit sometime in the next few weeks – I look forward to giving this thing a proper test.