Convergence can mean many things, but one of its most promising aspects is the merging of the traditional audiovisual world with the digital world of IT. We’re already seeing digital technology surface in widescreen LCD and plasma televisions, hard disk recorders, iPods and media centre PCs. However, AV and IT vendors still think in very different ways and it’s proven to be a significant challenge to get them to come together to produce truly converged products.
One attempt at creating a converged AV/IT product is the DVF-7080 from Kenwood. On the surface it looks just like a regular DVD player, although the PC Card slot at the front, and more significantly, the Ethernet port at the rear, belie its IT leanings. The DVF-7080 is part of Kenwood’s ‘Network Concept’, along with the VRS-N8100 Network Receiver. Both are able to connect to a home network and access files stored on a PC, which makes them sit somewhere between traditional AV devices and a Media Center PC. However, like many other AV/IT convergence attempts, Kenwood has run into some all too common issues.
You start by installing the Kenwood PC Server software on your PC. The installation itself is rather arcane, with it asking questions like whether you want to install the ‘ServiceCreateSection’, and other cryptically-named components. The software itself is also rather ugly and features a somewhat clumsy interface. Sadly the manual doesn’t help terribly much in guiding you through the software interface, with the manual written in typical over abbreviated half-English.
Once you discern the function of each of the features of the software, you import your media files into its library so that your DVF-7080 can access them over the network. Here again the software is a bit of a let down. You can’t just specify a folder and have the software automatically share it over the network or monitor it for new media. Instead you must manually import each file or folder, and when you do so the software insists that you allocate each file a specific genre. When files are imported the software then checks to make sure they’re in an appropriate format, and if not, it converts them on the fly.
File format support is quite impressive, with the DVF-7080 handling MPG, DivX and XviD video, as well as MP3, WMA, WAV and even OGG audio. It can also display JPG, BMP, PNG and GIF images, although strangely it can only view JPG images through the PC Card slot.
Once the PC software is installed, you can hook the DVF-7080 up to your network using the Ethernet port. You can either plug directly into a hub or router, or into a wireless router, with the DVF-7080 set to acquire an IP address automatically by default. It’s still advised that you have some PC networking knowledge, as you may have to manually assign the IP address, or make allowances in any firewalls that are set up on your network.
The DVF-7080 will then search for the PC server when you hit the dedicated Network Server button on the remote. Assuming everything is correctly set up, the network interface will come up on screen. This allows you to browse your music, movies and images and choose the ones to load. Your control is fairly limited though, for example, you can’t just play an album folder, you need to play an individual track, with the DVF-7080 automatically moving to the next track when the first one if finished.
Interestingly, there is a repeat function, but no shuffle when playing digital audio. Images can be played in a slideshow, although there is no indication of how many more images there are left to view, so you just work your way through until it stops. Videos work well, although the quality will be limited by the bandwidth on your network – 802.11b wireless is not quite fast enough for high quality video files.
Overall, the DVF-7080 does work as advertised, and it does represent a big step forward in terms of AV/IT convergence. Kenwood deserves credit for jumping the great divide and incorporating PC functionality in its new Network Concept products. However, like many early convergence attempts, the implementation is not without its flaws or rough edges. Ultimately AV vendors will have to quickly learn the lessons about interface, ease of use and functionality that IT vendors have been struggling with for the past decade or so.
If you are looking for a new DVD player, and you also have a home network with a wealth of digital media, then the DVF-7080 is worth a look. It doesn’t give you the same power or flexibility as a Media Centre PC, although at $799 it is definitely a lot cheaper.