Netgear’s Digital Entertainer Live: Easy Setup, Poor Video Quality

NetGear’s (s NTGR) latest set-top box, the Digital Entertainer Live (EVA2000), is a good idea, on paper. The $150 device, powered by Verismo’s VuNow technology, lets you access video content from the Web and your home network. It lacks any built-in storage, but does have two USB ports for connecting drives.

But in my tests, Digital Entertainer Live proved mixed. I like its smaller design and ease of use. And I especially like that it comes with a lower price tag than past Netgear devices. But the device is a bit buggy, and it suffers from sub-par video quality, leaving me unable to whole-heartedly recommend it.

Set up is pretty simple: you connect it to your TV via HDMI, but you’ll have to supply your own cable, which is disappointing considering that more and more products are bundling HDMI cords. Alternatively, you can use the included composite A/V cable. You connect it to your home network via Ethernet or wirelessly, but the wireless adapter is a $30 accessory — and it will occupy one of the device’s USB ports. I used a powerline networking kit to connect the Digital Entertainer Live to my home network with a wired connection, which the company says will provide the best performance.

Once the device is connected, you can use it to access videos from various online sites like YouTube and various Internet TV stations, and, through the use of PlayOn’s $40 Media Server software, content from sites like Hulu, Netflix (s NFLX), and Amazon (a AMZN) Video on Demand. (Mac users, beware: PlayOn only runs on Windows PCs.) You also can browse through files stored on networked computers and hard drives.

Using Netgear’s on-screen menus to navigating through all of these sources could be a lot easier. The menu is organized into three main choices: My Collection, Movies on Demand, and Internet Video. But you’ll find some of your content sources under all of these headings; your Netflix Instant Watch queue, for example, appears under both “My Collection” and “Movies on Demand.” Hulu, meanwhile, is accessible through both “My Collection” and “Internet Video.” A little bit of streamlining would great enhance the user experience.

So, too, would improving the organizational system. Much of the content from sources like Netflix and Hulu is annoyingly categorized in a series of folders. To access a TV show from Hulu, you have to go into a folder called “TV Episodes” and then scan through a series of folders for each letter of the alphabet. If you’re looking for Glee, you have to go all the way to the “G” folder, and then scan through more folders for each TV show that starts with G — and there are more of them than you might think. Once you find the Glee folder, you have to scan through its contents to find the episode you want. A search feature would be a welcome addition.

But the lack of a search function for some sites is a minor annoyance. More pressing is the poor video quality I often experienced. In my tests of streaming video — all over a wired connection — the video ranged from unwatchable to just good. The box supports video resolutions up to 720p, but none of the streaming content I watched seemed to come close to HD. YouTube videos fared the best, with some HD YouTube clips looking pretty sharp. But Netflix Instant Watch movies and HD TV episodes rented from Amazon Video in Demand looked decidedly low res. I wouldn’t bother paying a premium for HD content if I were planning on watching it via the Digital Entertainer Live.

I also had trouble getting the Digital Entertainer Live to play back some of my Amazon video content. I rented The Hangover from Amazon on my computer, and sat down in front of my TV, ready to watch the movie via the Netgear box. The Digital Entertainer Live found the title in my Amazon library, but was never able to play it back. Each time I tried, the box seemed to freeze, and one time required a reboot. A VuNow representative thought this problem might be a PlayOn issue, but I was not able to resolve it. However, I purchased an episode of Parks and Recreation from Amazon, and this played back without a problem.

Not surprisingly, video quality improved dramatically when played from a USB drive connected to the Digital Entertainer Live. This is one of the reasons that Netgear requires you to download movies to a connected USB drive when you purchase them from CinemaNow — a feature that is enabled on the box. It may seem like a hassle, but one that is worth it for the improved video quality.

At $150, the Digital Entertainer Live is less than half the price of Netgear’s Digital Entertainer Elite, which lists for $400. It’s also less than half the size; the Digital Entertainer Live is about the size of a router, while the Elite model is comparable to your average DVD player. But the Digital Entertainer Live is not meant to compete with devices like the Elite; it’s positioned instead as an alternative to boxes like those designed by Roku.

The Digital Entertainer Live offers features similar to those of Roku’s $130 HD-XR box, which I have not tested. That device is $20 cheaper, and it comes with built-in wireless capabilities to boot. But it also lacks the ability to access Hulu, which Netgear’s box offers. If only the Digital Entertainer Live offered better video quality, I could recommend it easily. But for now, if you can live without Hulu, Roku’s box could be worth a look.