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Ceton Echo Next Generation Media Center Extender a HTF-Review


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#1 of 20 mattCR

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Posted November 29 2012 - 03:00 PM

Since the creation of Microsoft's Windows Media Center, people have looked for ways to expand it's usefulness.  One of the items that really set Media Center apart from competitors was it's support for Cable Card tuners.  But while support was there early on, even Windows Vista Media Center, it wasn't until late in the game that cable card tuners became common and affordable.   Ceton made it's first big splash by taking a serious effort to think about making Windows Media Center a real home hub for media and entertainment.  It's Ceton InfiniTV 4-Channel PCI-E Cable Tuner was one of the most hotly anticipated Windows accessories for HTPC fans in 2010.   Heck, I spent time on the waiting list to make sure I got a pair early on.  And once the Ceton InfiniTV came onto the market the entire world of Windows Media Center changed.   Doubt it?  Check some of my HTPC posts here about using 4, 8, 12 tuners for video distribution and DVR usage.   And since you control the disc space, your DVR can have infinite depth (I have TV recordings I've held onto for YEARS).

But with all those tuners, how do you really make the media center pay off?   One of the best ways was the Media Center Extender.   Built into every Microsoft XBOX360, the Media Center Extender allowed those XBOX devices to connect and run Media Center, have access to TV tuners, watch stored videos, pictures, music and browse content data.  It was an ideal way to centralize a DVR, allow every family member to watch what they wanted and throw away the cable boxes.


But there were a few problems with this.   The XBOX360 isn't really designed for this purpose as a primary goal.   So, it tends to be noisy.  Buying a remote control is an extra accessory, and the XBOX controller is a crummy navigation device.  The XBOX also has the negative of being used by kids to play games, and in order to gain access to decoding CODECs, you have to upkeep an XBOXLive Account (there are ways around this for the most part).


So how do you improve on this?   Ceton looked for a way to do exactly that by introducing the Ceton Echo, a next generation Media Center Extender.    What makes the Ceton Echo extender different?





Well, let's cover the stats:


Minimum System Requirements:

  • Display with HDMI input
  • Wired Ethernet network
  • PC with Microsoft® Windows® 7 with Media Center. A PC with a TV tuner is required for TV and DVR features.

Tech Specs:

  • Size: 3.9" x 0.8" x 4.3"
  • Power Consumption: less than 5 watts
  • Outputs: HDMI, Optical Digital Audio (TOSLINK)
  • Other Connectors: USB 2.0, Mini USB (for power)
  • Network: Ethernet (10/100/1000)
  • Audio formats supported: Dolby Digital AC-3, MP3, PCM, WMA, WMA Pro
  • Photo formats supported: BMP, GIF, JPG, PNG, TIF
  • Video formats supported: MPEG-1, MPEG-2, H.264, WMV9
The Ceton Echo is TINY.   I mean VERY tiny.  A comparison is provided by them:





About the same size as your iPhone4.  A little thicker of course.  Power requirements are low.   Like REALLY low.  I have had no issue powering my Ceton off of my TV's internal USB port (this is not a guarantee, I would recommend using the power connector, but I was able to successfully use this as a test)


The Test


I've had almost 6 weeks to evaluate the Ceton Echo.  Those 6 weeks have been up and down.   Ceton has been surprisingly responsive to tickets, questions and issues, but quite a bit of the way this device was originally to function has changed.   As you'll note above, early thoughts of outputting DTS via Bitstream are currently not supported.   Ceton has issued roughly a firmware a week and as they go, numerous issues have been addressed.   But it doesn't mean that issues don't remain.


Some are going to look at this as a negative.   I'm a bit reminded of my recieving an early InfiniTV and SiliconDust Prime.. going through all the driver changes.. imaging that is going to be the case here, as well.   Ceton has recently announced that they are planning to come out with an Android basis for this device that also runs the Extender (There is some confusion, they may be talking about a phone app, currently they support Windows Phone and iPhone via application).

In the last week, the feature set of the Echo has been significantly expanded.   1080P support has been added.   A custom Windows Media Center plugin to allow the device to set and control it's resolution has been released, and updates to phone apps have rolled out.  It's obvious that THIS is release week. 

The Pros


In hardened testing, there are definite advantages to the Ceton over the XBOX, especially with the newest firmware.   The biggest of course is that it easily hides within a room and takes almost no energy.   Ceton notes that the difference in running your XBOX year around VS running a Ceton Echo year around is $60 on your electric bill.  I would absolutely believe it.

The other benefit is that the Echo comes with a decent - though slightly too small remote, and it's built for Media Center usage.  You're also buying in at the start of a platform.  IF Ceton rolls out their Android ICS platform before year end, this could become a very interesting device as not just a MCE, but also as a network display device.. we expect more news on how those functions will come about, but there is no doubt that the Echo will likely maintain the same level of incredible support that Ceton has provided to all of the products in the past.





The Ceton Companion App for Tablets and Phones:  http://cetoncorp.com...ucts/companion/


The Cons


There is one monumental negative.   That being this is a VERY young unit.  As of last night (and ongoing really) the Beta development continues.  Firmware releases have come out about weekly, and so we are still in what I can only call the "Green" phase of a product.  If you're looking for this to be fully matured, you might want to wait a bit.   But these are going to be items that fly off the shelf because with Ceton's track record by Christmas we're going to have something pretty exceptional.


That doesn't mitigate the issues for people now, though.   The Echo still occasionally has issues with High bandwidth content.  It doesn't bitstream out Audio quite as originally planned, and the menus aren't as snappy and smooth as we'd want.   The unit occasionally misdetects your TVs resolution - which you at least now can manually change by the Ceton Echo Media Center plugin.


Final Thoughts


If you're the kind of person that is committed to your Windows Media Center, and you like to tinker, this is going to be a buy immediately item.   You're going to want to make sure you get an early unit before stock gets light, and you want to be the person who can say you did it first.    On the other hand, the $179 price tag puts it almost equal to an XBOX.   And, we're just talking Media Center Extender functions.   Yes, some of the improved support for native decoding and better design do matter - but can it justify the price tag?


I've really struggled with that as well.   The access to an iPhone / Windows Phone app and solid look and feel to the unit really do matter.  And I admit, for someone who uses the extender most in my bedroom, it will be nice to eliminate the fan noise of an XBOX.  But is it enough?   I'm still not quite sure.   I'm holding onto mine for now, because the promise of what this unit could be are exceptional.   It has the right pedigree and a company dedicated to support it.  In the end, this  could turn out fantastic.    But if you're a casual user now may not be the right time to grab an Echo.   You may find that the process of basically being a paid beta tester for the next few months just isn't what you're interested in.


I have to applaud Ceton for their effort to really do something exceptional with Media Center.   I've often thought that Media Center is Microsoft's most misunderstood and most poorly marketted application.   The Ceton Echo really shows us how strong Media Center could and should be.   That's why I'm sticking with the gamble, and I'm keeping my Ceton Echo.     Because if I'm going to bet on something, I'm going to bet in a company I believe in, and I believe Ceton is on the right track.


EARLY ADOPTER RECOMMEND


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#2 of 20

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Posted November 29 2012 - 04:19 PM

What Ceton is doing now is what the Windows Media Center team wanted a large eco-system of manufacturers to do for a long time!  It's great to see Ceton come out with this solution.



#3 of 20 mattCR

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Posted November 30 2012 - 02:32 AM

The more Ceton has worked with this, the better it has become.  The bad of the net is that too many places were sharing information about a product that was still running through a pretty hot and heavy beta, and everytime a revision or an update would come out, people would doom the product.   As long as I've dealt with people at Ceton, they have always shot me straight and they've been frequent with updates and support.


I think that longterm, this is going to be a pretty nice little product, and my wife does comment that the fact it is dead quiet and easy to hide are significant advantages in a bedroom setting.


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#4 of 20 DaveF

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Posted December 02 2012 - 06:26 AM

Thanks for the review Matt. I was wondering if the Echo was released and reviewed. I'm behind by two days :)


I'm left wondering still: what does the Echo do ( and what doesn't it do)? Is it only useful for DVR and music? Is responsive or sluggish? What about watching a movie library on an HTPC?


Based on your review and one on Missing Remote, I'm not sure what to make of the Echo. For that matter, I'm still trying to understand what can be done with an HTPC. It seems that the desire for multi-room DVR and multi-room movies are incompatible.


http://www.missingre...-media-extender



#5 of 20 mattCR

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Posted December 02 2012 - 01:40 PM

Well, the Missing Remote article hits somethings but they go into areas that aren't really lined out.  As I point out this is still really something that's growing.  Ceton has just announced migrating Android onto the unit.   Right now, it basically exists as a Media Center Extender, doing exactly as the XBOX360 does, just on considerably less power.   So, as a TV tuner, a means to access your main media center DVR, it functions quite well.


It does a clean and good job of handling x264 content, etc. which I find pretty well, and as Missing Remote points out, it does currently bitstream Dolby Digital (the XBOX does not correctly) and they will add DTS, etc. supports.


Right now, it's still too early, like I said, if you're buying in now it's because you believe in where it will go.  But frankly it's a bit high also.  This needs to be at about the $129-$149 price point, depending on where the upgrades come out.  if the ICS install on it goes well, then the current price could be a great value.  We'll have to wait and see.


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#6 of 20 DaveF

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Posted December 02 2012 - 03:08 PM

Thanks. Replacing the tivos with an HTPC early next year is a possibility. I'll continue watching the Echo. I keep hoping it will also answer "how do I watch Futurama DVDs in the bedroom with a master PC in the basement?"

#7 of 20 mattCR

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Posted December 02 2012 - 03:16 PM

Originally Posted by DaveF 

Thanks. Replacing the tivos with an HTPC early next year is a possibility. I'll continue watching the Echo. I keep hoping it will also answer "how do I watch Futurama DVDs in the bedroom with a master PC in the basement?"


It does that perfectly fine.   Grab MediaBrowser (www.mediabrowser.tv) and you're off to the races


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#8 of 20 DaveF

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Posted December 03 2012 - 12:38 PM

That's good to hear. Preview info on the Echo reported a lot of limitations on playing back MKV and ISO. I look forward to reading more about its features as the product matures.



#9 of 20 Adam Lenhardt

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Posted December 08 2012 - 03:02 PM

Thanks so much for sharing this review, Matt. This is a product I'm very interested in. I'd love to do away with the FiOS DVR all together and just run everything through the PC with the Ceton card. If that happens, this will be a big part of how it happens.

#10 of 20 mattCR

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Posted December 08 2012 - 03:12 PM

Originally Posted by Adam Lenhardt 

Thanks so much for sharing this review, Matt. This is a product I'm very interested in. I'd love to do away with the FiOS DVR all together and just run everything through the PC with the Ceton card. If that happens, this will be a big part of how it happens.


They've just done another firmware update of this device, and it is obvious to me that Ceton has a real goal in mind with this product, each update makes significant forward movement on how slick this device is. 

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#11 of 20 DaveF

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Posted December 08 2012 - 03:33 PM

How is the Fios DVR? I'll be on Fios in a month, with TiVo and cablecards. I wondered if I should quit TiVo to get cheaper DVR and also all the (free) on-demand shows. But I have no idea how current cable co DVRs compare to an HD TiVo (or 7MC).

#12 of 20 Adam Lenhardt

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Posted December 10 2012 - 01:13 PM

I've never using TiVo, so I'm not sure how the featureset compares. It works fine for my needs, the only real noticeable issue being that if you send too many commands to the box at once via the remote, the interface lags and you just sort of have to sit until the unit catches up to all of the things you've thrown at it. That issue never affects the recording, though. I have two main reasons I'd like to move to an all 7MC-based setup, one financial, the other practical. The financial reason is simple savings: for the upfront cost of the Echo, I could eliminate the 10 or so bucks a month I'm spending to rent the HD DVR. I'm already paying for the CableCARD, so that's a non-issue. The practical reason is recording capacity. With the FiOS DVR, I can watch one show and record one show, or I can turn the TV off and record two shows. There have been many times where that's simply been too limiting. With the InfiniTV card in my PC, I can record four shows if I'm not in 7MC, or I can record three shows and watch one if I am. Doubling the recording capacity is a very big deal. I already use the extra tuners of the PC when I have too many shows for the FiOS DVR, but I don't have any really seamless way to watch them on the TV. I either have to convert them to a format the WDTV box can understand or I have to watch them on the PC. This would close that gap.

#13 of 20 DaveF

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Posted December 10 2012 - 02:45 PM

Thanks. TivoHD is dual tuner, so I can record two shows and play back a recorded show, simultaneously. We have two, for 4 channels of recording total. But it requires each box be managed. I'm interested in media center in part, too, for the four tuner, one box solution. (And because TiVo Premiere reviews are ok but not great)

#14 of 20 Adam Lenhardt

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Posted December 11 2012 - 02:15 PM

TivoHD is dual tuner, so I can record two shows and play back a recorded show, simultaneously.

You can do that with the FiOS DVR, too. What you can't do is record two programs and watch a third On Demand, because the on demand service uses one of the tuners. On the 7MC side, I've never run out of tuners.

#15 of 20 DaveF

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Posted December 27 2012 - 01:33 AM

Does the Echo play ripped DVDs (menus and all) from a 7MC PC? How about blu? I'm still trying to figure out if I can build an HTPC with multi room DVR and multi room streaming of DVD and Blu ray.

#16 of 20 mattCR

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Posted December 27 2012 - 03:56 PM

Originally Posted by DaveF 

Does the Echo play ripped DVDs (menus and all) from a 7MC PC? How about blu?
I'm still trying to figure out if I can build an HTPC with multi room DVR and multi room streaming of DVD and Blu ray.


I can give it a try; I rarely store in full ISO.   This may (or may not) be possible.. there are updates coming this week that will could my answer.


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#17 of 20 DaveF

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Posted December 27 2012 - 04:20 PM

I'd appreciate any insight there. I'd rather not transcode, not to start. I enjoy commentaries (Futurama has fantastic commentaries by David X Cohen) and special features. And the time to setup and run transcodes... pain to push down the road. I'm running into a fundamental conflict with 7MC. For whole-house DVR, I need extenders and not satellite HPTCs. But for whole-house movie viewing, I need just the converse: satellite HTPCs and not extenders. (Or I need to sacrifice Blu quality and all special features to watch movies through an extender.)

#18 of 20 Adam Gregorich

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Posted November 15 2013 - 05:09 PM

Now that its been out for a while, what's the verdict?  I'm thinking about replacing the XBOX in the bedroom with one.



#19 of 20 mattCR

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Posted November 15 2013 - 07:34 PM

Several improvements along the way have helped quite a bit. It's not perfect, but it is a quiet functional extender.

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#20 of 20 Adam Gregorich

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Posted November 20 2013 - 11:21 AM

Better/worse/same as XBOX?  I'm thinking about replacing due to the fact that I can leave on all the time and not have to wait for xbox to load up, not to mention power savings.  Hopefully there will be a combo deal with a tuner card on BF.  I'd love to replace my 4 ATI tuners :)






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