ArsGeek reviews the Neuros OSD

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The first two observations I made when I opened my Neuros OSD were that the unit was a lot smaller than I was expecting (about five and a half inches by five and a half inches in size) and that it looked nice. This was no flat looking boxy apparatus, nor was it a standard component. It was curved, it was sleek, black and more aerodynamic than any other DVR I’ve come across. When I saw it, I immediately decide to publish this review on Arsgeek blog.

I liked the size and the look immediately. Not only was this thing slick looking, but I could easily grab the RCA cables and the Neuros and bring it over to a friends house to watch whatever I’d recorded.

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There are a few things that are fundamentally different about this video recorder which may take a little getting used to. First, this product is open. Not open as in the wind blows through it, but open as in anyone can hack around with the firmware, making changes and if they are for the better, giving them to the community. The second change is that this recorder really doesn’t have any storage of it’s own to record to. You’ll need to provide storage in the form of one of the many popular memory cards (complete list below), a USB drive or your networked share.

Taking the Neuros out of the box another thing became apparent. This would be an easy device to set up. You plug two sets of RCA cables into it and plug them into your source (digital cable in my case) and your output (a TV set with me). I plugged the unit in, stuck a 4 GB USB flash drive into the side of it and using the handy remote I turned it on. I set the playback device as Television, the recording device to my USB drive, the quality to normal and started recording. A half hour later I had a full television show recorded on my USB drive. Every port, every slot and every plug is clearly labeled in nice, white lettering. That’s great as well.

I took the Neuros out of my living room and plugged it into the bedroom television along with my USB drive and tested the playback. The quality wasn’t amazing but it was certainly good enough. In fast panning shots I noticed a bit of degradation but on the whole it’s not noticeable if you’re watching a sitcom or just about anything other than sports. You can also select different quality levels – recording at a higher level produces larger files but better frame rate and clearer images.

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With the way storage is going right now, you can easily obtain a 4 GB SD card and pop it into the Neuros for easy recording. Need more storage and want to compete with other devices, not a problem if you have an external USB drive. You’ll need to plug another device in (the drive) but it’s certainly feasible to easily attach 300GB worth of storage.

Something interesting I was able to do was transfer an DivX file from my Archos 605 and pop it onto my USB drive. From there I could play it back via the Neuros without problem. This little device handles an incredible range of formats for video, audio and even image playback. I love that it plays .ogg files – this is my first device other than my Linux computers that supports Ogg Vorbis.

The interface on the Neuros is not the slickest I’ve seen but it’s also still under development. With each new firmware release the interface changes for the better. I enjoy the IR device that when placed over the IR receiver on my cable box can change the channel for me. It’s nice to be able to set up the Neuros to record several shows on different channels and then let the box do the channel changing for me. The Neuros is very easy to use, as simple as any device out there and is a fantastic example of Open Source in action.

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This product can really be as powerful as you want it to be. If you’re an average home user, you pop an SD card into it and record content for as long as your storage holds out. If you’re a little more advanced, you connect it to your network, update the firmware (or download the firmware to your local PC and put it on an external drive to connect to the Neuros), record video to play directly on your PSP and stream video over your network. If you’re an advanced user and hacker, well you can change the way the Neuros works and make the experience better for everyone.

Pros: This device will record from just about anywhere, play on just about anything and use just about every format out there. Really, you won’t find more flexibility than here. It’s also open which I like on a very basic level. The firmware is constantly changing and making this product better. You can make it as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be. Everything you need to start recording, from the Neuros to the cables to batteries for the remote is included in the box. It’s not horribly expensive and it looks like a sports car.

Cons: In terms of user interface, there is still a bit to be done. Several times my unit froze up on my and had to be power cycled to get it back. I’d love to see a nice program guide for a more TiVo like interface. Wireless would also be great. And even though it’s listed in the pros, one con is that the firmware is constantly being updated to improve the user experience. If you’re not one to have this unit connected to your network at all times (like say, my parents) then you’ll never get the newest updates unless I show up at your house and plug it in for you.

At $229.00, the Neuros OSD won’t break the bank and will give you a full feature, take anywhere, record anything on anything and play on just about everything device. You will have to spend more money on storage if you don’t have anything laying about. With the price of flash memory coming down and the capacity going up, it won’t be long until you’ll be able to pop 30GB of USB flash memory into this box for less than the price of the box itself. I’d love to see S-video out on this, as well as wireless connectivity. Another cable snaking across the floor is not something I’m anxious to have. I’m interested to know if the Eye-Fi wireless SD card would work well with this.

For me, I love fooling around with my Neuros. If you’re at all technologically inclined, you’ll love it too.

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Video Standard

* Compatible with NTSC, Pal and Secam (input only) standards

Video Recording

* ISO Standard MPEG-4 SP encoding (MP4, ASF)
* QVGA (320×240) @30fps with AAC-LC/MP3/G.726 audio for smartphones, PSP™, iPod™, iPhone™ and PDA’s.
* VGA setting (640×480) @30fps for PC, TV playback.

Video Player

* MPEG-4 SP with MP3 audio, 30fps up to D1 resolution (720×480)
* Quicktime 6
* MPEG-4 AAC-LC stereo
* MP4 format at up to D1 resolution
* H.263 with MP3 audio
* FLV (for Playback of YouTube videos)
* ASF
* AVI (including Divx and Xvid)
* MP4
* WMV (up to QVGA)
* MOV
* MPG
* MPEG

You can also see a more detailed table of supported video formats for playback.

YouTube browser

* Watch YouTube videos on your TV
* Search the entire Youtube library using keywords
* build a list with all your favorite videos

Photo Viewer

* JPEG decoder (baseline up to 32M pixel)
* BMP
* GIF (nonanimated)
* Thumbnail view
* Zoom in/out (2x, 4x)

Audio Player

* Stereo MP3/WMA @ 30-320kbps (CBR & VBR)
* Ogg Vorbis
* FLAC
* WAV
* Stereo MPEG-4 AAC-LC
* G.726

Features

* Schedule (timer) recording
* Customizable slide shows
* One-click record
* IR Blaster to control your set-top box
* Run 3rd party applications

USB Host

* Record to and playback content from any USB mass storage device

Ethernet

* Connect to your network
* Save recordings to network storage
* UPnP support
* Stream Audio/Video from Internet
* Download multimedia content from Internet
* Connect to Windows Networks (Samba client support)

Complete System Includes

* Standard A/V RCA Interface Cables (European units also contain SCART adapters)
* 110-240V AC/DC Power Supply
* Stand
* IR Blaster
* Remote Control
* Abbreviated Users Manual

Dimensions and Weight

* 14 x 14 x 3.2 cm (5.5 x 5.5 x 1.25 inches)
* Weight 230g (8oz)

Upgradeability

* System updates and 3rd party applications available at www.neurostechnology.com/support/
* Automatic built-in software update

Storage Card Compatibility

* Memory Stick: Duo and Pro Duo
* Compact Flash: Type I and Type II
* Microdrives with CF type II interface
* Secure Digital (SD)
* Multi Media Card (MMC)
* USB thumbdrives
* External Hard Drives

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Hands on with the Creative Zen Stone

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After a long wait, I finally got my hands on this little MP3 player and got a good chance to try it out. (Edit: Now you can get one as well! We’re giving away two of these, as well as a Phillips 512MB MP3 player/voice recorder.)

This is the tiniest MP3 player I’ve gotten my hands on yet. It’s 53.67 x 35.34 x 12.82 mm, which translates into wicked small. It also weighs 25 grams or .0055 pounds in weight. This is tiny! Falling out of my pocket if I don’t get a case tiny.

In the box: The Zen Stone, ear buds and a 3” USB connector. It retails at $39.99

The Stone has about 1GB of capacity, and not only is it a music player but you can use it as a mass storage device as well, which translates into a 1GB thumb drive. It’s capable of playing MP3s, WMA and Audible files and connects to USB 1.1 or 2.0.

Sound quality is quite good. Taking on my self to be a guinea pig for you all, I loaded one of my favorite Sevendust songs onto it, and cranked it up until my office was shaking along with the music. Perhaps it wasn’t quite that loud, but it’s certainly loud enough for me, and then some.

The feature that I like best about this little player is actually the lack of a ‘feature’ I’ve found on most other players. That is, you don’t need any software to load music onto it or organize your tunes. All you need to do is treat it like any other thumb drive, and drop your music right into the Zen Stone. You can set up different folders to organize your tunes, and using a slide bar control on the Zen skip through your folders until you’re at the one you want. So there’s no software, but there’s no annoying hooks on how you organize your music. And best of all, I simply plug it into my Ubuntu laptop and start organizing tunes!

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The controls, while small, are manageable. Play and pause are straight forward, and also act as the power button. Push the control disk to the left or right to skip backwards or forwards, up or down to raise or lower the volume. The unit is charged directly via the USB connection, although a separate USB charger is available for an extra cost.

The one control that is taking me a bit of time to get used to is the blinkenlight. There’s one LCD that flashes various colors to indicate the state of the Zen. Blinking green when connected to the computer means file transfer in progress. When not connected, it means it’s playing music. Red blinking means low battery. Red steady means paused and low battery. 3 blinks in red means battery depleted or no music files on board. If during playback, red blinking means a file format was encountered that the Zen Stone doesn’t know. If you get a red blinking light while turning it up, it means the max volume has been reached. Finally, Orange is the charge level. 1 blink means below 25%. 2 blinks means 25-75%. 3 blinks means 75-99% and steady means fully charged.

Phew! See what I mean? Perhaps there’s a better way to convey all of this information, but on a unit this small I’m not sure what that would be.
All in all I’m very taken with my Zen Stone. This little beauty holds roughly 250 songs, which is more than enough for me, and is the perfect size, so I don’t feel like I’m lugging along YAC (Yet Another Contraption).

If you’re into small size and great playback, then you’ll love this as much as I do.

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The Zonbox: Small, quiet, solid state Linux computing

I mentioned it couple of times in the ArsGeek news section but there are plenty of people who don’t know what is a Zonbox exactly? It’s a solid state Linux business computer, which means it has no moving parts – not even a fan. This makes for a very quiet computing experience. What comes in a Zonbox? Here are some stats:

  • Intel-compatible ultra-low power CPU
  • 512 MB RAM + 4GB flash-based local storage
  • Graphics up to 1400 x 1050 (16 million colors). Hardware graphics and MPEG2 acceleration
  • PC-compatible ports for keyboard and mouse
  • 6 USB ports to plug-and-play all standard USB accessories
  • Broadband ready: 10/100 Mbps Ethernet built-in
  • Pricing: $99.00 for the Zonbox itself and plans as follows: 25GB storage $12.95/month. 50GB storage $14.95/month. 100GB storate $19.95/month.

Zonbox is also very environmentally friendly. In their words: With Zonbu, green doesn’t have to make you blue! With its efficient ultra low power design, Zonbu delivers the power of a traditional desktop computer but uses just a fraction of the energy. That could mean as much as $10 a month in energy savings for you — and might just help save the planet, too. Not only does Zonbu’s low power design reduce CO2 emissions, but by buying carbon offsets, we make the operation of your Zonbu device completely carbon neutral. Talk about guilt-free computing!

Read on for my review and some screen shots.


So what’s it really like to use a Zonbox? Keep in mind that this is still a beta project. As such I did run into a few odd problems but nothing that I’ve found seems earth shattering.

I unboxed the unit, plugged in VGA, sound, networking, keyboard and mouse (both USB) and hit the power button. I was greeted with the startup screen, which took about 1 minute to boot into. Once there I entered my email address and password. Here’s what I first saw:

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Perusing through the Start menu I recognized a number of familiar programs. Here’s a partial list of what you’ll find in a Zonbox: Firefox, Evolution, OpenOffice, Mujsic Library (Banshee), Mplayer, Photo Organizer (F-spot), Skype, Gimp, Scribus, Gimp, about 30 games including Frozen Bubble and Blobwars and a number of smaller utilities.

While the box is capable of playing games, I apparently am not.

loser!

The menus are well organized and easy for non-linux users to read. For example, instead of Scirbus you’ll see a menu entry for “Desktop Publishing”.

It’s a strange feeling to be doing work on a computer, browsing the web, playing media and not hearing a hard drive spin up or a fan whine away. Strange but nice.

Obviously, the Zonbox isn’t the most powerful computer and you won’t find the most recent desktop effects on it but it’s quite quick enough for basic computer use. I was able to surf the web, check my email, have Gimp open and listen to music with no noticeable lag in performance. For the users this device is targeting, the experience should be painless.

Beatallica

Zonbox has a documents folder created by default and available through the start menu or as the first icon on the desktop. It appears that it’s this folder that takes advantage of Zonbu’s offsite storage. Anything in this folder will be saved on the Zonbu servers (using 128bit encryption) for use anywhere in the world.

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Adding a new folder is a snap, as is putting an existing folder onto the list of folders to be backed up and stored outside of your Zonbox. Simply drag the folder you want into the left hand ‘shortcut’ box of the browser and the folder will be saved.

Zonbu also offers a small (less than 2MB) download for windows machines which allows you to access your files remotely. Simply install it and click to open. Enter your email address and password and you have access to your files.

windows browser

In addition to this application, your files are available over the web as well, again by entering your email address and password. Changes made to your files through the web or the windows client are reflected at your next reboot, or if you choose to refresh your files list on your already running Zonbox.

As far as out of the box ability, I’m very happy using the Zonbox. You can be up and running in easily less than ten minutes, which is a bonus for folks who don’t want to muck about with configuring a desktop.

I’m not entirely sold on the subscription model, but then that’s always been something I’ve shied away from. With the initial cost of the box and a 2 year plan at $12.95 a month you’ll end up spending about $410 over a 2 year period. Yes, you could purchase a cheap desktop for that amount, which is my gut reaction. But you’ve also got to consider that Zonbu backs up your data for you, meaning that in a crisis, it doesn’t disappear. And we all know how good most of us are at backing up important files. How often do you think the average home user does it?

Even if your box goes up in flames, Zonbox will replace it for you, and your files are still available online while you await your replacement.

Zonbu, in keeping with their green theme, also takes care of recycling your Zonbox should you ever end your service or upgrade to new hardware. They’ll take it back from you and see that it doesn’t end up in a a landfill somewhere.
Would I use this for my primary computer? No. I enjoy gaming and I enjoy complete control over my system. I didn’t like the fact that your storage space couldn’t be used to install new programs.

I would consider using this as a secondary computer, or a ‘family’ computer, stuck in the living room perhaps. The price is not terribly expensive and to know that your files are secure out there is a great feeling. I’d be willing to pay the $12.95 a month simply for that.

I’ve got a suggestion or two for the Zonbu folks as well. Make wireless a standard feature. I’d be a lot more easily sold with one less cable in my living room. Another suggestion – find a way to build in an SD card reader. The ability to plug photos right into this box and manipulate them with the Gimp, then upload them to flickr would also be a huge selling point. At least for me.

I think the folks at Zonbu are on to a good idea. I’m very curious to see how well this is adopted. I can think of plenty of practical applications for a small, silent and non-power hungry pc that costs a hundred bucks and backs up your files for 13 bucks a month.

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