Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Xtreamer Ultra review

I subscribe to iBood and ever since I got my grubby paws on a fabulous iomega iStor with 4TB for under 300 euro, I've found it difficult to resist their bargains. My most recent purchase was a South Korean designed HTPC, the Xtreamer Ultra. You can buy these direct, and take the hit from the An Post tax gougers (I really love how they charge you for collecting your taxes and duties!) or buy from a European reseller.

Anyway, the package is attractive, even if you consider the flaws which I will describe later on. The hardware is nVidia ion based with Intel 525 cpu, and it comes with a very generous 4GB of ram installed. There are 6 usb slots, onboard DVI and hdmi sockets (and a vga converter kindly included), a MCE remote control, a very interesting remote control mini keyboard with touchpad, and finally, a 8GB usb key with a Ubunutu based distro, dedicated startup profiles configured for XMBC and Boxee, and finally, a simple Nas distro. Drivers and a few extra apps are included for the more recent Windows versions.

However this is the first and very major flaw: there is no Windows version installed. While yes, this lowers the cost, it complicates the system in such a way as to make it almost unusable for all but a very technically expert user.

Let me quickly run over the machine otherwise. Basically, you boot up from the included USB key, and you can access your other devices over the network, connect a USB device, or else buy and install an internal disk. Supported formats include SSD (they will sell you one for 40 euros, although 16gb is a little small for meaty operating systems such as Windows 7), or you can add a 2.5 inch SATA drive, which is compatible with many laptops since about 2007.

There is an onboard NIc, which is good, but you can also buy for an addition 20 euros, a USB wifi stick. Its quite probable that you could also get any Ubuntu compatbile 3g keu to work, though I was unable to get O2 prepay working on mine.

The first problem is that by default, ubuntu password protects wireless profiles, so unless you know how to disable this, you will be prompted for a password even when using the supposedly foolproof Boxee and XBMC profiles.

But this basically exposes the real problem with this device: its simply a nightmare to get up and running. While I was able to get wifi enabled and installed an internal SATA disk, I was unable to configure via the GUI to get XBMC or Boxee to mount it automatically. Within 2 weeks of buying the device the mini keyboard simply stopped working and it took a serious trawl of the website to find a fix which thankfully worked. At another point, the MCE remote simply stopped functioning. I followed the "fix" on the forums, but it didn't work: thankfully, removing the batteries and replacing them bizarrely worked.

This wasn't my main issue though: this was with the included USB key. No matter what I did, within 2 to 3 days of use, the filesystem seemed to corrupt, eventually refusing to boot, or mounting volumes as read-only, and the only fix was to completely reimage the USB key - not just once, but at least once a week since I bought the device. This meant reconfiguring all of the wireless and sound settings again: sound over hdmi also proved tricky to configure and VGA on my TV monitor was impossible to use for nont graphical screens unless I used the DVI/vga cable rather than hdmi which overscanned it, even on the bios screen.

This was painful enough, but even simple configurations were frequently buggy and complex and general use poor. I found, for example, that none of the website instructions included imaging the internal HDD with the basic USB image unless you connected it as an external USB, requiring a SATA to USB cable. I had a caddy for my laptop and was adding it as a 2nd drive, so I had to trawl the net to find a suitable application that successfully was able to image the HDD with the USB image: this failed for at least 3 simple mainstream disk imaging and backup software packages, only a very obscure tool worked. I also have a spare Vista license and was hoping to install my recovery DVD on my laptop and then move to the Xtreamer, but Windows wasn't having it, and crashed every time, even in safe mode. At some point I might consider installing Windows 7 but not right now.

Finally, it had many usage issues. Sound was not great for a supposedly "high end" device, sounding more like the cheap basic sound cards of the early 1990s. The USB wifi was not sensitive and so network connections were slow unless in the vicinity of the router. Video playback was very high quality, and after some initial issues getting sound to work, the playback was fine as long as you didn't pause or try to fast forward: do that and the picture vanished.

I did attempt to play a DVD from an external DVD rewriter but no joy: various errors indicated that I probably need to locate some suitable decoders and software playback packages. It does say it will play bluray, but only with a commercial Windows package so this isn't promising (Linux Journal had a piece on currently available blu ray decoders a while back so guessing this will change).

The verdict? Its a hard device and good hardware, a brilliant concept but fails utterly in execution. It is simple too difficult to configure and the accessories too flaky in software terms to be worthwhile for any but very techie users. And the last thing I want to do after a week of troubleshooting complex Citrix application issues is to come home and start troubleshooting Linux. It is entertaining, but I suspect this device is really only useful for Windows 7 users.

One final note, I did manage to install Windows 2008 R2 on this and it worked fine. I don't have a home server license to test, but I suspect this could work well with Vortexbox and reports suggest that OpenElec is excellent on this device: there is even a custom build which is a mean install. The only problem of course with the full install is how to get it to always pick up the internal drive. Great, but really only of interest to enthusiasts.

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