Kudos to Laptop magazine for getting the scoop, with the one of the first hands-on reviews we've seen of the Netgear EVA8000 Digital Entertainer HD. There's just one problem: they got one big detail of the product dead wrong. The Netgear product does play songs purchased from the iTunes Store, as confirmed by hands-on tests in the CNET Labs.
We purchased and played two songs from the store, and were surprised to see that the Netgear was able to stream them to the TV/stereo system in the next room just as easily as it could with DRM-free MP3s and PlaysForSure-encoded WMA files. The catch is that that purchased songs take a good 15 seconds to play--so don't expect anything close to gapless playback on purchased iTunes songs. The feature works only with purchased music, not video, and only when streaming from Windows PCs (not Macs) with iTunes installed, though the program doesn't need to be running. The delay is due to the electronic voodoo that Netgear's software (installed on the PC) is using to access the music files encrypted with Apple's FairPlay DRM. We're not exactly sure how Netgear is pulling it off, but--except for the delay--it seems to work just fine.
We've seen a handful of previous products (such as the Logitech Wireless DJ and Linksys WMB54G) offer this sort of iTunes hack, but the Netgear is the first full-on network media device (aside from Apple's own Apple TV) that lets you browse the files on a TV screen with album art, just as if they were home-ripped MP3s. To be sure, this discovery is a bit less dramatic in light of yesterday's EMI announcement, but it's nevertheless important for anyone who's looking for an alternative to the Apple TV.
Interestingly, Netgear's original press release highlighted the iTunes compatibility, but the company then seemed to backpedal--it's not listed on the current product spec sheet, for instance. And while we're shooting down rumors, the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD offers 802.11g Wi-Fi, not the faster 802.11n offering found on the Apple TV. (It was widely--and falsely, apparently--reported as sporting 11n when it was first announced at CES.) The lower-bandwidth wireless connection makes streaming true high-def video content on the Netgear a potentially dicey proposition.
The CNET review should be posting by Thursday. We're spending some extra time doing some additional hands-on testing, with special attention to some of the more advanced Windows Media Center integration features. But with the exception of the iTunes gaffe (which may well be fixed by the time your read this), the Laptop mag review is largely in line with what we've found: anyone who's frustrated by the Apple TV's limited file compatibility and feature set will certainly find the Netgear to be an intriguing alternative. (If you've got any questions about the product, ask in this TalkBack thread, and we'll see if we can find the answers.)
UPDATE: I've edited this post to remove the snarky reference to Jeremy Toeman's review of the Netgear EVA8000 at his site, livedigitally.com. (The review even offers three in-depth hands-on YouTube videos of the product in action.) Yes, Jeremy is working on a consulting project with Netgear, but he clearly states that fact on the review itself. Moreover, if you look over his resume, you'll see that he worked at Sling Media and Mediabolic--so he knows a thing or two about digital media.