Apr 122011
 
Nixeus Fusion HD

Wanting to stream your media to your TV or wanting to store a copy of your DVD and Blu-ray collection can prove to be a bit of a challenge. Do you build a file server? Do you use an Xbox 360 or PS3? Do you build a full HTPC? Do you buy a regular PC or an Atom+ION combination? Nixeus might have an answer for you with their new Fusion HD.

The Fusion HD is a media player that plays many file formats and can even play unencrypted DVDs and Blu-rays without having to perform any additional encoding. And if you don’t have a file server available or you don’t want to keep your power-hungry PC running all of the time to serve media, the Fusion HD can hold any SATA hard drive up to 2 TB. Could the Fusion HD be an alternative to an HTPC? Keep reading to find out.

About The Fusion HD

The Fusion HD is a compact, lightweight, black box. It’s larger than some, like the Roku, but it’s not awkward like the Boxee Box. Simple LEDs to indicate power and detection of a remote control signal give it an unassuming presence among the rest of your equipment; and its small footprint lets you place it just about anywhere you want.

The retail package comes with the following items:

  • Fusion HD unit
  • Power cable
  • A proprietary, composite audio/video cable
  • Screws for mounting an internal 3.5″ SATA hard drive
  • Quick Install Guide
  • Remote control with batteries
  • Ethernet cable
  • USB antenna for wireless b/g/n connectivity

Video connections on the back of the Fusion HD include only composite and HDMI connections. Component connections don’t exist, most likely because their inclusion would have significantly increased the size of the unit. Audio connections include fiber and coax SPDIF, neither of which are necessary if you use HDMI for your audio needs.

The Fusion HD also comes with two, regular USB ports to connect either the external, wireless antenna, USB storage devices, or a keyboard/mouse. Two host ports, an eSATA port and a mini-USB, can be used to directly attach the unit to your PC for any file transfers to an internal hard drive.

Finally, the unit includes a 10/100 Ethernet port if you prefer wired networking.

For my review, I used a 10/100 Ethernet connection, an HDMI connection to my Yamaha HD-audio receiver that passed the signal to my TV with the video output set to 1080p, a wireless keyboard/mouse, and my own 500GB SATA drive installed internally.

Although the Fusion HD comes with a passable Quick Start Guide, the User Manual, which can be downloaded from Nixeus’ web site, is much more comprehensive and should be one of the first things that you download once the Fusion HD is unboxed.

Fellow geeks will be pleased to know that the Fusion HD runs its own variant of Linux and that the source code is available for download from Nixeus’ web site.

Installing The Hard Drive

Installing the hard drive was easy, although it seemed to be a bit of overkill. First, the top part of the case needed to be removed by taking out four small screws, two on either side. Then, the hard drive had to be installed and secured with four more screws, after which the cover is then screwed back on.

Whereas I understand that the idea of internal storage is to put your media there and leave it there with only occasional removal or addition of media files, I would gladly welcome more of a slide-in/out option for drive insertion and removal, and you’ll find out why later on. Still, unless you’re going to be dumping a ridiculous amount of Blu-rays onto the drive, a 2 TB drive will be plenty for most users.

Controlling The Fusion HD

I found the remote control to be very appealing. Although it’s the same length as most other remotes, it’s about 25% slimmer. It also doesn’t bother attempting to be a universal remote control, which reduces the need for yet more buttons.

The Fusion HD also supports USB keyboards. If you plan on using the device for more than just streaming media, such as basic web browsing, navigating by using the cursor keys felt very natural. This might be a good excuse for those who are looking to purchase a mini-keyboard like a Logitech diNovo Mini.

Functionality

The user interface is nothing spectacular. The options are very simplified and very straightforward, breaking areas down to topics such as system settings, automatic UPnP discovery, removable devices (USB), discovery and configuration of Samba servers, and others. As part of its ability to play to the customer, the main menu also displays the current weather for your location (once you tell it where you live).

For any field that requires text or numeric entry, you can use a USB keyboard, the virtual pop-up keyboard, or you can use the number buttons on the remote as you would use a mobile phone’s keypad to enter text.

The Settings area can be a bit confusing, especially if you run a Samba file-sharing server, because some functions can be several selection deep; however, the only ones who will likely use such functions are geeks like myself. For everything else, the menus are easy to navigate.

The Fusion HD also includes Internet TV and radio through third parties. For video, they use Fusion TV, which is functional but sorely lacking. With so many streaming web sites that are available, the selection is quite obscure. Channels comes from all over the world: USA, England, Russia, China, Georgia (not the U.S. State), France, Germany, and others. The picture and audio quality obviously depends on the streams, but most were very clear, even for SD streaming. However, many channels had no content. Some even came up with the browser and an error that said “unsupported page”.

For Internet radio the Fusion HD comes with SHOUTcast Radio and Live365. These options give you thousands of Internet radio stations from all over the world, all broken down into various categories.

For those who are addicted to YouTube, the Fusion HD comes with its own YouTube function. You can perform your own search or browse through the default tabs for the videos that are the most popular, highest rated, and so forth. None of the videos that I tried had any problems, and the Fusion HD appears to play the videos in the highest resolution that’s available for that video, including HD. Again, the interface is incredibly basic, but it’s functional.

Media Playback

The Fusion HD supports several audio and video codecs, including AAC, AC3, MP3, WMA, FLAC, Divx, MJPEG, H.264, AVCHD, and VC-1.

The test hard drive that I installed had a few DVD folders from when I was doing some VHS-to-DVD conversions. The Fusion HD started to play as soon as I selected one of the folders with no problems. Menus played as they should. The only catch was that the Dolby Digital signal was being sent to my receiver as PCM. After changing the Fusion HD’s configuration to send digital signals in their RAW format, the receiver picked up Dolby Digital 2.0 without any problems.

Part of my testing also involved several Divx files that I had stored on my file server. After making some tweaks to my Samba configuration (more on that later), the Fusion HD found all of my Divx video files, DVD folders, MP3s, and FLAC files. As can be expected, the MP3 and FLAC files played exactly as they should. The Fusion HD also successfully played a DVD in an ISO image file.

Video and DVD files played back without a problem, and I noticed that upscaling was better than I expected. Standard definition files, both Divx and DVD images, looked really good when they were upscaled to 1080p. High definition files looked gorgeous. I ended up watching sequences like Eurogamer’s Red Dead Redemption time-lapse video multiple times because of how good it looked. I transfered some of the HD podcasts that I get, all of which played without any problems. In fact, the Fusion HD played some of the podcasts that my Droid 2 won’t play without re-encoding into a more compatible H.264 format.

Just to see how well it handles high-definition .mts files directory from an HD camcorder, I connected my Panasonic SDT750 via the USB port. After navigating through the hierarchy, I picked one of the .mts files on the SDHC card. The video quality was gorgeous and the Fusion HD passed the six-channel audio through to the receiver.

Although I did not test all of the codecs that they support, the only type that gave me trouble was a rather old QuickTime file. It was encoded in H.264, but it suffered from a lot of stuttering. Admittedly, that could have been due to numerous other factors, such as an incompatible audio stream.

I did get a very pleasant surprise when I tried to play a DVD that I had imported from Finland. One of my favorite bands, Poets of the Fall, released a new compilation CD that includes a DVD of their music videos. Because the United States loves thumbing its nose to the rest of the world, our video standard is NTSC whereas the vast majority of the world uses PAL. Thanks to this egocentric American attitude, DVDs from outside of the US will not work on American TVs without using a special type of DVD player that will convert the signal from PAL to NTSC. Just to see what would happen, I copied the contents of the DVD, which was not encrypted or region-locked, to the Fusion HD. To my surprise, it played perfectly. I noticed no video issues at all during playback.

The Fusion HD also played 1080p content without any problems. Courtesy of AnyDVD HD, I stripped the encryption and region-locking from my Blu-ray disc of the The Matrix (legally purchased) and waited for a few hours while the entire disc was transferred to the Fusion HD. (More on transfer rates later.)

The Fusion HD doesn’t appear to recognize Blu-ray file structures. Unlike the DVD folder that I selected earlier, when I selected the folder for The Matrix, I didn’t get any kind of menu. In fact, I couldn’t find the menu. Perhaps this is due to needing to license BD-Java from Oracle. Undeterred, I selected the main movie file, which played back in 1080p glory, although chapters were not recognized.

After setting the Dolby Digital and DTS settings to transfer the raw audio stream to output, my receiver correctly identified the Dolby TrueHD signal. When I switched to other soundtracks to see what would happen, my receiver switched from Dolby TrueHD to Dolby Digital. I also spent some time flipping through the various subtitles, which seemed to to work properly, as much as my limited, non-English vocabulary allows.

Transferring Files

If you decide to use an internal hard drive, you have several ways of getting the content to the hard drive. The easiest ways are to load the content on the hard drive before installing or copy files from an external USB device (thumbdrive or USB hard drive).

The Fusion HD also can act as a USB or eSATA drive by using two special ports on the front of the device. Using these ports with an existing PC will make them appear as drives onto which files can be copied over.

In the event that none of those options are convenient, the Fusion HD also has a Samba client built into it. This lets you mount the internal hard drive as a network drive on any PC. You can then copy the files over the network. For those who are more security minded, the user ID and password for the share can be changed within the Settings menu.

What I found interesting is the difference by which files can be transferred. If you use the regular USB ports or the network, transfersare ridiculously slow, averaging about 4 MB per second. That translates to about twenty minutes to transfer a single-layer DVD or  more than three hours to transfer a single-layer Blu-ray disc. Filling up a 2 TB hard drive this way would need approximately 145 hours. Nixeus has acknowledged in their forums that this is related to firmware, and they’re trying to determine the cause.

However, if you use the special USB or eSATA ports on the front of the device, you will get remarkably faster speeds. Transferring several DVD images over the mini-USB port connection gave me roughly 26 MB/sec with 17 GB of data transferring in about 10 minutes, although the transfer had a tendency to pause several times for no apparent reason.

Web Browser

The Fusion HD comes with what I can only call a very basic web browser. It is indeed functional and works with both a keyboard and a mouse; however, it’s crippled because it’s not the Firefox, Chrome, or even Internet Explorer that we have become used to. It somewhat reminds me of the browser on the Wii (Opera) but seems to have less functionality than that.

What cripples it further is that Flash is not installed, nor is it an option. Web sites that use Shockwave appear to run okay; however, sites with Flash (which translates to a lot of web sites) won’t work. For proof of that, try going to the audio/video section of the BBC News. You won’t see the preview box for video clips. Comedy Central’s web site so confused the web browser that the box completely froze. I needed to perform a hard reset by holding the power button in for four seconds.

In fairness, I understand the need for tight code in systems like the Fusion HD. It’s by no means a full HTPC and doesn’t have that kind of power under the hood. The underlying Linux kernel is also tightly woven around the Sigma processor that is housed inside the unit; however, Firefox, Chrome, and even Flash are all available to Linux users, even though they have separate EULAs to which the user needs to agree. A nice addition to future firmware would be the option of installing a leading browser and Flash.

Power Consumption

One place where the Fusion HD outshines a full HTPC is its power consumption. With a Western Digital Green SATA drive, the Fusion HD peaked at 13 watts while playing video files and 10 watts when idle, according to my trusty Kill-A-Watt.

To put that into perspective, I have a spare PC that runs an Atom D525 processor with an Antec EcoWatts power supply. I’ve been considering turning it into an HTPC for several months now. On average, the system runs at 22 watts; however, the Atom processor cannot run 1080p video well if at all. So, in order to make it an HTPC, I’d need to throw in a capable video card. Even a basic video card that’s capable of 1080p increases consumption to about 38 watts. (I’ve tried it already.)

When compared to even the most power-efficient HTPC, the Fusion HD is a much greener alternative in a much smaller package.

Don’t Think About Netflix

Forget about a native Netflix function for the Fusion HD, but don’t blame Nixeus for that. Because Hollywood is still oblivious to the fact that copy protections are useless, they still demand DRM on streaming media. As such, Netflix streams their content using Microsoft Silverlight, which is not available on Linux.

If you really have to have Netflix, you’re going to have to use a third-party option like PlayOn to stream to the Fusion HD.

But It’s Not All Roses

Whereas I’m one of those Americans who love to find out what’s beyond the country’s borders, the content on the Fusion Channel was very underwhelming with obscure channels like Yoga in Daily Life and Knife and Gun Show, although it does have quite a number of non-English-speaking channels available. Additionally, the Fusion Channel is updated only through firmware whereas Real365 and SHOUTcast are updated automatically. Updating the Fusion Channel without having to install new firmware would be far more convenient.

The web browser is just not good. It’s okay for basic browsing, but in combination with no Flash availability the web browser is not of much use. How interesting (ironic?) that a unit that is meant to be used for streaming media doesn’t come with the capability of showing the majority of streaming web content that’s out there. For the Fusion HD to be a serious contender against HTPCs, this absolutely needs to be addresses.

The transfer rates for USB and network connections are definitely painful, especially if you plan on storing content locally on the Fusion HD. For faster data transfers to the hard drive you should use the special USB port on the front of the drive (or eSATA if your motherboard allows it), or your media should reside on a file server or external USB drive.

To connect the Fusion HD to a Samba server, you need to be broadcasting the shares to the entire network using the nmbd daemon and the shares need to be browseable. This didn’t sit well with me for security reasons, especially when none of the other PCs or devices on my network require nmbd to be running because I specify the server and share for connectivity. Nixeus acknowledged in their forums that they will forward that onto their engineers. (Okay, this is a really geeky complaint, I admit, but I lost several hours trying to figure out why the Fusion HD couldn’t see my shares.)

The oddest design that I found is that when you play a video file from a directory that has multiple files, the next file will start playing when the current one finished. But a music file will by default repeat. It won’t go onto the next song. You instead need to highlight the songs then play them in the background. This makes no sense to me. I should be able to click the first song in a folder and have the remaining songs play afterwards. Once again, I reported this to Nixeus in their forums.

Cost

The Fusion HD is available without a hard drive for an MSRP of $219, although you can find it for less than $200 on Amazon. If you prefer to have a hard drive already installed, they’re available for $259 MSRP with a 1 TB drive or $279 MSRP with a 2 TB drive.

Conclusion

Even with its shortcomings, I have to say that overall I like it. This is a really good unit for playing most media files or DVD/Blu-ray images, and you can’t beat the low power requirements. The interface could use a lot of work (I’ve already suggested downloadable skins to Nixeus) and the web browser is next to useless; however, if you need a simple box to play your video files or DVD/Blu-ray images, this does the job. I noticed no stuttering or interlace combing on any of the files that I played.

If you’re looking for a full HTPC with a decent browser, Flash, or Netflix, you need to look elsewhere. Just remember that a Linux-based HTPC would probably cost about the same, if not a bit more; but you’ll need to install the OS and get everything loaded and configured. Considering the small footprint and low power requirements of the Fusion HD, even building your own Linux HTPC with an Atom+ION combination will not necessarily be as good a value in the long run – and you still wouldn’t be able to stream Netflix.

But if you’re looking for something to play your media files and disc images, with extras benefits of Internet radio and some web video streaming, you should take a good look at the Fusion HD.

Fusion HD
www.nixeus.com
$219 to $279 MSRP depending on the configuration

Disclaimer: This product was provided for review by the manufacturer. This had no impact on the impartiality of this review.