HomeTechTell Review: Netgear NeoTV

Sections: Audio, Reviews, Source components, Streaming, Streaming, Video

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The NeoTV from Netgear joins the growing ranks of small, black boxes designed to turn your dumb, run of the mill, HDTV into a smart TV.  To that end, the NeoTV (also known as the NTV200) does a nice job.

The device itself is very small (4.4 in x 4.4 in x 0.94 in) and in a world of blinding LED indicator lights, dare I say the blue dot on this one is just right.  It is finished in everyone’s favorite fingerprint-and-dust-attracting gloss black, but its small form-factor makes it easy to place just about anywhere in your setup.  Connections include power, 10/100 Ethernet, S/PDIF audio, and HDMI.  Included in the box are the NeoTV itself, a brick-style power adaptor, remote (w/ batteries) and a quick-start guide.  I found it a little odd that an HDMI cable wasn’t included, especially since that’s the only way to connect it to your TV.  Upon further thought, everyone’s setup is a little different, and a standard 6′ cable might be too much for many — I know it would have been for me.

Setup is very much a breeze.  The NeoTV boots pretty fast — less than 40 seconds or so in my very unscientific tests.  Initial setup is handled by a pretty well-designed wizard that guides you through linking up with your home wi-fi.  (You can actually use either the hard-wired Ethernet connection or wi-fi.  Normally, I don’t like to do anything wireless that I don’t have to, but in order to get a more real-world test, I used the wi-fi for the purposes of this review.)  The network settings menu has a nice network connection tester that lets you see the kind of bandwidth you have available.  In my case, I was pleasantly surprised by my (normally abysmal) connection to my local ISP. One thing that stood out to me was the wi-fi menu itself.  It scanned for available networks, and next to each network it found, there were icons indicating what kind of network it was, i.e., 802.11-a/b/g/n.  A pretty nice touch.  Again, setup was easy and I was on my way to streaming probably within five minutes of turning on the NeoTV.

After looking at a very nice interface for about 3.2 seconds, I dove straight into the settings menu, where I found most of what you’d expect for a device of this type.  I would imagine that most will be worried about what resolution you’re putting out over the HDMI and how the audio is headed out.  In my case, I left the HDMI resolution in auto and set the audio to send bitstream to my receiver.  Aspect ratio was left as 16:9, Pillarboxed for 4:3 content (as it should be!).

Using the NeoTV is pretty intuitive.  My needs for a device like this are strictly TV and movie related with a little music thrown in, so I look specifically at the experience with Hulu Plus, Vudu, and Pandora.  I’m one to use my laptop for most other things — call me old fashioned.  Hulu Plus worked incredibly well.  Setup is easy with their device activation website, so I didn’t have to type all my login info on the NeoTV itself.  All of my queue and recently viewed videos carried to the NeoTV as expected, and with a little seat-time with the interface, it was a snap to find my favorite shows.  I watched a couple episodes of Alcatraz, and the audio and video quality were outstanding.  I was able to stream HD without issue and it was a definite difference from watching it full screen on my Mac Mini.  Vudu was much of the same story.  I had never used the service before, so I had to do some initial setup, but again, the quality was great and the 5.1 surround was a nice feature.  Vudu will also independently qualify your network connection and recommend what resolution to stream.  In my case, thankfully, it was the full 1080p HDX version.  Pandora was exactly what you expect and, again, all of my settings carried over.

The NeoTV is a nice little add-on to expand your home viewing experience.  For someone like me who does use Hulu quite a bit, or maybe someone who is big on Netflix, this is a great way to get it on your TV in better quality than what your computer can provide.  There are certainly competitors out there (Roku and Western Digital have competing products, and of course there’s the gold standard Apple TV) — but I’m not sure you can get this feature set at this price anywhere else.

Now for the cons:

I have to say that the remote is less than satisfying in a number of ways.  It’s a nice shape, but the buttons take a good deal of effort to press.  The bigger knock, though, is that it runs on two coin batteries (CR2032, to be exact).  If you never have AA’s around when you need them, I’m guess there’s zero chance of having two of those lying around.  Fortunately, Netgear does have both iOS and Android remote control apps for the NeoTV.
I tested the Android version on my phone and it is very slick.  It’s a zero-setup app that will look for devices on your wi-fi network.  The app will also allow you to use your device’s keyboard, making text entry a breeze.  The con to this app is that you can’t use it to power the box on or off — you still need the dedicated remote for that.  For my purposes, I programmed the NeoTV into my Harmony One remote and controlled it that way.

The other major con is the inability for the NeoTV to play local content.  Netgear does, however, have some up-line devices that can play your local content.  The NeoTV isn’t meant to do this or marketed that way, but it’s worth mentioning, especially because this functionality can be taken for granted in today’s iTunes/anything anywhere ecosystem.

Overall, for the $49.99 price, the NeoTV is a nice way to update your TV to a smart TV.  I, for one, had never put much stock into the concept and always thought an HTPC would be better, but the NeoTV does most of what I do with my Mac Mini anyway, for a whole lot less money.

You can buy the NeoTV now at Amazon.

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