A full-blown home theater PC can introduce so much entertainment and functionality to your living, but it's not for everyone. There is some added complexity, to be sure, not to mention the added cost. Regular media players have tried to overcome both of these obstacles, but they're still not quite the same thing.
The Pivos AIOS HD Media Center is designed to address this very need. By their own definition, it's a "Media Center PC minus the PC part." What this means is that you get a "hybrid device that bridges multimedia, Internet and your big screen TV."
A Home Theater Media Center In a Box
You'll notice that there is a huge variety of HD media players on the market. By and large, they're designed to take your USB flash drive and play a wide variety of media files, including movies, music, and photos. The better ones handle a wider range of file formats, including ISO, MKV, and so on.
The AIOS HD Media Center from Pivos Technology does that too, but it also adds some extras. In addition to USB ports (including a USB 3.0 Type B for faster data transfers), you'll find that there is a nearly hot-swappable internal hard drive bay that will take your 3.5-inch platters. While there is no integrated Wi-Fi, there is a LAN port on the back, along with the usual array of component video, HDMI, coaxial audio, and optical audio. There is full support for 1080p HD video, as well as both 5.1 and 7.1 digital surround sound.
Going beyond local playback, you can also stream content over your home network, as well as make use of a range of online services. These include YouTube and Flickr, but the AIOS also supports BitTorrent, Samba, UPnP, and all sorts of other protocols. There's also keyboard and mouse support for the built-in HTML5 capable web browser. So far, so good.
What's In This Media Box?
In case you missed the original unboxing video, it's been embedded above for your viewing pleasure. There isn't much in terms of surprises here.
Aside from the AIOS itself, you get the power supply, power cable, wireless remote, AAA batteries for the remote, hard drive mounting screws, basic composite video and RCA audio cable, USB 3.0 cable, and the supporting documentation. It should be noted that the 3.5-inch hard drive is not included in the package, so you'll need to supply that on your own (up to 3TB) if you want to store anything or use the BitTorrent feature.
Installing the Internal Hard Drive
You might remember my Uebo M400 review a short while ago. These two products are very similar in scope, but I feel like the Pivos AIOS has some better execution. For starters, you don't have to take the product apart in order to mount the hard drive.
The bay is easily accessed from the side of the machine. Just pinch the tabs and pull it out. The hard drive fits in the bracket, secured by four pegs and two screws. You then slide it back into the bay, making sure that it clicks into place. What's great is that you don't have to reformat the drive either, so you can preload a bunch of content on there ahead of time if you want. You also don't have to format it for BitTorrent as the device will do that for you automatically.
It really couldn't be much easier. There are no messy cables, no complete dismantling. Even people who have never seen a bare hard drive in their lives should be able to handle this task.
General User Interface
The first thing that struck me about the user interface is that it looks a little like the PlayStation 3. Once I started using it, though, I realized that it is not at all like the PS3. The row of icons in the middle are not actually "clickable" items. They serve more as indication icons. In the screenshot above, you'll see that I am connected to the network, have a hard drive inside, am using HDMI, and have turned on the sound. The dimmed icons -- Wi-Fi, USB, and SD -- indicate that those features are not currently being used.
The real navigation is done with the icons arranged in a column on the left. These are easy enough to understand too, starting with the file manager and moving down to movies, music, pictures, apps, Internet, and settings. It almost feels like a waste of all that screen real estate, but it works. I would like to be able to change the background, though, as that orange is far too bright for my preferences. I would also like to be able to turn off the "clicking" when pressing buttons. Both of these minor concerns will hopefully be addressed with a future firmware update.
Digging deeper into the menus is just as intuitive as the endless onslaught of other media players out there. Just navigate to what you want to see or hear, click it, and away you go. The settings menu is broken down by category -- like video, audio, and network -- so that's easy enough to understand too.
Local Media Playback
For my part, one of the best and simplest media players is the Western Digital WDTV Live and this is mostly because it has been able to handle such a wide range of file formats for me. Thankfully, the Pivos AIOS at least matches if not exceeds that level of support. Everything I threw at it worked perfectly with no noticeable hiccups in audio/video synchronization.
While inside a video file, you can rewind and fast forward the conventional way or you can jump ahead to a specific time in the file. There is a small display at the front of the machine that shows the current time too, which isn't terribly necessary but it is a nice inclusion.
The Online Network Features
The "apps" section of the Pivos AIOS is largely the same as what you'd find with other media players that boast online connectivity and support. More apps may be added in the future, but the current selection is mostly familiar territory.
You have Shoutcast, Flickr, Picasa, Yahoo! Weather, BuddyLink, and two versions of YouTube. The "XL" version is more robust but inherently more complicated. I won't comment specifically on the apps themselves, as these are greatly outside of the control of Pivos, but I've always said that they lacked something in terms of polish compared to the apps we get on smartphones and tablets these days. The inherent limitations of on-screen navigation like this probably don't help.
As an aside, the separate web browser works too and you can use a wireless (or wired) keyboard and mouse to do that. To be fair, the web browser is not going to be as fast and as responsive as on your computer or even on your tablet device. It's an appreciated inclusion, but only if you're in an absolute pinch.
BitTorrent Looks Familiar
Neighbor Web. Where have I heard that before? Oh right, with the Patriot Box Office. There's a reason for that. One of the primaries behind the Pivos AIOS used to work for the Box Office team at Patriot. In many ways, the AIOS represents an evolution of that product line.
The great news is that the BitTorrent client works right out of the box. Just install the hard drive, connect the AIOS to your network, and off you go. You are given some rudimentary options, like setting the maximum upload and download rates, as well as defining your seed settings. However, the BitTorrent does not work from the AIOS user interface directly.
Instead, you need to use a computer that is connected to the same home network as the AIOS and dial into the IP address of the AIOS using a web browser. This is just like the Patriot Box Office. The torrent file has to be downloaded locally, but the contents of the torrent are saved to the hard drive inside the AIOS.
MEGATechie Home Entertainment or MEGATechie Household Chore?
I have my gripes about the Pivos AIOS. While it's good to have network connectivity, it's unfortunate that Wi-Fi only comes by way of an optional USB adapter. While it's good to have fully functional BitTorrent, it's unfortunate that you still need a separate computer to use it. While it's good to have so much file format support, it's unfortunate that the resulting list of media (especially on a 3TB drive) can be overwhelming.
But realistically, these are awfully small gripes. The Pivos AIOS brings a lot to the table at just $99 MSRP (cheaper at some retailers), offering almost what you'd want from an HTPC at a fraction of the price. File support is great, the BT works, and the support for 1080p and 7.1 surround is stellar. I'm hoping that the second-gen AIOS addresses some of the minor concerns, like the overly complex remote, but this initial outing is to be commended.