I've been excited about the ZapStation since I first saw it at ALS a few years ago. At the time it was at a good price point, and appeared to be a solid contender for the convergence media box that I crave. It took more then a year for them to release a product and for me to formulate an opinion. Now's your chance to read it. Don't get excited all at once now.
Let me get this out of the way right up front. It's just too damn expensive. They want $1500 for what is essentially just a stripped-down PC with a 30-gig hard drive. You're paying twice what you would pay to build this system yourself. You're paying that premium to get a nice pretty box to put into your stereo rack, and for software that ties the whole thing together. Now I'm a vain person and will pay extra to have something pretty in my stereo, but not $1500.
The device itself is designed to be that media convergence box that will change the world. Sorta. It is a sort of swiss army knife for media. It connects to your TV (but has SVGA output too) and ethernet. It has a webbrowser, the ability to stream a variety of video and audio sources. It can play DVDs. It can rip CDs. It can import them from an FTP server. You can snarf MPEGs and watch them easily on your TV. It has a wireless keyboard as well as a regular remote so you can control it easily from your couch.
The ZapStation has an optical audio cable, as well as standard RCA audio ports (although only one will work at a time and you need to power cycle to activate the other). It has composite and S-VHS video outs (same note about power cycling) as well as SVGA. And ethernet.
Let's talk about what most people will use this box for: Ripping CDs and playing MP3s. It works quite well for this. Ripping is quick and several options are provided for ripping into MP3 or WMA formats. The ethernet port happily uses DHCP and handles CDDB lookups on the tracks. Nice and simple. You can rip CDs and play them back at the same time, but doing so reduces the rip process to 1x. Normally it rips twice that fast. Simply playing CDs is easy and they sound good.
Fetching audio from other sources is not so simple. You use FTP, but I had problems using anonymous FTP servers. It didn't like symlinks very much. And trying to do larger imports caused the whole unit to freeze up solid and require a power cycle. Very bad.
Eventually I had to import MP3s in blocks of a few hundred megs at a time just to prevent the machine from hanging. Very uncool.
My imported tracks lost their order. They all had ID3 tags and every MP3 player I know of respects those numbers... but importing a couple hundred albums only to lose the order of the songs is very annoying. Ripped CDs retained their order just fine. Once while importing tracks I somehow got out of the import menu. From then on, I couldn't do anything because I was importing -- but I couldn't stop importing because I couldn't go back to the import menu! Only a power cycle fixed it!
It has USB ports for future expandibility and hopefully for feeding MP3 portables. I don't have anything to test, which doesn't matter because I don't think the current version supports much.
Playing back audio is relatively easy. You navigate to my audio, and select playlists or albums or artists. There is no easy way to say 'Shuffle my entire collection' -- which I find annoying since that is how I usually listen to music. I like not hearing the same song for weeks at a time. Nifty little visualization graphics are available, but I sure wish they were fancier then they are, and included an option for full screen visualization.
I wish they were available for the regular CD player too -- the box really separates audio types, but to a user sound should just be sound and managed and played back in the same ways. The worst part is that I hear a 'pop' in between each track when listening to audio from the optical cable. Amazingly annoying. If they had the functionality of xmms-crossfade it would be super smooth.
There are a lot of problems with the UI. The screen is cluttered and it is sometimes difficult to figure out where you are going. Some simple changes (making the menu font bigger for example) would help, but it's just confusing since audio sources (streams, local mp3s, CDs) are all in separate parts of the system instead of clustered together. If I want music, I should be presented with my music, and not be forced to worry about the source. As an experiment I unplugged the ethernet, and was unable to navigate menus to the DVD player.
There are other problems too, like there is no good concept of a queue, so once you start a playlist (be it artist, genre, album, or playlist) you can't change it. So there's no way for me to queue up the next album I want to listen to without stopping the current playlist. Very frusterating.
The web browser works quite nicely. It's a little difficult to get used to it, but you can cook right along once you get used to not having a mouse. Most pages I visited rendered fine, although plug-ins cause problems. You can import audio and video very easily from the web.
Video playback is the unique thing here. You can store MPEG files just like MP3s and watch them on your TV. It does a pretty good job playing them back. I watched an MPEG of the Buffy musical a reader hooked me up with (I don't get UPN. Cursed cable company thinks UPN isn't a broadcast station like FOX and NBC so they want me to subscribe to 'Extended Basic Cable,' except that I have a dish. The FCC and the cable companies conspire to prevent me from watching my Buffy!) It's very convenient, and it looks as good as you would expect: the quality is dependant on the quality of the file you are playing back. There's not a lot of room on the box, so the fact that the video is organized as a simple list isn't a huge hindrence. It would get hard to find items in that list if you could fit more then a few dozen shows on the unit.
Notable here is the lack of formats. For a box like this, DivX, sorensen QuickTime, and Real should all be supported. But they aren't -- we just have MPEG. Supposedly at least some of these formats will be available later. But it's really unfortunate since these days MPEG is sort of bloated by the bitrate standards of the newer formats.
Lastly the unit functions as a DVD Player ... poorly. I found playback to be much brighter then my DVD player. Also it was pixelated and jerky. The audio quality was quite good, but my reciever was decoding the surround sound so its hard to mess that up :) The aspect ratio tool screws up non-anamorphic content. If you tell the system that you have a 16:9 screen, it slashes resolution on 4:3 content to make it fit ... which looks like crap if your TV can handle the translation itself. The lack of component output make this an even worse choice for DVD playback. Perhaps the box really could have shined had they opted for a progressive output.
I guess by this point you see where I'm going. There are a variety of things that can be improved in this unit, and many of them are software changes that will likely be rolled into future versions. I reported all of my bugs to Zap. The folks there are really nice and I'm sure the bugs will be fixed soon enough.
As it stands, if the ZapStation was $500, and the code was open source, I'd have no problem recommending this to someone who wanted to hack a bit. Or if you have tons of dough, and just want to rip your CDs and play them back, this is a very expensive but simple way to do it, but lockups and lack of track order made importing pretty crappy.
If you're a digital video junkie then this is a good system too, but 30G of disk space isn't much for digital video (my old 9 hour Tivo demonstrates that all to well).
Personally for my MP3 playback, a $300 PC, a $200 100G hard drive, and an AudioTron does most what this does and won't fill up any time soon. That leaves enough cash to buy a decent progressive DVD player. You could get a scan converter cheap and play back MPEGs and have 3x the space.
What could really make this worth it? The ability to rip DVDs would be amazingly cool in this box. And built in PVR functionality. And a 100G hard drive. Support for popular video formats. A touch pad on the keyboard would make navigation much easier. Progressive DVD playback and component video outs.
The box looks absolutely lovely, but the software is immature. And the pricing is that of a high end component ... and this just isn't that. The ZapStation is the jack of all trades, master of none.