As a species, we're distrustful of versatility. When Justin Timberlake is as successful in acting and business as he was as a singer, we cry foul. Therefore, it's only natural that Samsung's Optical Smart Hub should raise a hackle or two. It boasts of being a CD / DVD player for your mobile device, a wireless access point, a portable disc burner for your laptop and a backup server (with the help of a USB drive). Doing the work of four gadgets would certainly free up a lot of real estate on anyone's desk -- so is it worth $130 of your hard-earned? The answer's a little more nuanced than you might expect, so join us after the break to find out more.
So, what's in the box? A short USB-Y cable (two type-A ports at one end that merge to a single mini type-B on the other), power lead, installation leaflet and the device. Weighing 0.9 pounds (440 grams), measuring six inches wide, eight inches long and 0.8 inches tall, it's a tad more compact than two DVD cases stacked on top of one another. Good build quality is obvious throughout, and the piano-black gloss manages to stay classy, despite its liability in succumbing to the charms of Mr & Mrs Fingerprint.
We can't sugarcoat this: whatever resources the company expended on hardware development, it was inversely proportional to that which was spent on software. It would be arrogant to describe ourselves as experts, but we'd hate to see this device in its current form in the hands of a rank amateur. Installation should have taken minutes, not hours, but alas, the included instruction leaflet is beyond useless: it's just uncaptioned screenshots from the Windows installation process!
And, at the risk of sounding solipsistic, the fact that there was no OS X or Linux installation guide was galling, given the device is designed to work with iOS and Android. We were indeed able to run the software on a Windows machine, but it was easier to control everything from the device's own configuration page. Even this, though, lacked the option to activate it as a wireless access point, as promised on the box. We had to circumvent this by leaving it tethered to our own modem over Ethernet. Until these issues are resolved, it will be nearly impossible for casual users to install the device properly.
Pairing it up to the companion iOS and Android apps was far easier, and you can indeed access the config page, although effecting any change is nearly impossible. Even the box artwork was insufficient to help us overcome the issues with installation (nor, in all honesty is it even clear on the functions the device possesses -- which we had to tease out with trial and error).
Being able to play CDs / DVDs on your smartphone without tedious ripping and legally dubious copy protection circumvention is a feature for which we'd pay handsomely. As long as it's connected to the internet (or your local network at home), you can play whatever's in the tray as if it were stored locally. We also found that play / pause was compatible with our headphone remote, a nice touch for audio playback on the go. However, as with any streaming, it depends entirely upon your bandwidth: if your connection isn't world-class, you may find the playback tedious.
Like the installation software, the menus feel like a slipshod afterthought. Resembling those found in bargain-basement products, there's a certain degree of inconsistency, a bad user interface and lack of polish that makes the device feel as if it were thrown together at the eleventh hour. It may sound like we're grousing (and we are!), but given the premium nature of this product, we would have expected Samsung to take more care in designing these primary navigation points.
Portable disc drive
The Smart Hub moonlights as a bus-powered DVD-rewriter, encouraging you to include it in your day bag. Be advised, however, that if you don't bring along the main adapter, all wireless function and media streaming is disabled. In that regard, it has a competitor: Samsung's own Super WriteMaster does the same job for only $50. That said, we envisage plenty of times when we'd need to cook up some impromptu WiFi on the road, and two products in one does help us save on valuable bag space, even if we do have no choice but to bring the power lead.
Streaming and wireless backup
Hook up a hard drive or memory stick and you'll be able to play stored media as you stream DVDs. Find your file in the video browser and it'll begin without the added inconvenience of waiting for your disc to start spinning. After some coercion (both iOS and Android apps enjoyed histrionics during the week we had together) we were able to get Smart Backup working. Using this feature, you can send files from a smartphone to the device, to be stored via USB or burned to disc. One feature not advertised is the ability to pull files back to your phone. It's pretty simple to execute too: just select the source device, the file and the destination and wait for the transfer to complete.
Yet, there's a problem: all file transfers have an upper limit of 50MB, so cancel any idea of pulling TV show episodes through the air or backing up that hefty photo album. Nor can you push data straight to the disc: locally connected storage is required, presumably because the Hub astoundingly lacks the on-board cache for this purpose. On paper, it's a great idea, but there are too many caveats here that muddy what should otherwise be an easy process. We'd have also liked to see HDMI-out so we could hook it up to our USB-port lacking HDTV and use it as a DNLA node. While we're on the subject, it's odd there's no desktop client for Windows or OS X, despite the obvious potential for those features (and promised compatibility on the box art).
For the reasons outlined above, we found configuring the router to be tremendously difficult. When it was working, however, its range was able to match the home networking gear we have on hand -- though it did stutter when we tried to stream directly from its own WLAN. Once it settled down, we found it perfectly able to handle tablet surfing, although we'd be tempted not to plumb it into our home too well so that we could take it with us on the road.
The Samsung Optical Smart Hub is a good device trying to overcome a lot of baggage. The ease of being able to play CDs and DVDs without ripping is great for anyone who can't face ripping all their legacy media. And we're sure many of you will be happy to get your hands dirty in a bit of 192.168.1.1, and won't be put off by the technical hurdles necessary to get this thing installed. However, if those numbers mean little, this is not the device for you.