Though we're supposed to be living in the age of cloud computing, most us still have piles of DVD movies we simply can't play on smartphones or tablets. Enter the Samsung Optical SmartHub SE-208BW, a wireless DVD burner that allows any Android, iOS or Windows device to play discs, browse files, or gain access to a USB-connected storage drive, all over a standard Wi-Fi connection. Though the SmartHub Optical offers a lot of features, inconsistent video quality and a complicated setup process make this $130 device a tough sell.
Click to Enlarge
Available in black or white plastic, the 7.8 x 5.9 x 1-inch, 1-pound SmartHub Optical is light enough to fit in your bag and thin enough to fit on even the smallest shelf next to your router. The tray-loading optical drive is button activated and spring loaded so it feels quite sturdy and easy to manipulate.
The top of the Samsung Optical SmartHub has status lights for power, Wi-Fi, Ethernet connectivity and USB storage activity. The back surface has ports for the AC adapter, Ethernet connection and USB storage, along with a mini USB port that can be used to connect the SmartHub directly to a PC or a USB-enabled TV.
Setting up the Optical SmartHub is a tremendous hassle due to poor documentation, a confusing installer and Samsung's puzzling decision to put the program on a DVD that can't be run on the drive itself. The device does not come with a printed instruction manual, save for a fold-out quick start guide that's light on written instructions and heavy on-screen shots of the install software.
In order to set up the Optical SmartHub's wireless connection, users must plug the device into a power outlet and attach it via Ethernet to either a broadband modem or a router that's connected to one. With the device plugged in and powered on, the instructions then advise you to place the setup disc in your PC notebook's optical drive to run the install software.
What if you bought the Optical SmartHub precisely because your notebook, like so many these days, doesn't have an optical drive? You can connect the SmartHub to your notebook using the bundled micro USB to USB A cable and copy the setup files from the disc to your hard drive. Unfortunately, though you can use the SmartHub like an ordinary external DVD burner when it's tethered to your notebook, you can't run the installer while the drive is connected, so you must copy the files to your hard drive and then unplug. We also found the setup files available for download on Samsung-odd.com, a site which is not listed in the bundled documentation.
Once you launch the software, it asks for the SmartHub's current SSID and password, both of which are printed on the bottom of the device. Then, after your computer connects, you have the option to change those settings to an ID and password you can easily remember. The software proceeds to ask you questions about how to set up the SmartHub's Ethernet connection and assign it an IP address. While there's no help figuring out all the options, the defaults (autodetect IP address) will work for most users.
What if you don't own a Windows PC? Samsung doesn't provide any Mac OS version of the setup software, but it may be possible to configure the device by connecting to it using Wi-Fi and then logging into its browser-based control panel.
In order to use the SmartHub, you will need to connect your notebook, tablet or smartphone to it via Wi-Fi. However, while you are connected to the SmartHub, you can still use the Internet. So the SmartHub is effectively your router, and users who don't already own a router can use the device for that purpose. Once connected, you can access a browser-based control panel with settings for wireless access, DLNA support and using the SmartHub as an FTP server. Samsung provides no documentation for these settings, either.
iSCSI Setup and PC Drive Letter Access
After configuring the wireless and Internet connections, the setup program will install the iSCSI Initiator, a small program that allows your PC to see the SmartHub as a drive letter. We found that just clicking OK on all the screens was good enough to complete this process, but we were confused by a Windows dialog box that appeared with literally dozens of iSCSI options that the instructions never warned us about. Fortunately, leaving all the fields blank and hitting OK was sufficient.
Once the iSCI Initiator is installed, you'll need to launch it in order to access the burner from within Windows. Upon launch, the initiator sits in your system tray and you must right-click it and select "Log in" before it will provide a drive letter for your SmartHub.
Strangely, we found that though our DVD appeared as a drive letter, a USB hard drive we attached to the SmartHub was only available via Windows' Network browser, where it prompted us for the device's administrative username and password before allowing us to browse the folders.
When our PC was connected to the SmartHub and to the external hard drive we attached to it, we were able to treat them both as standard network drives. However, you cannot burn discs via the Wi-Fi connection.
Accessing the SmartHub from Android or iOS
To access the drive from a tablet or phone, you must download Samsung's free SmartHub app from either the Mac App Store or Google Play market. Before launching the app, you must connect the device to the SmartHub via Wi-Fi.
On both Android and iOS, the app has a simple UI with icons for File Manager, Smart Backup (copy files to an external hard drive), Video Player (play video files), Music Player (play music files), DVD Player and Audio CD Player. All of the player functions are grayed out until you register the SmartHub within the app by typing in its serial number.
Provided that you don't have a PC logged into the SmartHub via iSCSI, you can connect more than up to four mobile devices to the SmartHub at a time, allowing you and one or more friends to watch different media files or perform different backup tasks at the same time.
Across two different locations, two different DVDs and two different devices, wireless DVD playback was noticeably jerky and pixilated. When we tried streaming a DVD of the movie "Super" to an iPad 2 and a Samsung Stratosphere Android phone in our office, the movie was watchable but the on-screen action was not at all smooth. The picture suffered from visual noise, and we even saw a little bit of ghosting. When we tried streaming a disc of the movie "Dark City" in our New York apartment, the jerkiness and visual noise were even worse.
Though the Samsung Optical SmartHub will allow you to stream the same DVD to two or more devices at once, each stream is independent of the others, meaning that your devices won't necessarily be at the same point in the movie at the same time and the drive will have to shuffle back and forth on the disc, making the playback pause and unpause constantly. When we tried launching the DVD of "Super" on both our devices at once, we were impressed with the novelty but not the slideshow-like experience.
The SmartHub app provides very limited DVD controls, only allowing you to choose between chapters and titles, only one of which is the movie while the others are previews or extras. Neither the chapters nor the titles have any more description than their length in minutes and seconds; they don't have thumbnails either. There's no way to get to the DVD's own menu screen. When playing a video, you have standard back, forward and pause buttons along with a time slider but not much else.
When we streamed both discs to a Windows 7 PC using Windows Media Player, the playback was smooth and sharp. However, we doubt most users would buy this device just to use it with their notebooks.
Video File Playback
Using the SmartHub to play video files that are stored on an external USB hard drive or Flash drive provided an inconsistent experience. A 654 x 352-pixel XVID episode of a TV show was a bit jerky but smooth enough to watch in the office, though the images looked a bit grainy on the iPad's 9.7-inch screen. The video kept playing even as we walked up to 50 feet away from the SmartHub. When we played the same clip at home, it was so jerky that it was difficult to watch and there was a lot more visual noise.
When we streamed a 1080p MP4 trailer for "The Avengers," it was extremely smooth, sharp and colorful on the iPad, but the same clip wouldn't even start and locked up on our sluggish Stratosphere phone.
The music player app for the Samsung Optical SmartHub allows you to play audio files that are stored either on an optical disc or attached storage drive. Unfortunately, when we launched the player and used it to navigate through the folders on our external hard drive, it only showed some of our MP3 files as available for playback. A series of Lady Gaga MP3s were available and streamed smoothly, with almost no buffer time, to our phone. However, a folder of AC/DC songs appeared as empty in the app, even though it was filled with tracks.
File and Photo Backup
If you have an external USB storage drive attached to the SmartHub, you can transfer files to and from it using the Smart Backup option in the Android or iOS app. When you launch the Smart Backup function, it first lets you choose a source device, which could be your tablet/phone, an optical disc, or the USB storage drive. You then choose the specific files and folders you want backed up, followed by the destination device and folder on it. You can transfer files from an optical disc to your mobile device or USB drive, but you cannot burn discs using this feature.
The Android version of the SmartHub app has another feature called Photo Backup that's nearly identical to Smart Backup, but takes you directly to a list of available photos on your mobile device and lets you choose which ones you want copied to the USB drive.
In our tests, copying files to the USB drive attached to the Optical SmartHub was extremely quick and painless. We copied 278 photos totaling nearly around 280MB of data over to the drive in just a couple of minutes. Unfortunately, the iPad version of the app limits your file transfer to 50MB at a time, whether you are moving a single file or a whole folder.
Smart TV Connection
Samsung says you can connect the Optical SmartHub to one of its Smart TVs using the micro USB to USB A cable that comes with the drive. However, when we connected the SmartHub to a 55-inch Samsung Series 7000 TV, it was not recognized. Considering that most people who own Smart TVs already have DVD or Blu-ray players, we're not sure this feature has much value.
In theory, having the ability to play DVDs on your mobile device would be a real convenience for anyone who has a large library of movies on disc. Unfortunately, after you get through the confusing setup process, the Samsung Optical SmartHub doesn't deliver a strong enough video playback experience to justify its purchase. The drive's best features involve its ability to read and write to a USB storage device, something you can get more cheaply or better by buying a dedicated Wi-Fi hard drive such as the Seagate GoFlex Wireless, a network-attached storage drive, or a router with a built-in USB port.