It's a WiDi shootout! Actiontec's ScreenBeam Pro vs. Netgear's Push2TV
Intel’s WiDi technology promises a lot: The third and fourth generations can wirelessly stream up to 1080p video, including copy-protected content such as commercially pressed Blu-ray movies, to a receiver embedded in an HDTV, a video projector, or some other display—or to a stand-alone receiver with an HDMI output that you plug into a display. Two fourth-gen adapters, Actiontec’s ScreenBeam Pro and Netgear’s Push2TV, are each smaller than a deck of cards, with just a couple of ports. How hard could this be?
Pretty hard, as it turns out: Both devices proved enormously complicated to set up. The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Ultrabook that I used for testing required multiple reboots, driver updates, and reinstallations of Intel’s software. Unless you’re prepared for the possibility of arduous troubleshooting, I wouldn’t bother with either adapter. But if wireless streaming is something you must have, and if your laptop supports WiDi, you might consider Netgear’s product, which was the more reliable of the two—once I got it up and running.
Netgear's Push2TV is the smaller of the two devices. Each one has a USB port and an HDMI output for connecting to your display. The Push2TV uses its USB port for its AC adapter, which means that you can power it from either your laptop or the provided AC adapter. The Actiontec ScreenBeam Pro has a full-size USB port, but it serves only to update the device’s firmware (you update the Push2TV’s firmware via a Wi-Fi connection). The ScreenBeam Pro relies on a separate connector for power and requires a AC adapter, which makes Netgear’s Push2TV the better travel companion.
Intel’s WiDi software does not support Macs, but it does support a specific list of WIndows 7 and 8 systems (see below for more details on compatibility). It automatically detects the WiDi adapter, sets up a peer-to-peer wireless connection, and initiates a pairing routine that’s similar to the process of pairing Bluetooth devices: The software prompts you to type in a numeric code that appears on the TV. Once you do, the software starts to stream the laptop’s video and audio to the TV. The pairing routine provides security for the connection, which is completely independent of your Wi-Fi network (apart from firmware updates for the Push2TV). You need to pair the laptop and receiver only once, and you can choose to have WiDi connect the two devices automatically when you launch the program.
Audio and video quality were pretty good with both devices, but in playing half a dozen YouTube videos, I noticed that the ScreenBeam Pro was prone to minor artifacts. It also spontaneously disconnected a couple of times—a glitch I didn’t run into with the Push2TV. Actiontec suggested that the problem was interference from the many neighboring wireless networks in downtown San Francisco, where I ran my tests, but Netgear’s device exhibited neither the artifacts nor the connection problems.
The second-screen experience
I also tried both adapters using Intel’s WiDi widget, which lets you use the TV as a second screen so that you can watch, say, a movie on the TV while working in a spreadsheet on the laptop. The widget works, but figuring out how to put the content you want on the TV is difficult: I had to try several times to display the movie on the TV rather than on the desktop.
You can also stream video from Apple and Android smartphones and tablets to a WiDi receiver. I was able to watch videos running on my Samsung Galaxy Note 2 on the TV by connecting to the WiDi adapters using Samsung’s AllShare Cast app (for more details, read about Intel’s Android and iOS apps). Making the connection was easy as long as I wasn’t too far from the adapter. AllShare Cast detected the receiver, and once I authorized the connection (no numeric PIN required), the display on the Galaxy Note 2 appeared on my TV. Once again, however, I noticed performance issues with Actiontec’s product—a lot of freezes, and the occasional spontaneous disconnect—that I didn’t encounter with Netgear’s.
WiDi hassle extends to system compatibility
The ability to put small-screen content on a big screen quickly, as these WiDi adapters promise to do, is something that both consumers and businesspeople would welcome. Before investing in one of these adapters, however, make sure that your laptop supports WiDi. Although Intel’s website offers lists of required notebook components (mainly Intel’s Wi-Fi and graphics chipsets), you shouldn’t expect the technology to work unless your system has been specifically certified for WiDi.
I learned that lesson the hard way, when I tried downloading and running WiDi on another Lenovo notebook that had the listed chipsets but wasn’t certified for WiDi. I was able to install the software, and it detected the receivers, but it never successfully connected to them. An Intel spokesperson directed me to forums where users in similar situations try to help one another, but Intel doesn’t provide support or guidance for do-it-yourself WiDi, even if you think you have the required hardware.
What’s more even more annoying is that certified systems don’t necessarily ship with everything you’ll need to make WiDi work. The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix supports WiDi, but I still had to find and download the Intel software on my own.
Intel and its partners need to make WiDi deployments much easier. There’s really no excuse for the fourth generation of any technology to be this difficult to set up. If you’re willing to muck about in system settings, and if you have the patience for reinstalls should things go wrong the first time, I’d say check out the Netgear Push2TV. But nontechies might want to wait until more of the setup kinks are worked out.