Having recently gotten my first taste of media sharing through the capabilities of my Xbox 360, I was eager to see what other choices were out there on the market. In particular, after seeing some high-priced options dominating the market, I wanted to check out some low-end alternatives that wouldn’t break my wallet if I were on the hunt for a connected media player that would let me view computer-based, digital, HD content on my HDTV.

At less than $200, the Pinnacle ShowCenter 250HD is one of the lowest-priced HD media players I could find. And a quick look at its stats confirmed that it could handle everything I wanted to throw at it: It’s compatible with Windows Vista, XP, and Mac systems—great for those increasingly heterogeneous home environments. It offers built-in wired Ethernet and wireless (802.11b/g) networking. And it supports a variety of video formats including DivX, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, WMV-DMV, and XviD, and supports resolution up to 1080i (alas, not the 1080p Holy Grail).

Removing the ShowCenter 250HD from its box, I was struck by its small, sleek build. It’s a rather unassuming silver unit, bedecked with all kinds of outputs (Ethernet, SCART A/V, RCA video/audio, S-video, component video, composite and optical audio) and included cables (several power cable options for various countries, a SCART cable, typical RCA cables, an Ethernet cable). One notable exclusion is an HDMI output—possibly the unit’s most glaring failing. Admittedly, the component-video outputs will produce video that’s just as impressive, you have to arrange for digital-audio (optical) cabling that would otherwise be taken care of by HDMI. On top of that, despite the plethora of included cables, there are no component-video cables in the box. So, there are a couple of extra expenses you’ll have to consider (on top of the ShowCenter 250HD’s price) in order to take advantage of its primary selling point—HD.

I set up the box quickly, connecting it to my HDTV via some spare component-video and optical cables. Using the rather clumsy remote, I began navigating through the ShowCenter 250HD’s main menu. Unfortunately, the menu system isn’t visually interesting, and in fact seems rather “unevolved.” First, the remote—similar in appearance to Comcast’s ubiquitous cable-box remotes—is needlessly complicated in conjunction with the menus, offering up A, B, C, and D buttons whose purpose can be mysterious without consulting the user’s guide. And the buttons for performing the tasks I most wanted to do sometimes were elusive. Second, the main menu constantly took me back to the system's clunkily designed setup screens when I all I wanted to do was view my content dynamically.

Despite a few user-experience problems, I was able to quickly set up the system and connect it wirelessly with Windows Media Player (WMP) 9 on my home computer. The ShowCenter 250HD’s UI, as I mentioned, is clunky, but it’s perfectly functional. In minutes, I had access to all my stored media, including photos, music, and HD video captured with my Canon camcorder. When viewing that streaming HD video, I noticed some choppiness over the wireless connection; for HD material, you’ll probably want to go with the wired Ethernet connectivity. But overall, the experience was good, and the image quality was high. Listening to my digital audio files over my home-theater setup was a kick.

I was able to view a few slideshows of my digital photos, but I found myself yearning for more customization options, and again, a more dynamic, engaging UI. Everything is pretty static. I would’ve loved to see some transition options for the photo slideshows, and perhaps more interactivity with music and effects. And what about album art for the music? The functionality is barebones, but what do you expect at this price point?

In the end, the ShowCenter 250HD is a slimmed-down but functional HD media player that does a good job at what it intends to do: provide streaming, HD access to your digital media content. You can hook it up to your home-theater audio/video system and enjoy that media to the fullest. I only wish that Pinnacle had spent more time on its product’s UI and remote, and had included more HD ease of use by providing HDMI connectivity. But who’s going to complain when most HD media-player options are much more expensive?