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Digital Media Hub: A Look at the Media Center Extender

There's been some debate about whether a PC or a connected device such as a TiVo makes more sense as the center of your so-called digital hub. The idea is that one of these devices sits at the logical center of your home network—typically in your living room—and delivers network-based content, such as digital music, videos, and photo slideshows.

Since the emergence of Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) 3 years ago, I've been using a Media Center PC in this role. Media Center PCs are wonderful because of the wide range of functionality they offer. But they’re also terrible, simply because they’re PCs. Specifically, Media Center PCs are typically loud, buggy, and crash prone. They're not the kind of thing you'd want in your living room, and even though the latest version of Microsoft's software—XP MCE 2005—is excellent, I don't recommend putting a Media Center PC next to your TV.

That said, Media Center PCs can—and should—be used in home-office situations. In this scenario, you can use a set-top box called a Media Center Extender that connects over your home network to access your Media Center content remotely. These devices provide a reasonable facsimile of the Media Center UI, and most of the functionality. (Some features, such as animated photo slide shows and DVD playback, are missing.) Two types of Media Center Extenders are available: standalone set-top boxes from Linksys and HP that are silent thanks to their fanless design, and a software-based Extender that runs on the Xbox.

The Xbox Extender is miserable. First, the Xbox itself is loud, like a PC, offsetting the prime benefit of moving the Media Center PC out of the living room. Because the software is disk-based and inexplicably can’t be loaded onto the Xbox hard disk, it’s slow to load and a pain to use if a game disk is already loaded. Finally, you can't even turn off the Xbox by using the Extender's bundled remote control. Instead, you have to walk over to the device and press its power switch. If you already own an Xbox and can live with these limitations, the Xbox Extender software is relatively cheap ($100 or so) but I don't recommend it.

The set-top box Extenders are better but still not acceptable. Aside from a few positives—the quiet operation and a functional power button on the remote—the hardware-based Extenders are still problematic. They’re expensive (about $300), horribly buggy, and disconnect from the network fairly frequently—a problem I've encountered with three separate devices. Updating the firmware of the Extenders, which are based on Windows CE technology, is a nightmare. I had to attempt the Update Rollup 1 installation several times on my Linksys box before it worked, and I still get "protected content" errors on Cinemax, a problem the update was supposed to fix. The result is that I can't watch premium TV channels to which I’ve subscribed.

Another problem is codec support. The Extender supports only a limited number of video and audio codecs, which provide the compatibility the device needs to play different digital media formats. But you can't add codec support to the device, so you can't play popular formats such as QuickTime or DiVX/Xvid. Shamefully, it doesn't even play some Microsoft formats, including the format that Photo Story 3 uses.

Most egregiously, the Extender’s closed-captioning feature is horribly broken. This problem is a particular concern at my home because our 7-year-old son is deaf and has a cochlear implant: He needs closed captioning to understand what's going on. Unfortunately, the Extender delays the display of closed captioning by 3 or 4 seconds, rendering the feature useless—and very frustrating for our son. Microsoft has never responded to my repeated questions about this problem. Tellingly, closed captioning works fine on the TiVo I'm also testing, and of course it works fine with just the cable box.

Microsoft and its hardware partners promise to release new Extenders this year, and that technology will also make it into the Xbox 360. But users of current-generation Extenders are a bit stuck: These units do work, and they're better than nothing, but they could certainly be a lot better than they are. I'd like to see Microsoft release a substantial—and free—firmware upgrade to all Extender users that addresses the devices' many deficiencies.

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