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Extender for Windows Media Center Review, Part 1: The Vista-Era Extender Experience

Microsoft doesn't get a lot of credit in the innovation column, and for good reason. But if there's one area in which the software giant has really been ahead of the curve over the past decade, it's the integration of television and computers. The company's original Media Center software (see my preview), which shipped as part of Windows XP Media Center Edition (see my review) was excellent and remained excellent over subsequent updates in 2003, 2004, and 2005. The version that ships with Windows Vista was made available to a wider audience--the software appears in both Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, instead of in a dedicated Media Center edition--and was somewhat improved to take advantage of widescreen HDTV displays. (See Part 5 of my Windows Vista review for more information.) Media Center has been so successful, in fact, that Apple copied the Media Center UI for its Front Row software (see my overview), a UI they later reused in the Apple TV (see my review), a device that, let's face it, is itself a copy of the Media Center Extender hardware we're now discussing. (Apple completely revamped the Apple TV UI in its "Take 2" revision--see my review--finally distancing themselves a bit from the copy-cat approach of earlier products.)

The one thing that Microsoft got wrong in its initial approach to Media Center, of course, was that the very notion of putting a high-powered multimedia PC in your living room alongside other home theatre-type equipment is, in retrospect, ludicrous. PCs are, after all, PCs: They're big and complex, and often loud, and they need to be updated and rebooted constantly. They are, in other words, the exact opposite of what one is looking for in such a scenario. But Microsoft, to its credit, again, saw this early on and began working on a way to remote the Media Center experience from a PC in your home office (or other more logical place in the home, such as a kid's bedroom) to the large screen in the living room. The solution they came up with is the Media Center Extender, a simplified hardware set-top box that would look at home alongside other stereo equipment, and come with no moving parts and thus be silent and uncomplicated. Extenders, like PCs themselves were (and still are) made by a number of Microsoft's hardware partners. (Microsoft has also created Extender experiences for both generations of its Xbox game consoles.)

First generation Extenders (see my review) were decent solutions for the day, providing most of the Media Center experience through your TV, connected back to the Media Center PC through an Ethernet-based network. I say "most" here because the first-generation Extenders largely lacked the hardware punch needed to supply Media Center's beautiful animations and transitions. They also lacked DVD drives, an inexpensive functional addition that might have gone a long way towards making the devices more successful in the market: As it was, Extenders didn't replace any of your existing hardware but were instead an addition to what was, increasingly, a pretty crowded area under many TVs.

By the time Windows Vista rolled around, Microsoft promised big changes in the Extender market, but those changes have been very slow to come to fruition. There were going to be TV sets and DVD players with built-in Extender capabilities, I was told, as well as a slew of other hardware form factors that would put the me-too first generation set-top boxes to shame.

That is only slowly starting to happen and now, about 18 months after Vista's release, we're just starting to see a decent selection of Extender hardware, though most of the devices are indeed standard-looking set-top boxes. Since these are the most common, I'll focus on the set-top solutions in this review.

Currently, there are five Extender hardware solutions that are compatible with Windows Vista, and I've had all five of them through my home office in recent months. These include:

Microsoft Xbox 360. The first Vista-compatible Extender experience and the one that sets the performance bar a bit higher than most of the other contenders can match. Unfortunately for potential Extender users, however, the Xbox 360 is quite loud and is thus unsuitable in home theater environments of any kind.

Linksys DMA-2100. The second-generation Linksys devices offer new form factors but lackluster performance. This is the smaller of the two Linksys boxes and it lacks DVD playback.

Linksys DMA-2200 Linksys Media Center Extender with DVD. A larger, pizza box-shaped version of the DMA-2200, with an included hardware DVD player. The DVD playback and Extender experiences are separate from each other; you choose which you want when you boot up the machine.

D-Link DSM-750. This second-generation D-Link device uses the exact same form factor as the company's first-gen box, a classic pizza-box style case, but offers superior performance to either Linksys device. There is no DVD playback option, however.

HP MediaSmart Connect x280n. Potentially the most impressive of the Extenders, given its copious expandability options and separate MediaSmart environment, which works with all XP and Vista versions, provides better digital media format compatibility, and offers links to various online services such as CinemaNow, Live 365, and Snapfish. All the MediaSmart Connect is missing, alas, is a DVD drive.

I will be examining all of these Extender solutions in depth in future parts of this review. For now, I'd like to focus on the Extender software experience and how it differs from the XP-based first generation Extender experience.

Extenders in the Vista generation

In the same way that the Windows Vista version of Windows Media Center offers various improvements over its XP-based predecessors, Vista-based hardware Extenders also offer various improvements over their own predecessors. The following improvements are generally true of all of the Vista-era Extenders mentioned in the previous section, with a few exceptions:

Improved wireless support. With the exception of the Xbox 360, which is currently limited to wired Ethernet networking and 802.11g-based Wireless networking, all Vista-era Extenders support superior 802.11n wireless networking, which is fast enough even for HDTV streaming. This is an important advancement because most potential Extender users haven't wired their homes for Ethernet. Not surprisingly, every Extender review unit I received came with an 802.11n router as well: Microsoft and its hardware maker partners are clearly convinced that a viable wireless option is the key to success. They're right, but wired is still preferable if you've got it.

New video format support. All Vista-era Extenders support additional video formats over those natively supported inside of Media Center, including H.264 and Xvid. This support, however, is handled in a bizarre fashion: Though you can playback H.264 content from an Extender, for example, you still cannot play back that same content directly from Media Center on the PC. Sorry, but that's ridiculous. If Microsoft is going to add this support to the Extender, you should do so on the PC-based software as well.

Media sharing with Windows Media Connect. Don't have Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate? No problem: Most Vista-era Extenders also support media sharing with any XP- or Vista-based PC using Microsoft's Windows Media Connect (Windows Rally) technologies. The experience isn't typically as nice as the Media Center experience, but it's better than nothing. Unfortunately, the experience is different from Extender to Extender. Some are bad. Some are downright lousy.

Otherwise, using Vista-era Extenders is very similar to using older Extenders. From a Setup perspective, you plug the device into your home network and HDTV, configure networking, and then establish a partnership between the Extender and your Media Center PC. (This last bit was also copied by Apple for the Apple TV.) As before, you can only connect an Extender to one PC, but a Media Center PC can support up to five Extenders, depending on the speed of your network and the performance characteristics of the PC. Extender configure, such as it is, is still minimal (Figure).

Core Extender experiences

A Media Center Extender will typically provide you with virtually all of the same functionality that you get sitting in front of a Vista-based Media Center PC. There are some strange differences, however. These core Media Center experiences include:

TV + Movies. On a typical Vista-based PC, you'll see five items here: More TV, Recorded TV, Internet TV, Play DVD, and Set Up TV. The Extender gets all but Play DVD, even on those units that have an embedded DVD player. The remaining experiences are identical on the PC and the Extender (Figure).

Music. In Vista, you will typically see More Music, Music Library (Figure), Play All, Radio, and Search, and all of these items appear on the Extender as well. They will also be identical, unless of course you chose to not duplicate your media folders between the PC and Extender for some reason.

Pictures + Video. Both the PC and Extender will show identical links to More Pictures, Picture Library, Play All, and Video Library. There is one difference, however: On the PC, while you can see H.264 movies in your collection, you cannot play them (Figure). However, these files play just fine in most Vista-era Extenders. Another difference: Whereas PC-based photo slideshows support nice animated and cross-faded transitions, Extenders are less capable, offering nothing of the kind. The slideshow just jumps from one photo to the next.

Tasks. Here, there are some dramatic if expected differences. On a PC, you'll see options for Settings, Shutdown, Burn CD/DVD, Sync (for portable devices), Add Extender, and Media Only (which locks the Media Center display in full-screen mode and makes it more device-like). The Extender has just three choices, Settings, Close, and Tune Network. But Settings is also somewhat different between the two. For example, a Media Center PC has more settings to configure (like those for DVD playback).

Online Media. This top-level experience is also identical between the PC and Extender: You get Program Library, Explore, and Learn How, as well as a fourth choice that rotates between content. (It's on "The Big Debate" as I write this.) Dive in a bit and you'll see other changes. While the PC-based version of Media Center lists Media Center-compatible games like Chess Titans, Freecell, Hearts, Mahjong Titans, Purble Palace, Solitaire, and Spider Solitaire, Extenders do not.

Sports. At some point, someone at Microsoft figured out that the Media Center Guide's ability to filter content was particularly useful for sports fans, since one of the filters was, yes, sports. Apparently, it's so popular that it's not a top-level Media Center experience for some reason, and the choices are identical between PC and Extender: More Sports, On Now, On Later, Scores (Figure), and Players. (The latter two are interesting Media Center mini-applications.)

Final thoughts

Most Media Center Extenders cost somewhere in the $300 range, which is reasonable when you consider that Apple's lowest-end Apple TV is about $230, but provides none of the recorded and live TV functionality that's at least possible with a Media Center PC/Extender solution. The question, of course, is whether any of these devices are particularly suitable for the living room. I'll answer that over time as I examine each of the hardware devices I mentioned at the beginning of this review. For now, however, I can say that Vista-era Extender solutions, in general, are solid from a software perspective. What I'd like to see, I guess, is a bit more consistency across the devices from a compatibility and functionality perspective. And I'm surprised that none of the Extenders, with the exception of the Xbox 360, are able to duplicate Media Center's subtle animations and attractive transitions.

Continue to Part 2: Xbox 360...

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