Microsoft’s decision to include its Media Center features in Vista Home Premium dealt a blow to makers of separate entertainment PCs. Instead of having to buy a specific machine with a specific flavour of Windows, now even owners of the most humble of desktop machines can have them double up as home multimedia hubs.
Networking equipment makers such as Linksys are hoping the future lies instead with Media Center Extenders. They aim to do away with the need for locating a Vista-based PC near your TV by offering Media Center capabilities in a (relatively) dumb device.
The Media Center Extender DMA2200 is the second such device we’ve crossed paths with (the first was Microsoft’s INSERT_LINK_HERE
" target="_blank">Xbox 360) and, despite the fanfare it was launched to at CES earlier this year, we have to say we’re underwhelmed.
On the surface, it’s a pretty exciting piece of technology, with specifications that put most other media streamers in the shade. Its tight integration with Vista means that, once set up, the experience is almost identical to that available on the host PC, including the ability to record and stream live TV, assuming you have a Vista Media Center-compatible TV tuner installed in the PC.
Externally, this box looks as if it means business, too. Ranged along the back panel is a series of connections unlikely to leave you wanting more: you get HDMI, component, composite, S-Video, coaxial and optical S/PDIF, an ethernet port, plus three aerials for Wi-Fi connection. The only omission is a USB port for connecting an external drive.
On the front is a series of buttons for operating the DVD drive and a fetching dot-matrix-style display that lets you view settings and perform rudimentary music selections without having to switch on that big, power-hungry flat-screen TV.
The DMA2200’s headline feature, however, is draft-n wireless, which, theoretically, means you can stream HD video from your Vista-equipped desktop PC without the need for wires – something that’s nigh-on impossible with devices that have so far been restricted to 802.11g. The claim is a solid one, and in tests we managed to stream WMV files up to 1080p (downloaded from Microsoft’s HD Showcase website) with nary a single frame dropped at close range (1m).
A little further away, performance was just as impressive. We placed a laptop wired into a Linksys draft-n router 5m away, with a partition wall between, and playback was smooth and generally jitter-free.
Moving 10m away and adding another partition wall, however, was too much for the DMA2200. Both 1080p and 720p files failed to play, and more worryingly the simple act of attempting playback without enough bandwidth caused the DMA2200 to freeze up and crash entirely. We had to switch it off then on again and wait for it to restart before we regained control.
The Linksys is dual-band, meaning it operates not only at 2.4GHz, as with most domestic Wi-Fi devices, but also at 5GHz. If you happen to have a dual-band device already, and the requisite PCI cards or USB dongles for your PC, this may make the DMA2200 more attractive. The 5GHz spectrum is much emptier than 2.4GHz and is likely to get you more reliable, faster connections.
But for now, we can’t see too many people taking advantage because a router will set you back at least $200 – and that’s without a matching PC or laptop adapter.
The list of file formats supported is reasonable, with ticks for MPEG1 and 2, WMV 9 video up to 1080p, and also H.264 for video, plus MP3, WMA, WMA-Pro and AAC-LC audio formats, although there are gaps: notably, Ogg and FLAC for audio.
But this isn’t the main problem, and neither is the fact that the DMA2200 crashed when faced with a slow Wi-Fi link. We simply think the DMA2200 is in too narrow a niche – there are far too many requirements to fill before it can be used to its full potential.
If you’ve already made the switch to draft-n wireless, own a desktop PC or laptop with Vista Home Premium, don’t want to move the PC close to your TV and happen to have an aerial output close to your PC, too, it’s worth a look – if you also happen to live in an open-plan flat or one with paper-thin plasterboard partition walls and the aforementioned PC is no further than 10m away, that is.
Most people will be better off with a Microsoft Xbox 360 Core $395 and adding a Wi-Fi adapter ($145) or bridge to it. This package offers similar Media Center Extender features albeit at over $100 more.
The only key advantage of the DMA2200 – and this may be enough for some – is that it runs much more quietly than the Xbox.