OK, I realize this was probably pretty transparent, but I've saved the best for last. While none of the current generation of Windows Vista-based Media Center Extenders can accurately be called perfect, one does rise to the top of the heap. This is, of course, the HP MediaSmart Connect x280n (again, with those crazy names), a machine that, to my mind, offers the best combination of performance, functionality, and expandability. It's missing only one major feature, a dedicated DVD player, but in a way, Extenders are all about the future, not the past. So maybe that's not a bad thing, depending on your point of view.

Compared to the other dedicated Extenders mentioned in the previous part of this review, the HP MediaSmart Connect has some obvious advantages. And these advantages are apparent the second you take it out of the box. The device itself is clearly of higher quality materials than is the competition, with a gorgeous and smooth fascia that might be mistaken for an Apple product were it not black instead of white or silver. Amazingly, the HP is among the smallest of the Extenders, roughly the same size as the Linksys DMA-2100 and about half again as big as, say, an Apple TV. It's an attractive, even beautiful bit of electronics.

The feel of quality continues when you see what else is included. HP gives you the best remote, by far, of the bunch, a solid and high quality device that feels weighty in the hand. It's backlit, naturally, and can learn how to control the other devices in your home theatre set up, such as your TV and stereo system. Excellent.

HP doesn't skimp in others areas either. Unlike the competition, they include an HDMI cable, and unlike the competition, the HP MediaSmart includes both external expansion--via USB, front and back, thank you very much--and internally, via an HP proprietary Pocket Media Drive bay. This drive bay and the front-mounted USB port are both found behind fold-down doors so that, when not being accessed, the front of the machine is as clean looking as possible.

In the Media Center environment, the HP performs similarly to other dedicated Extenders. That is, it's slower than the Xbox 360, but acceptable. (And maybe this is some weird bias given how much I otherwise like the device, but it does feel a bit faster than the other Extenders to me.) It's constrained in the same way as other Extenders, however. There are no animations or transitions during photo slideshows, for example, which I still feel should be the baseline for a product like this. H.264 content plays just fine, even that which was saved with the iPod-friendly .m4v extension.

The MediaSmart environment

Like the Xbox 360 and D-Link DSM-750, the HP isn't just an Extender: You can also use the device to access content from XP-based PCs (and non-Media Center-enabled Vista PCs) on your home network using standard Windows Media Connect/UPnP/DLNA media sharing technologies. But the HP's interface for this activity, called MediaSmart, is hands down the nicest I've seen on any non-Apple digital media receiver.

MediaSmart can access photo, video, and music content stored on your PCs and other compatible network-attached devices, as you might expect, and it does so through an extremely attractive user interface. (You can also access content on USB mass storage devices in this fashion.) Like other devices of this kind, performance isn't always great, especially when navigating through sub-folder after sub-folder on some attached machine over the network. But the end results are stunning 720p quality. Photo slideshows feature beautiful transitions, but not animations. Video playback quality is excellent, and as with the other Extenders, I was able to access purchased content from online services like Amazon Unbox and Zune Marketplace without issue.


The MediaSmart environment

Aside from some performance issues, MediaSmart stumbles over .m4v-named H.264 files. (However, if you rename them to .mp4, they play just fine.) Otherwise, the environment's support for media formats is notably good.

MediaSmart includes another interesting and potentially unique feature, though I'm a bit leery of it. The unit features compatibility with a short list of useful online services--currently CinemaNow (movie purchase and rental), Live 365 (Internet radio), and HP Snapfish (photo sharing)--but I'm told YouTube will be available in the fall as well. Setup is a bit ponderous--you need to install a bunch of software on your PC and then register online with HP as well as any of the services you intend to use--but the end result is respectable. The question is, is accessing a CinemaNow rented movie easier via the HP MediaSmart Connect than it would be the normal way (renting it via the PC and then accessing the file via the device)? Yes, a bit. But I'm curious to see whether these services really take off. (HP does include a $20 coupon for CinemaNow in the box with the MediaSmart Connect, by the way.)

The HP performs another bit of interesting magic that I don't believe is available on any other Extender. In the MediaSmart environment, it can actually aggregate all of the content from all of the compatible devices on your network, giving you a single view into all of your shared media, no matter where it resides. This capability is only slightly offset by the fact that media access can be a bit slow, especially with larger libraries. But that's true of the other devices as well, and they're only accessing a single source.

HP told me that the MediaSmart Connect device is extremely energy efficient, using just 8 watts of power in standby mode. I can't speak to that, but like other dedicated Extenders, the HP is perfectly silent and doesn't generate any heat. In other words, it's the perfect living room/home theatre device.

Finally, I'd like to point out that while the HP does in fact include all of the modern wireless networking support one would expect of such a device made in 2008, it does so using concealed antennas rather than the spiky, awkward-looking, and easily damaged external antennas found on the other dedicated Extenders. I wasn't able to perform range tests, but the HP performed as well within 25 feet of the wireless access point as did the other devices.

Grading the HP

OK, so I'm pretty impressed with this device, and it's clearly the best of the Media Center Extenders. Here's how it breaks down.

Network connectivity. Excellent. This device supports all of the modern wireless standards you'd expect, including 802.11n, as well as 10-100 Mbps wired Ethernet. The wireless antennas are internal to the device, which is a plus.

AV connectivity. Excellent, assuming you're going all-in with HD. While the x280n includes HDMI and component video out, it lacks any older composite- or S-video-style connectors at all. This is a device for the next-gen crowd, which I think is perfectly acceptable.

Visual fidelity. Excellent. While the Extender UI is the typically washed-out version I've come to expect from most Extenders, visual fidelity is otherwise excellent, both in the MediaSmart UI and in video content played back via either environment.

Performance. Very good. It's no Xbox 360, but the MediaSmart Connect outperforms the other dedicated Extenders.

Expandability. Excellent. The HP is the most expandable of the dedicated Media Center Extenders, with two USB ports, a (proprietary) internal Pocket Media Drive (up to 320 GB of storage at this time), various forms of network-based PC and device media sharing, and an expanding line of online services. It does lack a DVD drive, however.

Extras. HP really comes through on this one. The device itself is gorgeous and high-quality. The multi-device remote is amazing, and the best of any Extender by far. It comes with an HDMI cable, a $20 CinemaNow coupon, and the nicest non-Extender UI I've seen yet.

Price: $350. I feel this price is easily justified by the extras you get with the HP.

Final thoughts

The HP MediaSmart Connect is the best Media Center Extender on the market today and it features excellent non-Extender functionality through its vibrant and professional looking MediaSmart interface as well. This interface provides access to USB- and Pocket Media Drive-based content, as well as content found on your home network, on PCs and other compatible connected devices, as well a small but growing list of online services. It's hard to overstate how much nicer the HP MediaSmart Connect experience is than that which you get with other Extenders. The hardware is better, the software is better, and the overall experience is just superior. No, the HP isn't perfect. But in the world of Media Center Extenders, it's the sweet spot. Highly recommended.