My friend Kip recently remodeled and expanded his home, and part of this project involved a nice home theatre setup with a 47-inch Samsung HDTV and accompanying surround sound system. A huge music fan with an extensive digital music collection on his home office-based PC, Kip wanted a way to get this music into the home theatre setup and thus outside to the speakers by the pool. He knew I'd been using a Media Center PC in my own living room for the past several years and figured he'd go that route as he intended to upgrade his aging XP-based Pentium 4 PC anyway. (Plus, he'd be getting a laptop as well.)
I talked him out of the Media Center PC, mostly because that's an expensive and complicated device to put in a cabinet in the living room. And there are numerous ways to get content from a PC to the living room now, though there's no clear winner. (He does have a home network with 802.11g wireless.) Here's how I see the choices.
Media Center PC. It's still an option. But with HDTV-capable Media Center PCs with CableCard support going for big bucks, most will be better off paying their cable company ~$10 a month for DVR functionality or getting an HD TiVo. And again, PCs are complicated. We enjoyed have a Media Center PC in our den for over 6 years, but there were always problems. On the flipside, compatibility is excellent: Because it's a PC, it could work with any content of any kind, though not always through Media Center.
Media Center Extender. Kip could get a Vista Home Premium-based PC for his home office and then use an Xbox 360 or one of the coming generation of Media Center Extenders to access his PC-based photos, music, and videos from the living room. Extenders have the wonderful Media Center interface, which is a plus. However, he wants to do this now, and the Xbox 360 runs to hot and loud to use with a home theatre, and you can't stick it in a hutch because it would overheat (and run even louder). Compatibility is so-so: Extenders work great with the Microsoft stuff, including rental and purchased movies. But you can't access XviD or DviX content through an Xbox 360, and you can't access H.264 or MPEG-4 content through any Extender (though you can on a 360 directly).
Apple TV. Kip does own an iPod and he uses iTunes sometimes, though he prefers Windows Media Player. (I turned him on to MusicBridge to consolidate the libraries of each application.) He could manage media through iTunes and get an Apple TV for the living room:. It's simple, works well with Apple formats. But it has flaws. The Apple TV wants to sync with one PC and then stream from others, and if you sync some content from a PC, you can't simultaneously stream other non-synched content from the same PC, which is balky. Streaming over wireless is too slow to be usable with this device. And the Apple TV refuses to work with any non-Apple formats like WMA, WMV, DivX, and XviD. Apple TV is expensive, too: $300 for a 40 GB version and $400 for 160 GB.
The Portable Player Way. Using an iPod or one of the coming Zunes and a dock/cable setup of some kind, he could sneaker-net content between the PC and the den. (The Zune would be better because of wireless sync.) He wasn't particularly fond of this approach, though I am intrigued by it, mostly because he's worried that his music, photo, and video collection will be too big.) We never seriously investigated this route, but I will in the future: An iPod with a DLO dock or a 2007 Zune would probably be ideal for this kind of thing and might even be a thirty choice, especially if you plan to get a portable player anyway. Compatibility is mixed and depends on the device: The iPod is the most limited but has access to the widest range of commercial content. The Zune has excellent compatibility but won't work with Microsoft PlaysForSure-oriented DRM content (go figure).
Windows-Oriented Digital Media Receiver. There are a number of digital media receivers on the market that are compatible with Microsoft's Windows Media Connect/Windows Connect Now technologies, which is essentially an over-the-network Plug-N-Play connection scheme for PC software and devices. These devices are set top boxes with wireless and wired networking capabilities and typically no hard drive. They stream content over the home network to your home theatre and TV. Compatibility is mixed and depends on the device.
Looking at the available options, Kip decided that a Windows-oriented digital media receiver would be the best bet. He ordered DVR through his cable company and we went to the local Best Buy and picked up a D-Link MediaLounge Wireless HD Media Player DSM-520, which is pretty typical of this kind of device. It wasn't particularly expensive ($200) and has HDMI and component connections, plus a USB port on the front for connecting flash drives or hard drives locally. It reportedly is compatible with a wide range of audio and video formats.
Sounds perfect, right? But as is so often the case with technology, the reality is so much less exciting. The D-Link needed a time-consuming firmware update and connecting to the protected wireless network in Kip's house was painfully slow and had to be repeated three times. The device had no problem connecting to my Vista-based laptop, but refused to see Kip's XP-based PC, despite having WMP11 and turning on sharing explicitly. Fortunately, the D-Link also comes with an optional PC-based management interface you can use, so we installed that and it worked.
Streaming music and photos worked fine. Most of Kip's music is in MP3 format, but he's got some WMAs as well, and everything worked. The D-Link UI isn't exactly Media Center quality--OK, it's more Atari 2600 than Media Center--but it works in a utilitarian fashion.
Video, as you may have guessed, was a disaster. According to D-Link, the DSM-520 works with WMV9, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, XviD (with MP3 or PCM audio), and AVI (but only MPEG-4 layer type AVI). There are lots of asterisks there. WMV, yes, but it has to be WMV9. MPEG-4, yes, but not H.264. Only certain kinds of XviD video. AVI, yes, but only one kind of AVI.
For a long time, I wasn't able to get a single video to display on the device, despite having lots of content to work with. My H.264 DVD rips, naturally, would not work. None of the home made WMV videos I had worked, including a test DVD rip and a PhotoStory 3.1-based movie. AVIs? Nope. The only video that did play, a purchased MovieLink video in WMV format, worked fine until you pressed Forward or Back. Then it would die with a "format not supported" error. If you just played it or paused it, all was well. Press any other button and it died. We tried various videos via the network and USB-attached thumb drives and hard drives. (BTW, this may be obvious, but the D-Link is only compatible with USB drives formatted with FAT32, and not with NTFS.
Folks, this is not a good consumer experience. And even if you do the homework to ensure that you get a device that will work with the type of content you now use and expect to use in the future, there's no guarantee that what you get will actually work with any content you might obtain or create in the future. Any one of the options listed above comes with massive compatibility issues. It's a mess.
In short, this experience has bolstered my opinion that digital media is a disaster and something that will frustrate both typical consumers and those who are more technically inclined. When you fail again and again even after doing a decent amount of research, this entire system is just broken. I'll keep experimenting, of course. But this is just depressing.
One more thing. Kip is intrigued by Windows Home Server. This won't solve his living room needs, but it may allow him to skip getting a new desktop PC and just go laptop. I'll be reviewing WHS soon.