It seems so long ago now, but I still fondly recall my first experience with Microsoft's Media Center software, which back in early 2002 was known by its codename Freestyle (see my preview). At the time, Microsoft didn't even know how it was going to distribute the software, which represented the company's first serious attack on the lucrative market for living room-based digital entertainment. Microsoft eventually decided to release Media Center as part of a unique Windows XP version, called Windows XP Media Center Edition, which I thought was a mistake, though the company corrected that somewhat by making the latest Media Center version available in two Vista product editions, Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate.
If you're not familiar with Media Center, it is essentially a unique user interface for enjoying digital media content, including photos, music, and videos, as well as providing digital video recording (DVR) functionality for watching and recording live TV, and a front-end to various related online services, including movie and music download services like MovieLink and Napster. You can use Media Center with a keyboard and mouse and computer display, of course, but it's really designed to work best with a remote control and television set (preferably an HDTV in the Vista version), so that you can control the system from the couch as you would any living room device. My family used a series of Media Center PCs as our sole TV interface for several years--about mid-2002 through late 2006--and we've all come to appreciate and expect its myriad features.
On that note, while the Media Center software is a fine idea, one might argue that the eHome team responsible for the product made a huge mistake tying it to the PC, which is a rather loud, expensive, and complex device to put in a living room. (The alternative was to create a dedicated Media Center set-top box, like an Xbox or TiVo. Microsoft didn't go this route because of its expertise with the PC, but one has to wonder how much better things might have turned out if they had gone the other way.) Sure enough, the first generation Media Center PCs were ugly, traditional PC devices that weren't very much at home in the living room. And while later, more elegant Media Center PC designs solved the form factor issues, the machines remained expensive and complex, and beyond the capabilities and functional grasp of the masses.
To address these obvious problems, Microsoft in 2004 announced its Media Center Extender (MCX) platform. These first Extenders were simple hardware set-top boxes that solved most of the problems with Media Center. They were silent and simple, and designed to look like stereo equipment. They could sit in the living room, unobtrusively, and remotely display the Media Center experience--or much of it, anyway--which would be streamed to the device over the home network from the Media Center PC, which was now relegated to the home office were it belonged. The first generation Extenders (see my review) weren't perfect, of course: As the hardware was based on Windows CE, they couldn't display some of Media Center's nicer transitions and effects. They required a fairly complex (and preferably, wired) home networking setup, with a Media Center PC off in some other room, preferably connected to a cable box for DVR duties. And that Media Center PC was still a PC, based on Windows XP, so there could be reliability and stability issues. Sometimes the Extender just wouldn't connect, especially on a wireless connection.
Microsoft also shipped a Media Center Extender package for the original Xbox (see my review), allowing the company's first video game system to perform these duties. The Xbox kit included a remote control, an IR dongle, and a software disc for loading the interface. It worked OK, though the Xbox was and is a loud device, thanks to its PC-like internals and fans. And performance was awful, since the software was emulating a hardware device and couldn't even be installed to the Xbox hard drive. Overall, the Xbox Extender was disappointing.
Since this time, of course, Microsoft has shipped Windows Vista (see my review) and its next-generation Xbox 360 video game console (which includes Extender functionalty; see my review). And its hardware partners have shipped a number of standalone Vista-compatible Extenders (see my reviews).
Vista comes with a new if incompletely updated version of Media Center, which is fine-tuned for widescreen HDTVs and digital cable. The Xbox 360, meanwhile, includes an amazing array of digital media features, including the latest Media Center Extender experience, which replicates the Vista Media Center interface to the console and, thus, to your HDTV or other television. Standalone Extenders, while not as powerful as the Xbox 360, provide a decent approximation of the Vista Extender experience, minus some animations and other graphical effects. (On the plus side, they're much quieter than the Xbox 360.)
Vista's version of Media Center is considerably more powerful than previous versions.
Secret: Previous generation Extenders, including the original Xbox version, are not compatible with Windows Vista at all. At the time of this writing, only the Xbox 360 is compatible with Vista's version of Media Center.
A complete Windows Vista Media Center Extender solution involves a number of hardware components:
Secret: You cannot add cable-based high definition capabilities to an existing Media Center PC, whether it's based on XP or Vista. This feature has to be built into the device by the PC maker at the time of sale. If you think you will want this functionality, you will need to factor that into your purchase decision.
While the configuration and management of such a system is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that Media Center's DVR feature is entirely optional: You can simply use an Extender to enjoy your digital music, photo, and video connections remotely on your television, and forego television watching and recording through Media Center. This is a good option for cable-based HDTV users who already get DVR functionality via their service provider: You can connect both the Extender and cable box directly to the television and switch inputs to move between the two interfaces.
Before you can use Media Center Extender, you need to configure it to work with a particular Media Center PC. While each Vista-based Media Center PC can work with several Extenders, if needed, based on your available hardware resources, an individual Extender can only be configured to connect to one Media Center PC. This connection is similar to the process by which one might link a Bluetooth peripheral to a PC or other device: There is a one-to-one connection between the two, and once that connection is made, the Extender is tied solely to that Media Center PC.
On the Xbox 360, Media Center Extender is configured via the Media Center link on the Media blade of the Xbox Dashboard. The first time you select this option, the Xbox 360 will supply you with an 8-digit code that you must jot down so that you can enter it into the appropriate place in the Vista PC's Media Center interface. Most dedicated Extenders support both the Extender experience and standalone media-sharing capabilties, based on Microsot's Windows Media Connect, which is compatible with both Windows XP and Vista.
On the Vista PC, open Media Center and navigate to Tasks and then Add Extender.
A short wizard will start, walking you through the steps necessary to tie the Extender to the PC. First, you enter that 8-digit code, and then some Extender-related firewall changes are made.
Then, you can choose whether to duplicate your Media Center watched folders onto the Extender. If you choose Yes, the Music Library, Photo Library, and Video Library views you see on the Extender will be roughly identical to what's on the PC. (The Recorded TV settings are the same regardless of what you choose.)
At this point, the wizard will perform the configuration on the PC and, about half way through, the Media Center experience will launch on the Extender. Now you're good to go.
Behind the scenes, Vista has created a user account for the Extender, which allows the device to access your media libraries over the network. A different user account is created for each Extender you connect to the PC.
Tip: If you are using an Xbox 360 solely as an Extender--and at $279, the Xbox 360 Core System is almost reasonably priced for this use--you can configure it to boot directly into the Extender interface any time the system is powered on. Here's how you do it: In the Xbox Dashboard, navigate to the System blade, then Console Settings, and then Startup. Choose Media Center from the available choices.
Tip: If you have a Universal Media Remote or other Xbox 360 remote, you can also boot directly into the Media Center Extender interface by holding down the green Media Center button while the device is powered off. This is a handy shortcut to remember if you'd prefer to have the Xbox 360 normally boot into a game disc or the Xbox Dashboard instead of Media Center. This tip applies to standalone Extenders as well.
Secret: Any Xbox 360 can work as a Media Center Extender, even the very slightly quieter and hard drive-less Xbox 360 Core System. Indeed, you don't even need a Memory Unit to use the Extender software, though a hard drive or Memory Unit--and a free Xbox Live Silver account--makes it much easier to download and install Xbox 360 firmware updates. I recommend doing both: Microsoft has shipped a wide range of functional updates to the Xbox 360 over the past two years. The company also provides useful TV show and movie rental and download capabilities via Xbox Live: These features require a hard drive.
Because the Media Center Extender experience is virtually identical to that of the PC-based Media Center experience, it should be immediately familiar.
You will see the same menu system, most of the same options, and, if you chose the appropriate option during the setup wizard, the same content. Various rules apply, as was the case with previous generation Extenders. For example, if you want to access online services such as MovieLink, its preferable or even required that you do the initial configuration of these services on the PC. After that, they should work fine on the Extender as well. (In the case of MovieLink, you should configure Media Center with your account information and download the first movie from the PC. Then, Extender-based access to the service should work normally.)
Obviously, some Media Center features will not work through the Extender. You won't see any configured Windows games in the Extender interface, for example.
To quit the Media Center interface, choose Tasks and then Close.
Tip: One Media Center PC feature that's not available on any current Media Center Extender is remote (i.e. PC-based) DVD playback functionality. If you're using an Xbox 360 as an Extender, or a DVD player equipped standalone Extender, however, you can play DVD movies directly, from outside the Extender interface.
Fun fact: Microsoft attempted to port an improved version of the Media Center user interface to portable devices via the ill-fated Portable Media Center (PMC) initiative (see my review). These devices never really took off with consumers, but Microsoft worked improvements in the software back into the Vista version of Media Center. Today, you can see the most recent example of these improvements in the software for Microsoft's Zune devices (see my review), so even though PMCs are no longer with us, a remnant of the work done for that platform continues in Microsoft's latest portable digital media initiative.
Secret: The team responsible for Vista's Media Center also created the PC- and device-based based software for the second generation Zune platform.
Over several months of use, I've found the Vista-era Media Center Extender in the Xbox 360 to be very reliable and glitch-free. That said, the Xbox 360 is too loud, in my opinion, to use in a living room. Standalone Extenders offer the required silence but don't perform as well as the Xbox 360. They're just a bit too slow.
Regardless, the primary advantage of using a Media Center Extender is that it takes the PC out of the living room and puts it into the home office where it belongs, and where it can more easily be used as a typical PC, for office productivity and online work and game playing. I've experienced no performance-related issues using the PC in this fashion.
Of course, there are other issues. The Media Center PC is a PC, after all, and it sometimes needs to be rebooted when an application is installed or updated.
Overall, Microsoft has done a nice job of providing the Media Center experience in the living room given the constraints of the system's PC and home networking requirements. Yes, there is a bit of technical know-how involved, especially if you want HDTV recording capabilities. And yes, these setups can get quite expensive. But for all its warts, Media Center remains the premier PC-based DVR system around, and the Media Center Extender functionality in Windows Vista makes it even more useful.