I sometimes wonder about what might have been. For example, back in 2001, Microsoft decided to tackle the living room with a product that would one day be called Media Center. The company eventually whittled the potential strategies for this market down to two product types: It could build an Xbox-like standalone set-top box or it could make a software solution and build Media Center off of Windows. Obviously, the company chose the latter, and it did so for what seem like good reasons (leveraging the power and extensibility of Windows, and so on). But ... what if? What if Microsoft had made a device instead?

We'll never really know how that might have worked, though the Apple TV, spiritually, is pretty close to what I imagine Microsoft might have made. Instead, because Microsoft chose the PC route, it relegated Media Center to also-ran status. PCs, as I noted in part one of this series, are too complex and unreliable for the living room. Microsoft, to be fair, realized this early on. Its solution to this problem is the so-called Media Center Extender (MCX), or Extender for short.

First-generation Extenders work only with XP-based versions of Media Center, and of the few dedicated Extenders that did ship previously, none can be upgraded for Vista compatibility. (The Xbox 360 is unique in that its Extender functionality can work with either XP or Vista.) Further confusing matters, with the exception of the Xbox 360, there were no Vista-compatible Extenders on the market for the first year and a half of that OS' lifetime. That's pretty pathetic, especially when you consider that Microsoft showed off a slew of Vista-compatible Extenders way back in January 2007 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

In any event, we finally do have a number of Vista-Extenders to choose from, and I've had four dedicated hardware Extenders come through my home over the past several months. In this third part of the review, I'd like to focus on three of them: The Linksys DMA-2100 and DMA-2200, and the D-Link DSM-750. These machines share similar performance characteristics and two of them, functionally, are almost identical. They are all, notably, completely silent.

Linksys DMA-2100

The Linksys DMA-2100 (and seriously, who names these devices?) was the first Vista-based dedicated Extender to come by the Thurrott household. It was an uneasy relationship from the beginning. The initial machine I received was basically dead on arrival, necessitating a replacement. I won't hold that against Linksys as it was a prerelease model, and I mention it only because my subsequent experiences with a shipping version were almost as bad.

The DMA-2100 is a small and silent device, which I like. However, the performance of this device is poor enough that I cannot really recommend it. Button presses on the remote are often met by a noticeable pause. And when playing back content, especially video content, you'll see some serious issues arise. Remember that Extenders need to stream content from a PC over your home network, preferably using wired Ethernet or 802.11n wireless networking. I'm all about Ethernet when it comes to streaming media, but the Linksys just can't keep up. It's a non-starter.

On the good news front, H.264 video content works just fine, even those files with an iPod-friendly m4v extension.

Here's how it shakes down.

Network connectivity. Excellent. The Linksys supports all modern wireless standards (including 802.11n) and wired Ethernet. For wireless, you'll need to deal with two huge antennas, which could limit its placement possibilities, depending on the cabinet type you're using.

AV connectivity. Excellent. Like all Vista-era Extenders, the Linksys includes HDMI output, but it does not include an HDMI cable. It supports all the standard HD and standard definition outputs you'd expect.

Visual fidelity. Good. Visual fidelity of content is first rate via HDMI and component HD. However, the setup screens and some Media Center screens are somewhat soft and fuzzy. And when playing back photo slideshows, there are no transitions (or transition options) at all: New pictures just pop onto the screen and they don't animate or move in any way. Blech.

Performance. Poor. Boot time is instantaneous, but it's all downhill after that. Remote responsiveness is barely acceptable, worse so during video (and especially HD video) playback. Ditto for loading a screen full of media folders. It's just slow.

Expandability. Poor. The Linksys is not expandable in any way. Annoyingly, there is a USB port, but it doesn't do anything. (The Linksys documentation notes that it's for "service purposes only.")

Extras. The included remote is unexceptional and clearly a low-end unit.

Price: $250. This is actually pretty reasonable given the cost of an Xbox 360 Core System.

Rating:

If you're looking for a bare-bones Extender, the Linksys DMA-2100 fits the bill. But you can (and should) do better.

Linksys DMA-2200 Media Center Extender with DVD

Technically identical to the DMA-2100 with the addition of a DVD drive, a slightly larger form factor, and three (rather than two) wireless antennas, the Linksys DMA-2200 unsurprisingly doesn't offer any Extender-based improvements over its little brother. The most obvious difference is the start-up screen, from which you can choose between Disc Playback (DVD) and Windows Media Center. Also, there are three DVD-related buttons--Eject, Play/Pause, and Stop--on the front of the unit. That's about it.

As with the DMA-2100, H.264 video content works just fine, even those files with an iPod-friendly m4v extension.

Network connectivity. Excellent. The Linksys supports all modern wireless standards (including 802.11n) and wired Ethernet. For wireless, you'll need to deal with three huge antennas, which could limit its placement possibilities, depending on the cabinet type you're using.

AV connectivity. Excellent. Like all Vista-era Extenders, the Linksys includes HDMI output, but it does not include an HDMI cable. It supports all the standard HD and standard definition outputs you'd expect.

Visual fidelity. Good. Visual fidelity of content is first rate via HDMI and component HD. However, the setup screens and some Media Center screens are somewhat soft and fuzzy. And when playing back photo slideshows, there are no transitions (or transition options) at all: New pictures just pop onto the screen and they don't animate or move in any way. DVD visual quality is good-to-excellent. Linksys says the DVD player will upconvert, but I've seen many messages about the player lowering the quality of "copyrighted content." That's all DVDs, isn't it?

Performance. Poor. Boot time is instantaneous, but it's all downhill after that. Remote responsiveness is barely acceptable, worse so during video (and especially HD video) playback. Ditto for loading a screen full of media folders. It's just slow. DVD performance is acceptable and about on par with a standalone DVD player.

Expandability. Poor. This device is not expandable in any way. Annoyingly, there is a USB port, but it doesn't do anything. (The Linksys documentation notes that it's for "service purposes only.")

Extras. The included remote is unexceptional and clearly a low-end unit. (It's the same remote supplied with the DMA-2100.) The DMA-2200 does feature a standalone DVD player, which is a nice touch, as you can replace an existing device in your set-up and not just add a new one.

Price: $350. Given the differences between this and the DMA-2100, I feel that the DMA-2200 would be more fairly priced at around $300. Note, however, that you can purchase this device at Amazon.com right now for about $245.

Rating:

The DMA-2200 is pretty much a DVD player and a bare-bones Extender in a single box. It's the only Extender that offers both features, curiously.

D-Link MediaLounge DSM-750

The D-Link MediaLounge DSM-750 is the spiritual successor to D-Link's first generation Media Center Extender (see my review) and it uses the same pizza-box form factor, albeit now in a more pleasant black color. A few new features differentiate the DSM-750 from its predecessor and from the competition here: First, there is a USB port, conveniently located on the front of the unit, to which you can attach USB storage and then play back whatever content is contained therein. Second, the D-Link includes a Windows Media Connect-based interface so you can access any media stored on PCs (and home servers) on your home network.

So that's good, but the D-Link lets us down by providing a childish and simplistic interface for both of these features, called USB Direct and MyMedia, respectively. Navigation is ponderous, thanks to simple screens with just a few huge and ugly icons. Performance over the network is laughably bad.

Once you get the unexciting extras out of the way, the Media Center Extender experience is very similar to that of the Linksys units. Performance is on the low-end of acceptable, there are no transitions or animations on photo slideshows, and so on.

Here's what you get:

Network connectivity. Excellent. The D-Link supports all modern wireless standards (including 802.11n) and wired Ethernet. Like the Linksys DMA-2200, the D-Link includes three wireless antennas, which is great for reception but could limit its placement possibilities, depending on the cabinet type you're using. I had a curious number of networking configuration

AV connectivity. Excellent. As with the Linksys devices, you get HDMI output as well as component and composite. All of the standard HD and standard definition outputs you'd expect are included.

Visual fidelity. Pretty good. I'm not sure how or why this would be possible, but visual fidelity was actually a bit grainier and lower-quality than was the case with the Linksys devices. I actually twice checked that it wasn't down-rezing to 480i just in case.

Performance. Poor. The Medialounge alarmingly has a lengthy boot-up time, like a PC, of up to one minute, which is an eon to wait when you've sat down to enjoy some video content on your TV. The Extender UI is about as slow as that of the Linksys models, and it wouldn't surprise me to discover that they share the same underlying platform.

Expandability. Good. While I appreciate the USB Direct and My Media functionality, the interface provided for both is so poor as to be unusable.

Extras. A front-mounted USB port gives access to the unit's USB Direct functionality. The interface, alas, is primitive and slow-performing. The D-Link also includes My Media functionality whereby you can access media on PC-based media servers over your home network. This uses the same primitive interface as the USB Direct feature.

Price: $250

Rating:

The D-Link is a surprisingly woeful entry. Its expandability is notable, but so lacking as to be pointless. What you're left with is a sub-par Extender experience. Avoid it.

Final thoughts

With these first three dedicated Extenders, some common complaints emerge. Performance is poor to barely acceptable, and I haven't seen remote lag like this since the first time I hot-wired my cable box with a first-generation Media Center "IR blaster." Extras are negligible. With the exception of the Linksys DMA-2200, which includes a decent DVD player, the other two units either include no extras at all or, in the case of the D-Link, include extras that are so useless you should simply ignore them. Any of the devices, however, will provide the basic Extender experience, and if you're actually looking for such a thing, I guess I'd recommend the Linksys DMA-2200 as the best of this bunch. But there are better Extenders out there. And in the next part of this review, which I will post soon, you'll find out what a first class Extender experience can be like.