At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2004 (see my review) in January 2004, Microsoft unveiled its plans for TV set top box devices, called Media Center Extenders (codenamed Bobsled), that would let users remotely access Media Center content from any TV in their home using a wired or wireless connection. The idea, I thought, was a good one: Though Windows XP Media Center was a fantastic product, it still required an expensive and potentially unreliable PC, which is not exactly the kind of device one should put in their living room next to the big screen TV. Plus, Media Center Extenders, which would be made by a host of Microsoft's hardware partners, would solve other problems caused by moving a PC from the home office to the living room. "It is thin; it is completely silent," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said of the device. "There is no fan."

Why bother with Media Center Extender?

My respect for the hard work that's gone into Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) cannot be denied. Though it is an imperfect beast, XP MCE has completely changed the way my family watches TV, thanks to its amazing DVR (digital video recording; sometimes called personal video recording, or PVR) functionality. (For more information about the steadily evolution of XP MCE, please refer to my exhaustive reviews of the first three generations of this product, XP Media Center Edition, XP Media Center Edition 2004, and, most recently, XP Media Center Edition 2005.) My young children--now ages 6 and 3--know nothing of commercials, and never ask for every silly little toy or sugary foodstuff that bombards children in other homes. No one in my family needs to be in front of the TV at a particular time on a particular day, as our favorite shows are automatically recorded, and queued up for whatever free time we may have. Best of all, we can enjoy stunning photo slideshows, accompanied by our favorite music, using the biggest TV set in the house. All of our digital photos and home movies, and several thousand digital songs, are on the Media Center PC, waiting for the next family event or other get-together.

And yet. Through three generations of XP MCE, one thing has never changed. As excellent as the interface is, as amazing as the experiences can be, there's just something unusual about sticking a tower PC in your living room. It's a little loud with fans and whirring hard drives. It's got all kinds of blinking lights. And every once in a while, the XP interface--which requires a mouse and keyboard--gets in the way, poking out from behind the wonderful Media Center sheen, and requiring someone to get up and hunt around the back of the TV for the mouse so they can dismiss a dialog or answer a query.

Media Center Extenders promise to end all that. These fan-less, disk-less and silent hardware devices are designed to sit in your living room, bedroom, or play room as a proxy for the Media Center PC, which is returned back to the home office where it belongs. "Once you've got a Media Center PC, you can extend that out to other TVs with Media Center Extenders," Microsoft General Manager Dave Fester said during an August Reviewers Workshop. "That's the ability to take the Media Center experience and extend it out to a small device that sits next to you television. You turn it on, and it goes and finds the Media Center PC, and just remotes that experience. You can put a Media Center Extender in a kid's room if you want, in the family room, and in your own bedroom. And you can have different experiences on each one of those, if you want to, all powered by that single Media Center PC." You can connect up to five Media Center Extenders to any one Media Center PC, and I've been testing two here at home since the spring.

Then, in September, I did the unthinkable: I removed the HP Media Center PC from our main TV in the living room and replaced it with an HP Media Center Extender device, which is now networked to a new Alienware Media Center PC back in my home office (that PC, in turn, is connected to my cable signal through an HDTV cable receiver). The results were obvious: First, a calming silence entered the room. Then, thanks to the high performance video output of the device (and the new and improved video capture on the new Media Center PC [see my XP MCE 2005 review for details]), I've gotten my TV back: The picture is bright and clear and new-looking. Most channels, be they HDTV, digital cable, or standard analog, look wonderful again. It's literally been like getting a new TV.

My family--particularly my wife--isn't all that interested in the technology behind this stuff. They tend to just notice it when it doesn't work. But in the case of the new Media Center Extender, everyone--even my three year old daughter, for crying out loud--not only noticed the vastly improved picture quality, but talked it up in excited terms: "Maisy" and "Dora the Explorer" never looked so good, she said (well, in her own way). It's a revolution of sight and sound. And when you combine this capability with the fact that people will be able to buy cheap (i.e. ~$500) Media Center PCs through systems builders now, Media Center is quite obviously a dramatic step up over competing DVR solutions like TiVo that require subscription fees and have limited PC connectivity. It's no contest.

Media Center Extender hardware

I mentioned that I have two Media Center Extenders here in my home. One is an early pre-production unit from original device maker (ODM) Wistron (Figure): I use this device on the 27" CRT television in the master bedroom, and it's connected to the Media Center PC wirelessly (I've tested both 802.11g and 802.11a, which I'll describe more in the next section). The second Extender is a production HP model (Figure) that's connected to the 48" rear projection TV in the living room. The HP is more of a traditional set-top box, with a wide pizza box-style case that, frankly, is basically just full of empty space (Figure), but fits more cleanly into a rack of stereo equipment than the smaller devices.

Both devices feature an excellent selection of ports, connections, and other hardware, including wireless (802.11a/g) and wired networking, composite (RCA-style) audio and video, S-Video, component video, optical S/PDIF audio, and two USB ports (Figure). You interact with the device using the same type of remote control that you use with a Media Center PC; over the past several years, I've compiled a small collection of these remotes, some of which you can see here.

Using the Media Center Extender

Interacting with a Media Center Extender is almost identical to interacting with a Media Center PC in Media Center mode, so I won't belabor the obvious. The devices take a few seconds to connect to the PC (Figure)--a bit longer on wireless--and then display the standard Media Center 2005 interface (Figure), complete with topic-specific fly-outs (Figure) and most of the choices you get with the Full Meal Deal. Graphically, the Extender interface is cleaner and of higher resolution than the interface used by Portable Media Centers (see my review), but not as clean or animated as that of XP MCE 2005 (see my review). Also, a few choices are missing in action, like the Play DVD option and numerous sub-topics that wouldn't make sense on the remote device. For example, you can't acquire photos or burn a CD or DVD from the Extender, which makes sense, since the device is designed to be used in a completely different room than the PC.

Even with its more limited Windows CE .NET-based underpinnings, the Extender accurately displays much of the Media Center experience. When you pause a video or live or recorded TV, the overlay (Figure) is almost identical to that you get in Media Center. And during photo slideshows, you get that same beautiful song information overlay (Figure) that I've grown used to in XP MCE 2005. However, photo slideshows don't animate or offer transitions, as they do on XP MCE 2005, and my entire family misses those effects. On the other hand, I'm told that a future firmware upgrade will enable the Extender's photo slideshow effects to duplicate the way XP MCE 2005 works. We can't wait.

One other odd limitation for the short term is that the first generation Extender devices won't be able to display live or recorded TV shows that are protected by the new broadcast flag copyright protection technology. As of this writing, only HBO and Cinemax are using this technology, but other stations are likely to join them soon. What this means is that you'll see an error message about protected content if you attempt to view such a show on an Extender. Microsoft tells met that a late November 2004 firmware upgrade for the Extenders will fix this problem, however, so hang tight. And note that shows that are recorded with broadcast flag enabled can still be viewed on the Media Center PC that originally recorded the show, though you can't (and never will be able to) view those shows on a different machine, like a laptop or Portable Media Center.

Given the bandwidth requirements of transmitting high resolution video over a network, you might assume that networking is a bit of an issue with these devices. Well, you're right. Networking is an issue. To get the absolute best results with an Extender, you will need to connect it to your Media Center PC via a wired 100 Mbps or better Ethernet network. If this isn't possible, you can still use either 802.11a or the more common 802.11g wireless networking solutions. In my testing this year, 802.11a was far more reliable than 802.11g, largely because 802.11a generates less interference and results in a cleaner signal than 802.11g.

If you must go wireless, my advice is simple: Use 802.11a and purchase a dedicated 802.11a access point that you will use only for the Media Center Extender(s). That way, your Extender traffic won't contend with your other normal home network traffic. Regardless, I've had sporadic network congestion errors with all networking types, which results in an unwanted warning and, if you're really unlucky, a disconnection from the Media Center PC. If that latter happens, the Extender will automatically reconnect, in a process that mimics the experience of first turning on the device.

I don't get enough network congestion issues with the final HP box to be concerned, but it does happen occasionally. Clearly, the faster the network, the better.

Software interface

Media Center Extenders required a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. On the Media Center PC, you interact with your Media Center Extenders using two software programs, the Media Center Extender Manager and the Media Center Extender Network Performance Tuner. The Media Center Extender Manager (Figure) aggregates your connected devices, lets you add, remove, and update (Figure) Extenders, and perform other configuration duties. For example, you can get information about a particular Extender, and determine whether it uses an automatically or manually assigned IP address (Figure). The Media Center Extender Setup application (Figure), which is available via the Media Center Extender Manager, helps you configure general Extender settings (on a per-Extender basis), such as which folders the Extender can browse for content and whether to enable error reporting.

The Network Performance Tuner (Figure) can determine if there are any bandwidth issues between your Media Center PC and Extender, and make suggestions about ways to improve performance.

What's missing?

Though my experience with the Media Center Extenders this year has been overwhelmingly positive, there are a few things I'd like to see improved. First, and most obviously, how about a dedicated DVD drive? The HP unit, in particular, has so much empty space inside that it's a crime not to offer customers a way to play back DVD movies locally. That would remove the need to add yet another box to your TV and stereo and reduce the complexity of the cabling and connections you need to make.

Second, there's also room (and need) for a 9-in-1 media reader that could be use to view photos stored on the portable memory cards that are commonly used with digital cameras. While you couldn't use method to copy the photos to your PC, it'd be nice to have a way to just view them, similar to the way Microsoft's old TV Photo Viewer used to work.

If the first generation Extenders take off the way I expect them to, these features are likely candidates for later revisions.

But another pretty obvious thing that's missing is a software version of the Media Center Extender. For example, wouldn't it be nice to play back Media Center content on a laptop or PC elsewhere in the house? Well, it turns out that Microsoft is working on that too. Codenamed Softsled, the software version of a Media Center Extender is currently under development. It won't ship any time soon, but it is happening.

Pricing and availability

Media Center Extenders should be available from a variety of PC makers and networking hardware makers over the next few months. Most units seem to be priced in the $250 range, which is only a bit higher than I'd like to see. It seems like $200 is the sweet spot for this kind of product. In November, Microsoft will ship a software kit that turns your Xbox video game system into a Media Center Extender. I'll review that product (codenamed XSled) separately when it becomes available, but my understanding is that it will cost about $100. "Xbox is very pervasive in living rooms right now," Fester said, "and it tends to be connected to the bigger screens in people's homes."

Also, it's worth noting that Microsoft understand that the version 1 product is likely to be of most interest to enthusiasts and will only eek into the mainstream over time, as Media Center PCs become more pervasive. "We don't think of this as a super high volume product quite yet," said Joe Belfiore, the General Manager of the Windows eHome Division "The price points are a little higher than we'd like, but we think those will come down as time goes on. We think a lot of the Extender devices will be bundled with home networking gear."

Conclusions

Combined with a Media Center PC, a Media Center Extender is an excellent solution for enjoying your digital media content from anywhere in the house, especially if you can connect the two via wired networking. Aside from a few small omissions, like non-animated photo slideshows, the Media Center Extender faithfully renders the Windows XP Media Center 2005 user interface through a device that is smaller, quieter, and much less complicated than a typical PC, making it an excellent solution for bedrooms, living rooms, and play rooms. In my own home, the Media Center Extender, combined with a Media Center PC in our house office, has transformed way my family watches TV and enjoys music, digital photos, and home movies. This may be the first time that a major technological change in our home has had such a positive effect on my family. I am amazed by this accomplishment.