Microsoft's Digital Entertainment Anywhere campaign--internally known as XP Reloaded (see my Activity Center)--is a stacked deck, full of products that are at or near the pinnacle of their respective categories. There's just one problem, and it's a huge one. While the Digital Entertainment Anywhere campaign is rooted with Windows Media Player 10 (WMP 10, see my review), a free product that all XP users can (and should) download, consumers really won't get the best experience unless they buy into the whole Digital Entertainment Anywhere scheme, and adopt Microsoft technologies across the board. That means getting a Media Center PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (see my review), adopting Windows Media Audio (WMA)-based online music services (like MSN Music, see my preview), using Portable Media Centers (see my review) or WMA-compatible portable audio players on-the-go, and, if you'd like to access Media Center content in other rooms around your home, grabbing a Media Center Extender (see my review) or two.
That isn't to say that Digital Entertainment Anywhere is an all or nothing proposition. It's possible to pick and choose the products you want. For example, though I buy music online through WMP 10, I burn it to CD and then re-rip it to the PC using Apple's iTunes (in MP3 format). And I use an iPod, typically, to listen to music on the road. But most people won't want that kind of complexity, while others will choose less expensive portable player options. The path to least resistance, so to speak, is to go the Microsoft route. It's certainly been a successful formula for company in the PC market. It will be interesting to see how well it fares in consumer electronics.
In any event, embracing Microsoft's vision for digital media nirvana can add up. A decent Media Center PC, like HP's m1000 series, or the Alienware DHS 2, will set typical consumers back $900 to $1500, and you can spend over $2000 on such a machine if you'd like to. Media Center Extenders cost $250 to $300 each, and they're missing some key features, like a DVD player. Portable Media Centers run $500. And let's not forget a Napster To Go subscription: That's another $15 a month. See how it gets expensive quickly?
Fortunately, there are ways to save money. You can build your own Media Center PC on the cheap, and grab the Media Center 2005 software and remote control from a legality-straining shop such as Directron. Depending on how you do it, that might save $500 or so. You can skip the Portable Media Center and get an audio-only device like the excellent Dell Pocket DJ or Rio Carbon. And instead of forking over $15 a month for Napster, you can get busy ripping the CD collection you already own to the PC.
But what about the Extender? If you want to enjoy Media Center content in other rooms, you'll need a home network (wired, preferably) and, yes, a Media Center Extender. That $250 to $300 price is exorbitant, yes, but until recently, it was the only way to go. However, starting in late November, Microsoft started offering a software product for its Xbox that makes the video game console look and act like a Media Center Extender. The best news? It's relatively cheap, at about $80, so if you already have an Xbox, you're saving big bucks. If you don't have an Xbox, it's still relatively cheap: An Xbox costs $150, so when you add the cost of the Extender software, it's still cheaper than a standalone Media Center Extender. And here's one final gimme: That Xbox, unlike a standalone Media Center Extender, will play DVD movies too. It's a no-brainer, right?
In this review, I'll take a look at Microsoft's software-based approach to remoting the Media Center experience and see how it stacks up against standalone Media Center devices. But first, I'll also look back on several months of experience with both kinds of Extenders to see how they fare in the real world. In a way, this is a feature I'd like to add regularly to my reviews: Come back a few months later and see if my level of enthusiasm for a product has waned or remained.
The love and hate of Media Center Extenders
I'm currently running three Media Center Extenders against my Media Center PC, and it's quickly becoming clear that these devices--two are hardware-based, and one is through the Xbox--have filled a not-so-desirable hole in my life. Previous to this setup, I had used the first two versions of Windows XP Media Center, running on a first-generation HP Media Center PC (873n), in my den, directly connected to my family's main TV set. Put simply, we had a love-hate relationship with the box. After experiencing its amazing DVR (digital video recording) and photo slideshow functionality, there was no way my family could go back to "normal" TV. However, the crashes, weird glitches, and poor video quality were aggravating. The box was loud, and its constant fan noise wasn't particularly appealing.
Today, things are different. The Media Center PC is in the home office, where it belongs. And I've got a Media Center Extender on each of our TVs. The hardware-based Extenders are absolutely silent, like any good piece of consumer electronics equipment, because they have no fans. And the Extenders support composite video output, letting my main TV display its most brilliant picture.
But there are problems. Sometimes--often, on the wirelessly-connected Extender--the Extenders drop their connection with the Media Center PC or complain about network congestion, while the video jerks for a while or craps out completely. This kind of unreliability is both bearable and surmountable, but it places my family firmly back in the love-hate category when it comes to dealing with our TV experience once again. Thus, in this way, Microsoft has taketh as well as giveth: XP MCE 2005 is a huge leap over previous versions, in both stability and functionality, and a must-have upgrade for all Media Center users. But (and why does there always have to be a but?) Media Center Extenders are very much 1.0 products. They're not perfect, and they end up partially complicating the success of Media Center 2005.
In addition to the less-than-perfect Media Center Extenders (codenamed Bobsled), which we might think of as "dedicated" Media Center Extenders, because that's all they do, Microsoft has always had plans for other forms of Media Center Extenders. These plans included Extender chipsets that would turn otherwise normal televisions and other devices into Extenders, a software-based Extender for Xbox (codenamed XSled), and a software-based Extender for PCs (codenamed SoftSled). While the former and latter are currently up in the air--no TV-based Extenders have appeared and, according to Microsoft, none are in the works that it is aware of; SoftSled is also an unknown, with some at Microsoft feeling that it's critical, while others think it will impact the business for hardware-based Extenders--XSled arrived in late November without much sound and fury. That's kind of surprising, frankly.
The cute little Xbox Extender packaging (Figure) seems right at home alongside other Xbox accessories, though I have to wonder whether normal people will understand what it does, exactly, and that you must have a new Media Center PC (or an older unit that was upgraded to XP MCE 2005) in order to use it.
Once you get past the box, you're presented with the actual XSled solution. This consists of some hardware, some software, and some paper. The hardware includes a little IR (infra-red) dongle that you plug into one of the Xbox's four controller ports and a remote control (Figure). The dongle is identical to the one that Microsoft supplies in its Xbox DVD Movie Playback Kit; indeed, the version I received includes a label that literally reads "Xbox DVD Movie Playback Kit." So if you have already purchased that Kit, you now have a backup dongle and a second, compatible, remote control.
The XSled remote is the nicest Media Center remote I've seen, and I've seen them all (Here are a few of the other Media Center remotes I have). It's small and attractive looking, with a nicely beveled body and those slightly-sticky and easy-to-find buttons I like. It also includes a dedicated Recorded TV button, which is important to everyone in my family, because that's almost always where we're headed when we sit down in front of the TV. If you want to use your Xbox to watch DVD movies, this remote works well for that purpose as well.
The software includes two disks. One is a DVD that you place in the Xbox in order to make it behave like an Extender. It doesn't load any software directly onto the Xbox hard drive, which is a huge oversight in my opinion, but rather requires you to manually insert the disk every time you want to use the Xbox to watch TV or access your other Media Center functions. The second disk is a PC-based CD-ROM that loads the Extender software onto your Media Center PC. This software, which I discuss briefly in my Media Center Extender review, first lets you link an Extender to a particular Media Center PC (in the same way that you might link a Bluetooth device to a particular Bluetooth-equipped PC), and then provides utilities for managing, updating, and troubleshooting an Extender. The software you get with the Xbox Extender is identical to that which Microsoft's partners ship with dedicated Extenders, so there's no advantage in installing one over the other. If you have already installed a dedicated Extender on your network, you can simply boot up the Xbox with the Extender disk insert and then run the Media Center Extender Manager on your Media Center PC to add that device to the list of connected Extenders.
Surprisingly, Microsoft also ships a decent set of documentation with the Xbox Extender that walks you through the process of setting up the software on both the PC and the Xbox. It also discusses some of the pros and cons of various network connections. For example, a wired Ethernet connection is always best, but if you must use wireless, Microsoft recommends an 802.11a network (which most people don't have). Naturally, it will also work with an 802.11g network, though this type of network has much bigger problems with interference than 802.11a and is, in my experience, almost completely unacceptable (the Xbox Extender will not work over lowly 802.11b connections).
My advice, as is Microsoft's, is that anyone serious about using an Extender (Xbox-based other otherwise) wirelessly should get a dedicated 802.11a access point for that purpose. However, the Media Center PC will still need to be connected to your router using a wired connection, and you can only use one wireless Extender at a time; all other Extenders will need to be wired. Otherwise, your experience will be, as they say, less than desirable.
As for comparing the Xbox Extender to dedicated Extenders, it's a familiar experience (Figure). The Start screen and other UI elements are all identical (Figure), and in day-to-day usage, the Xbox Extender is basically identical to a dedicated Extender. Given the fact that the Xbox also lets you play back DVD movies (not to mention an ever-growing library of impressive video games), you may think that purchasing an Xbox Extender (if you already have an Xbox) or even an Xbox and an Xbox Extender, is a better choice than purchasing a dedicated Extender. Unfortunately, this supposition is incorrect. That's because the Xbox Extender falls down in four critical areas.
The Xbox Extender takes about twice as long as a dedicated Extender to connect to the Media Center PC and then "boot" into the Media Center environment, a period of time that can be measured in several seconds but is nonetheless annoying when you plop down on the couch and want to get started with some serious television browsing. More annoying, however, is that the actual performance of the device is worse as well: As you navigate around the Media Center UI on the Xbox, button clicks are followed by slight pauses before anything happens. The effect is like Media Center in molasses, and that's not a good thing. Dedicated Media Center Extenders just perform better.
Microsoft product Manager Tom Laemmel told me recently that the performance of the Xbox Extender shouldn't be surprising, since it's a software product that's emulating a hardware device. And he's right. But I'm curious why Microsoft didn't take the step of copying the Extender software to the Xbox hard drive during installation. It seems like it would perform a bit better. It would certainly boot up more quickly.
Unlike a dedicated Media Center Extender, the Xbox is not silent. That's because the Xbox is, essentially, a PC that's been shoehorned into a small (well, relatively speaking) case. PCs have fans, and the Xbox fan is, to me, particularly loud. That's because the unit typically sits in your den, and not your home office, where PC fan noise is more common. Consumer electronics devices typically don't make much sound, and they certainly don't have fan noise. The Xbox, however, does. And this is a problem for my sensitive ears. A big problem.
Now, if you already use the Xbox to watch DVD movies, and aren't annoyed by the constant hum of the device's fan, which is most acutely heard during silent or slow passages in movies, than more power to you: The Xbox Extender is no more or less loud than the Xbox is during DVD playback. But if this sound bothers you, the Xbox Extender isn't going to make you very happy either.
Power up and down
Though the Xbox Extender remote control, like other Extender (and Media Center) remote controls, includes a Power button, you cannot use this button to turn on or off the Xbox. Instead, this button can only be used to power off the Xbox Extender software. Once you do so, you'll receive a message explaining that you can now turn off the Xbox manually, or insert another disk. And yes, that means you have to literally walk up to the Xbox and press the power button on the unit with your finger. There is no way to remotely trigger a power on or off. That's ridiculous, sorry. And the first time you're lying in bed after watching a movie until the wee hours of the night, see how excited you are about getting up to turn the darned thing off. Inconceivable.
Remote control incompatibility
As I mentioned previously, the Xbox Extender remote control is the best Media Center remote I've ever seen. Sadly, this benefit is completely tarnished by the fact that it is incompatible with every other Media Center/Media Center Extender remote control on the planet. That's right: It only works with the Xbox. This is a problem only because every other Media Center and Media Center Extender remote is interchangeable. That is, you can use any remote with any Media Center PC or Extender. Except the Xbox.
The key to this incompatibility lies with the use of the dongle from the Xbox DVD Movie Playback Kit. Instead of creating an IR fob that is compatible with Media Center remotes--which would have been more useful--Microsoft chose to reuse an existing part. Which is silly, because there's no benefit to doing so at all. But there are some negative consequences. Let's say you lose or break your Xbox Extender remote. Now what? Your only option is to order the exact part from Microsoft, and hope they're still being made. If it had been a standard Media Center remote, you could have used your existing Media Center remote control (remember, you get one with a Media Center PC), or you could order one of numerous replacements from any source on earth, including PC makers like HP and Dell, direct retailers like Directron, or from Microsoft. Heck, if the remote was compatible, you could choose to use the Media Center PC's remote with the Xbox simply because you liked it better. Now, that's not an option.
The Media Center Extender for Xbox should have been a no-brainer, but it isn't because of some serious design mistakes. If you are looking for a Media Center Extender, but don't own an Xbox, skip out on the Xbox Extender and get a dedicated Media Center Extender: They aren't perfect either, but they are silent, perform better, can be powered up and down via a remote, and include remote controls that are compatible with other Media Center equipment. If you own an Xbox and would like to try out the Xbox Extender software, understand the limitations first. Look over the list of problems above and determine if you can live with them. If you can, the price is right, and the Xbox Extender won't let you down. But for most potential customers, I can only arrive at one possible conclusion: The Xbox Extender is a dog, and you should avoid it.