Trying out a Windows Media Center Extender

I found a good deal on a Linksys DMA2200 Media Center Extender, and so I bought it. Here’s my thoughts on it after setting it up!

I’ve kind of been interested in the whole “Media Center Extender” idea, ever since XP Media Center Edition came out oh so long ago. The idea of being able to play the music, movies, and pictures on my computer way over in the livingroom was really interesting to me – it’s such a logical idea, once you think about it.

Sadly, however, during the days of Windows XP’s Media Center’s life, the number of Extenders was very small – and those that existed were rather expensive. And the whole “play movies from the computer on the TV” idea, although cool, was never a necessity – so it was never “in the budget,” so to speak.

When Vista came out, there were a whole slew of new Windows Media Center Extenders – because, of course, the interface between them had changed. So, in a way, I was glad I hadn’t bought an extender yet!

On the other hand, the new Extenders were rather advanced – and likewise, rather pricey. As in $300+ pricey. So my hopes seemed dashed yet again.

However, just about a week and a half ago, Dell had a one-day sale on a particular Extender model for just $99 – what a steal! So, I bought it – and it just arrived yesterday. So now it’s time to talk about it!

dma2200The Extender I bought is a Linksys DMA2200. Interestingly, this particular model also includes a DVD player – a good idea in theory (one less device to clutter up the space around your TV), but usless to me, since half my  DVD collection comes from Amanda – and is thus Australian – and is thus Region 4 coded – which means I need a region-free DVD player. So, I won’t be replacing my existing DVD player with this Extender, but I guess it’s kind of a cool feature to have.

Setting the thing up is as simple as could be. Just choose how (component, S-Video, HDMI, etc.) and turn it on. Then, follow a few steps (like choosing what video output you’re using, and what kind of network you have) and it gives you a number. Go to your computer and type in the number when prompted by Windows Media Center and you’re done.

Well, sort of.

I had originally thought that an Extender was basically a fancy “Remote Desktop” client, and that it simply used the Windows Remote Desktop protocol to “log on” to the host Media Center computer – using the same interface as on the host computer, just “streamed” across the network to the device, which displayed it on the TV. Sort of like using your TV as a second monitor, as it were.

As it turns out, this is not entirely the case. When you add an Extender to Media Center, it adds a new user account for the extender, and the Extender uses this account to connect to your computer and read the media. But, because it’s a separate user account, it seems to have to read the media independently of what you may have already set up in Media Center yourself. And when you first turn on the device and see the Media Center screen – get ready to wait a while. Because the device has to “scan” or “find” your media.

At first, I thought it wasn’t working, because I didn’t see my media, but then I let it do it’s thing (took a while, but I’ve got LOTS of stuff), and it showed up. So, it was a little different than I expected, but once you let it find your media, you’re pretty much set.

As for using the Extender itself – well, it’s exactly like using Media Center on the host computer, only slower.

I had read reviews about this particular Extender – some positive, some rather negative – but really, aside from the slight sluggishness it’s not bad. And you’d have to expect the sluggishness – this is, after all, a tiny little device, not a full-fledged computer.

Furthermore, you really shouldn’t be playing with the interface much at all – generally, I expect the way these were meant to be used was for you to just browse to music, put some music on, and then play a picture slideshow of some sort – or maybe just go in and start watching a movie. Generally, you wouldn’t be spending a lot of time in the UI, so the slowness isn’t a huge issue.

My pictures show up just fine – can’t complain about that. And my music library is all in there, too. There’s even an app that came with the device (on a CD of course) that tries to import your iTunes library into Media Center so it can be viewed with the extender – very cool. Of course, for iTunes music that’s protected with DRM, you’ll need a sound card that is capable of doing loopback recording – which mine was not, so although my iTunes music shows up in Media Center, only unprotected songs can be played. Oh well, at least it tried!

Videos are a bit more problematic, mostly because the Extender doesn’t just play anything that can be played by the host computer – it has its own codecs that it supports. So I guess that means that the video files are streamed to the device, which then decodes and plays them – rather than the host computer doing the decoding and just streaming the decoded output video to the Extender, as I had originally thought.

So if you have lots of movies with oddball codecs (or even some rather common codecs, like DivX), you won’t be able to play these on the Extender – which is, admittedly, rather annoying. But enough of my library does play that I’m not troubled – and I know for the future what codecs to use if I am making a video and want to make sure it can play on the Extender.

So all in all, I’m quite happy with the little device. It’s remote control is awful, but all Media Center remotes are interchangable, so I can use the one that I have for my PC in it’s place if I prefer.

Time, of course, will tell how well this little device sits with me in the long run, but for now, I’m quite happy with it. I just hope that when Windows 7 comes out, it doesn’t break backwards compatibility with existing Extenders!

UPDATE: My follow-up article after over a month of living with this device is available here.

Author: Keith

A geek, programmer, amateur photographer, anime fan and crazy rabbit person.

8 thoughts on “Trying out a Windows Media Center Extender”

  1. I got the same extender a few weeks back during the same $99 deal. I managed to get a lot of my media to play by installing the transcode360 for vista. You have to wait about 10 seconds for the video to play but it is well worth it as most of my videos now play.

    The remote is awful. I purchased a couple of the HP mediasmart connect remotes because they got such rave reviews but they don’t work with the linksys box. Oh well, back to ebay they go.

  2. Was wondering about Media Center and my home setup…. I can’t find this answer anywhere. Can I connect my two coax lines from DirecTV dish to a Media Center PC? I can’t find anyone to tell me of DirecTV and Microsoft media center are compatible and, if so, how compatible.

    Help?

    Gene

  3. Well Gene, I’ll see what I can do to answer your question:

    If your Media Center PC has a TV tuner card in it (in other words, if it has the necessary input on the back to screw a coax cable into), then it is no different from a regular TV in what you can hook up to it.

    In other words, if you could connect your coax lines from the DirectTV dish into a regular TV and have it work, then it’ll work with your Media Center PC as well. (I presume you need a converter box in there somewhere, but I’m a little fuzzy on how DirectTV is set up exactly on the inside.)

    If you were asking if you can connect the coax cable direct from your satellite dish into a Media Center PC, then the answer to that is no. But if you’ve got a converter box from DirectTV, then you can connect the coax cable from that converter box directly into your Media Center PC no problem – but I do believe you’ll still need to use the converter box to change channels (you won’t be able to do it with the Media Center’s controls – the same thing applies to people using cable TV as well, although most TV tuner cards can decode a few “normal” or “analog” channels – typically from 2 to about 60-ish; anything beyond that and you need your cable company’s converter box).

    I hope that answers your questions – and if you have other questions about Windows Media Center, check out a website called The Green Button, which I’ve looked through in the past to find answers to questions, and you may find it useful as well.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Thanks, i got the same deal and overall i was reasonably satisfied… until i visited my “apple friend”. We spent last weekend with them and seeing apple TV play Pandora, display lots of podcasts and be seemless with itunes did make me envy the tool.
    I have tried the pandora imports for MCE but I am struggling (both via RSS feed and the popular Netherlands commands. Is there a way to basically browse websites through MCE?
    Also, can you explain a bit more about the way to play non MS format video through the DMA2200. I tried the “ipodifier” and it seems to be over my head.
    many thanks for your informative blog.

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