Windows Media Center Extender Follow-Up

It’s been over a month since I brought a Linksys-branded Windows Media Center Extender into my home. How is it holding up? Is it cutting the mustard? Was it worth the price? Maybe, but only if you bought it on sale.

Well, it’s been over a month since I set up my new Windows Media Center Extender, so now I can talk about how it works over the long term.

Keeping in mind that I bought my extender on sale for a measly $99, and that normal models can go for a lot more (I’ve seen models in stores with HDD-based DVR-capabilities running upwards of almost $500), I can’t say that I’m disappointed with it… but I can’t exactly say I’m pleased with it, either.

That’s not to say I have buyer’s remorse or anything, though. I like having it – it is handy to be able to pull up some music while I’m cleaning, for example, or to sit down and watch some movies I’ve got on my computer out in the living room (on the big – well, bigger screen) – but I guess the bottom line with Windows Media Center Extenders is that they are “not bad, but not perfect.

For example, it goes without saying that music purchased from iTunes isn’t going to play via a Media Center Extender (unless it’s the DRM-free kind). The Linksys extender comes with a software program to “import” your iTunes playlists into Media Center, which it does… but as for playing iTunes music, well, it sort of “hacks” it. The software uses a feature of many sound cards which is often called “what you hear” – basically, it’s a way of recording exactly what is playing through your sound card (without using a loopback cable or anything). And, yeah, it works… but while it’s working, your computer is playing music too!

What the software does is when you choose an iTunes DRM-protected song from the Media Center Extender, it opens up iTunes on your computer and starts playing the song – using the “what you hear” recorder to effectively “re-record” or “transcode” the music and stream it back out to the extender. As I said, it’s a bit of a hack. (And it’s kind of annoying if someone is using the computer while the extender is in use, too.)

iTunes aside, there are also a few other niggling issues which make the experience of the Media Center Extender “just OK” rather than “really nice.”

  • It’s slow – dog slow. The UI feels like it’s made of cold molasses.
  • It doesn’t play nearly as many video formats as your computer can.
  • Managing playlists (for music) is more than a bit of a pain in the neck – sometimes playlists that you can see on your computer in Media Center don’t show up on the Extender until much, much later (as in, the next day).

Now, I know there are very valid technical reasons for some of these things – the slow UI comes from the fact that it’s sort of a hybrid of a remote desktop client, and although it’s slow, it’s at least bearable. The video format problem comes from the fact that video is not streamed in raw format across the network (it’d take up too much bandwidth, I suppose), but instead the video file is streamed, and then decoded on the extender device itself (and since the extender doesn’t have a very powerful CPU, it doesn’t have the muscle for certain video formats/codecs).

The playlist thing I really don’t understand – I know that there’s a “Media Center Maintenance” task that runs every night, and after that runs my playlists will show up on the extender – but I don’t know why that is. It’s incredibly frustrating sometimes – I’ll make a new playlist on my computer (where the UI is faster), but it won’t show up on my extender right away.

As for the video format limits – there are ways around that, of course, but they are all generally video versions of the same method used by the iTunes software – something called “transcoding.” Basically, when you choose to play a file, your computer will transform it from whatever format it’s in to a format that the extender can understand – on the fly, as you’re playing it. Sounds like it’d work pretty well, if your computer has a bit of CPU power to spare (re-encoding video on-the-fly is very CPU intensive). Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. I’ve tried several methods to do it, and they’ve all failed, horribly. Some people claim to have much better luck with it – I guess I’m just not one of those people.

In the end, I just seem to come back to my original conclusion – Windows Media Center Extenders are “just OK” or “not bad.” They certainly do what they are supposed to… if slowly and within some rather draconian technical limitations. You’d think with competition from things like Apple’s Mac TV thing that Media Center Extenders would raise the bar or something – but sadly they do not. (And if you own a Media Center Extender, stay away from anyone with an Apple computer hooked up to their TV – you’ll become insanely jealous. As always, the Mac does things so much better, cleaner, and more elegantly.)

So if you can get a good price on an extender (as I did), and you want that kind of functionality (and you’re a Windows household, of course), I’d say go for it. It won’t be great, but you’ll still be able to do things you couldn’t before. But if you paid a lot of money for an extender… well, you have my sympathy.

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.

Latest Camera Gear Addition

The latest addition to my camera gear collection has finally arrived – a circular polarizing filter! Yay!

camera with polarizing filter

And here it is, in all its glory.

camera with polarizing filter (side)

Almost makes my little (well, medium-sized) camera look like one of those big honkin’ DSLR cameras! Maybe now I can get the “big lens” effect – where people just “assume” you’re important if you have a big camera and lens (the same way people don’t question you in certain situations if you’re carrying a clipboard – you can imagine several others).

camera with 58mm circular polarizer

Here it is – a 58mm circular polarizer, mounted to the end of my Canon Conversion Lens Adapter.

I knew from the beginning that my Canon PowerShot S3 IS had the ability to add accessories like this via the adapter, and that was one of the main reasons I bought it instead of a “real” DSLR (the other reason was price – at the time, there was still a big difference between the S3 and the lowest-end DSLR). Now, I know it’s always going to be a compromise with this camera – after all, I can’t actually change the lens itself; I can only “add on” to it – but hey, we all gotta make some compromises, right? (Unless you’re rich and have an unlimited budge for photography, in which case why are you here?)

canon powershot s3 is with polarizing filter

I must say, I’m looking forward to trying it out! I especially can’t wait to try it on water… or, since it’s winter, some nice snow shots. Should be fun!!

New Toys Coming Soon

For those that are keeping track, we’re coming up on my 30th birthday this November – a momentus occasion, apparently. And because of that, it seems as though some fun new toys may be coming my way. I’ll give you a hint: the terms aperture, focal length, and alt-azimuth mount have been thrown around.

In case that wasn’t enough of a hint, I’ll just tell you – I’m getting a telescope, as well as some fun new attachments (filters, lens adapters) for my camera. Specifically, the telescope I’m getting is a Meade ETX-80-TC, and for my camera I’m finally getting an adapter to let me mount any standard 58 mm camera attachment. Some of the other things I’ll finally be getting include a polarizing filter and some of those fun ND grad filters I’ve heard so much about. I may even figure out a way to use my camera with the telescope… but we’ll see.

I’ve had a wish-list of accessories for my digital camera for quite a while – so I knew what sort of stuff I wanted for that.

As for the telescope, that was more recent – born from my recent capture of Jupiter on film, my photos of the lunar eclipse, as well as from a long history of being interested in astronomy from a very young age. I’ve never owned a really “good” telescope – and certainly never one with a proper mount – so I’ve been very limited in what I could see.

When I started thinking about a telescope, I really didn’t know much about the topic – and once it was seriously suggested as a gift for my 30th birthday, I found out how little I really did know!

Being the geek I am, I just had to learn everything about the topic (how else could I make an informed choice?), and thus I spent hours and hours on Wikipedia and other sites learning about focal lengths, apertures, telescope designs, eyepieces, the limits of magnification, and so forth. It might sound funny, but it really is a lot of fun to learn about something truly new!

(Oh, and in case anyone is wondering why I chose the ETX-80 instead of one of it’s bigger – and more sophisticated – brothers, such as the ETX-90, it basically boils down to two things: portability and price. I wanted a portable scope, and for my budget, the ETX-80 was the better buy – especially when you consider the ever-important factor of “leaving room for accessories,” like additional eyepieces, rechargable batteries, and so on.)

So, in short, the next few months should be rather interesting! Stay tuned!