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.