Sign Up Now: In his Fast Forward weekly e-letter, Personal tech editor Rob Pegoraro keeps you posted on the latest gear and gadgets (Delivered every Monday).
By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, December 14, 2003; Page F01
Sending a song or a photo around the world can take just a few clicks and a few seconds, but if you merely want to send the same MP3 or JPEG file to the stereo or television in your living room, forget it.
Anything more sophisticated than running cables from the computer to the stereo, clicking a "play" button and scurrying back to the sofa won't work. Receivers, TVs and their remotes don't speak any dialect of computer, and a lot of computers lack the proper A/V jacks anyway.
Somebody has to solve this problem soon, though. Between digital cameras, jukebox software and online music sites, the computer is steadily elbowing aside the CD rack and the photo album as the place where your music and pictures reside -- while the computer, as a device made for solitary use, isn't getting any better at entertaining entire families.
I recently tried three solutions. One, Gateway's 610XL Media Center PC, simply moves the computer to the living room; the other two, Gateway's Connected DVD Player and the Roku HD1000 set-top box, use wireless networking to play a computer's music and photos in the living room.
The $2,000 Gateway 610XL could easily be mistaken for the 17-inch LCD it's built around. Its components are hidden inside and behind that wide-format screen to minimize its bulk, and its wireless keyboard, mouse and remote control do not drape any cables across a table or carpet.
It runs Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 software, which offers a large-type interface for playing music, viewing photos, and watching and recording TV from the nearest recliner. This updated version restores some of the features the first release left out in an effort to simplify things; it can now accompany songs with on-screen visualizations, play FM and some online radio, do basic touch-ups of photos and display laughably condensed news summaries.
Alas, those upgrades don't make the Media Center much more pleasant to use. It still took too long to configure for my cable box, and its TV picture looked washed out. The only Web radio stations you can tune in with the remote are those presented in a selective, non-searchable list.
Furthermore, the 610's hardware and software showed the industry's usual carelessness: obsolete or crippled software (shouldn't $2,000 buy you the full version of a program?), an unmarked cover hiding its memory-card slots, a sleep mode that stopped working after I used the system-restore DVD to bring the computer back to its original state.
Gateway's Connected DVD Player (Courtesy Gateway)
Even a perfectly configured machine, however, wouldn't fix the basic flaw of the Media Center concept: Nobody wants to squint to read e-mail from 10 feet away, yet Media Center units cost too much as a second computer.
As the next two solutions I tested show, there's a better way to do this: Cheap, fast wireless networking, which already links computers in many homes, can also be used to share a computer's digital-media collection with a home theater. All that needs to happen is for somebody to build the right kind of WiFi receiver that can plug into a TV or stereo.