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Media Center's Clunky Extender

Monday, December 20, 2004;

Your inbox gets a break next week, as this is my last e-letter for 2004. My next one should land in your inboxes on Jan. 3. Between now and then, I plan on shopping, eating, sleeping ... and spending more hours than are healthy on the Jersey Turnpike.

But I'll also spend an hour or so fielding questions in my Web chat today. The last of year, this one will stick to the same topic as my last two chats -- Shopping for technology. Stop by at 2 p.m. ET or submit your questions early.

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Now, About That Media Center...

Two weeks ago, I wrote a rather scathing review of Microsoft's Media Center edition of Windows XP. I was particularly harsh to the Media Center Extender I reviewed, calling this set-top box (it plays back your computer's digital music, photos and videos through your TV and stereo) "a disaster, possibly the worst wireless media receiver I have ever used."

Most of my dissatisfaction came from the fact that this device would not reliably perform even the most basic functions on my WiFi network as it was set up (an Apple AirPort Extreme router upstairs configured to use both current WiFi standards, 802.11b and 802.11g, with Toshiba's Qosmio Media Center laptop connected to that wirelessly). Since many other wireless media receivers have functioned fine under those conditions -- or worse -- I saw no reason to put up with anything less from the Extender.

(See, for instance, my assessments of the Roku SoundBridge, SlimDevices Squeezebox and Apple's AirPort Express.)

Having said that, however, what would it take to get this thing to play ball? First, I connected the Media Center laptop to my WiFi router's Ethernet port. HP's instructions recommended this configuration, but I had held off on that earlier -- my desktop normally takes up that port. This reduced the lag time in issuing commands with the remote by anywhere from a third to half, to the point where it was annoying instead of outright maddening. Audio playback was still prone to interruption, and video playback remained hopeless.

Then I switched the AirPort router to use only the faster 802.11g flavor of WiFi, knocking my work laptop off the network (it only has an 802.11b receiver). The remote-control lag shrank still further, and audio performance improved a bit as well. Recorded TV programs were barely watchable, with consistent soundtrack playback but frequent stutters in the video feed.

My last step was to take every other WiFi device at home off the network, reducing it to the Toshiba laptop and the Media Center Extender, and got the best performance yet. Now I could see why one Microsoft Media Center developer told me that many of his colleagues had set up separate WiFi networks, running on the faster, little-used 802.11a variation of WiFi, for their Media Center Extenders.

The root problem here is Microsoft's decision to build the Extender system on the same software it uses to provide remote access to entire Windows desktops over corporate networks. (In IT-department jargon, the Media Center Extender is a "thin client" or a "dumb terminal," a machine drawing all of its computing power from a central server.) That's grotesque overkill for this job, yielding no benefits to compensate for its complexity and constant bandwidth needs.


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