Sour Notes On PC-Stereo Networking

Good sound, but painfully difficult to set up

I have a lot of digital music stored on a computer upstairs at home. I also have a good stereo system downstairs and a Wi-Fi wireless network. You might think it would be a simple matter to get the music to the stereo over the network. It isn't -- and the reasons help explain why the convergence of computing and consumer entertainment is slow and difficult.

I tried out two players designed to transmit music wirelessly around the home: the Netgear (NTGR ) MP101 Wireless Digital Music Player (around $120) and the Linksys (CSCO ) Wireless-B Music System (about $180). They are similar designs, but the Netgear will work only when plugged into a standard stereo system, while the Linksys can work either that way or with its own powered speakers.

To set either up, you install a small server program on the Windows PC where your music is stored. (Macs are not an option for Netgear or Linksys.) When you connect the player to the wireless network, it locates its server, pulls in music files, and plays them on your stereo. The players have LCD displays that are a bigger version of what you see on an iPod. Using a remote control, you can select music by album, artist, song, genre -- or by any playlist on your PC.

On a good stereo system, audio flaws that are tolerable on a PC's cheap speakers can be glaring. But that wasn't a problem with my music collection, which consists mainly of CDs that I have converted to the MP3 format at high quality. These files sounded nearly as good as the original CDs, although wireless network issues caused an occasional hiccup. The Netgear player can use both standard Wi-Fi and the much faster 802.11g version, which should avoid such problems.

ALL WOULD BE WONDERFUL if it weren't for two huge problems: setup and security. The Netgear system is relatively simple to install if you have never touched the security settings on your Wi-Fi network. But for the many wise users who insist on locking their Wi-Fi networks, getting started will be a lot harder. Depending on your network, you may have to enter your password as a string of 10 or 26 "hexadecimal" digits, a trick known only to programmers. The Linksys player is a pain to set up, regardless of how you manage your Wi-Fi. I was forced to resort frequently to trial and error when the instructions in the "quick start" guide didn't work. Linksys' one advantage: You can wire it temporarily to your PC while you punch in the various settings; Netgear forces you to perform this task with a remote control.

Things get much worse if you run the built-in Windows firewall or a product such as ZoneAlarm (CHKP ) on the PC that acts as the server. The firewall, doing exactly what it is designed to do, blocks requests from the player. Linksys offers the unwise suggestion to disable any firewall on the PC; Netgear gives instructions for setting up common firewalls that are far too complicated for most people to follow. And matters are going to get a lot worse when Microsoft (MSFT ) issues an update to Windows, probably in August. The update automatically turns on a new Windows Connection firewall and complains vigorously if you try to disable it.

There is hope. Two new players -- the Apple (AAPL ) AirPort Express ($129) and the Roku SoundBridge ($225) -- will use an Apple networking technology called Rendezvous that promises simple and secure connections for both Macs and Windows. In the fall, Microsoft's own Media Center Extender should simplify things with a new standard called Universal Plug and Play AV.

Networked entertainment devices could bring huge benefits to consumers and to the computer and consumer-electronics industries. But if manufacturers want to move them beyond the techie fringe, they will have to make setup and security drop-dead simple.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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