Putting Home Theater In Every Room

Microsoft's offering has many limits, but they may be fixed soon

You have a fancy home-entertainment system that can record and play TV programs, DVDs, show digital photos, and tap into your collection of digital music. If, however, you want to enjoy all this anywhere other than the room where the system is set up, you're out of luck. Now, Microsoft (MSFT ) has unveiled a solution -- though it has some major limitations.

The offering is a black box called the Media Center Extender, which will work with any PC running the newest version of Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (Oct. 18). You attach the Extender, available initially from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) and Linksys for about $300, to a TV set anywhere in your home and connect it to the Media Center PC over your home network. Seated in front of that television, you can now use a remote control to access all the entertainment functions of the Media Center: recorded TV shows, DVDs, photos, music -- and of course, live television. If the Media Center has two or more TV tuners in it, you can watch one recorded show from your remote location while recording a second program. It's like getting a second TiVo but with more features and no monthly fee.

Setting up the Extender is a snap. You connect it to a TV, hook it up to your network, and turn it on. The box will find the Media Center PC on the network and generate a code, which you copy down and enter into the Media Center software. Once this is done, you see the same screens you would see on the Media Center PC and control the functions with the same kind of remote. About the only thing you can't do is record a DVD or physically swap disks in and out. And unlike the wireless networked audio receivers I reviewed in this column a while back (July 26), the extender installs easily on a secure wireless network. (For an update on audio players, see "Unlocking Your Digital-Music Library").

IT SEEMS JUST ABOUT PERFECT, but there's a problem, and it's the wireless network. Video requires moving a mighty stream of data, and the slightest glitches cause screen freezes. Microsoft's solution is a high-speed form of Wi-Fi wireless called 802.11a, which is immune to interference from cordless phones and microwave ovens. Fortunately, adding this capacity to a home network is simple. An access point or router that adds 802.11a to the more familiar "b" and "g" forms of Wi-Fi costs less than $150 and takes no more than 30 minutes to install. I suggest you follow Microsoft's advice and confine your Web surfing and other PC-related traffic to your existing Wi-Fi channel, reserving 802.11a for the Media Center Extender.

This will not work for everyone, however. In many homes one access point is not going to provide coverage to every room with a TV. As a rule of thumb, if the signal has to travel through more than three walls, or two walls and a floor, it probably won't be fast enough. But there's no way to find out for sure until you bring an Extender home, plug it in, and see if it passes its network speed test. If it doesn't pass, the options aren't great. There are "range extenders" for 802.11g but not for 802.11a. To complicate matters, for best results you want a wired connection between the Media Center and the access point. I've given up at home and installed Ethernet cables between rooms.

There are also content limitations. Extenders can't show high-definition TV. And some premium cable shows, notably on HBO (TWX ), won't play because of copy-protection measures. Microsoft expects to have a downloadable software fix for this in November.

Despite its flaws, the Media Center Extender is a breakthrough product. At least for those who can meet its tough bandwidth requirements, it really does deliver on the much-promised convergence of entertainment and computing. And as home networks get better and easier, Media Center and the Extender will become an attractive option for more and more consumers.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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