Microsoft extends the reach of Media Center

More than 70% of Windows Vista copies sold in 2007 were so-called premium editions, which include Media Center capabilities. That's good news for digital media fans, who might not even realize that Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions give them a direct pipeline to stream high-definition digital music, photos, and videos into other rooms with a Media Center Extender. I've got details on a handful of new extender devices introduced at CES.

It's no secret that part of Microsoft's marketing plan for Windows Vista was to push sales of its Home Premium edition, and every bit of market data I've seen says they've been extremely successful in this effort. As of mid-2007, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, more than 70% of Windows Vista sales through OEMs and at retail were premium editions, "driven by the demand for Windows Vista Home Premium."

That's good news for Microsoft, which puts extra dollars in its corporate coffers with every premium edition it sells. But it's also good news for consumers, who might not even realize that Vista Home Premium gives them a direct pipeline to stream digital music, photos, and videos into other rooms with a Media Center Extender. The small extender devices are designed to plug into an HDTV (and, optionally, a surround sound system) with only minimal setup required. All of the devices I've looked at have Wireless N and wired Fast Ethernet support, making them more than capable of handling even demanding HD streams.

At CES, a handful of Microsoft partners have launched so-called v2 extenders, which work with Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions. I've looked at all of the current and soon-to-be-released offerings. Here's a quick overview:

  • Linksys has two models on display. The DMA2100 is the simplest device of all (and also the least expensive). I have two of these running at home, one connected to a surround sound system and 1080i display in the living room, the other connected to a 1080p display in the bedroom. Both are playing back full HD content from a Dell XPS 410 PC in my office with two CableCARD tuners. The combo has been working flawlessly for two weeks now. The DMA2200 is a similar unit that adds a DVD (not HD) drive.
  • D-Link is showing off its DSM-750 MediaLounge device. Paired with a Vista PC, it runs the full Media Center experience at a maximum resolution of 1080i. It also works in conjunction with XP machines to stream digital media via its own MediaLounge interface.
  • HP has the best-looking hardware of the bunch in its MediaSmart Receiver (PDF release), which won't be available until this spring. The shiny black box includes a bay that can hold a Pocket Media drive in 160GB or 250GB sizes. HP's device works as a straight extender but can also connect to XP machines to stream media using a very slick interface that is friendlier and more usable than any media player I've seen before. The same extender technology is incorporated directly into HP's line of MediaSmart TVs as well, including 2007 models that will get an automatic firmware upgrade when the final code is released.

I'll have a direct comparison after I get my hands on review units.

Update 10-Jan: The ZDNet news team helped me put together a video clip showing the HP MediaSmart Receiver in action. You can also see Samsung's entry in the field, which works only with its HD displays and is designed to attach to the back of the set. The unit in this clip is a non-working sample.


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