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Faster networks, please

You can’t be too rich or too thin, or have a network that’s too fast. I struggled over the weekend trying to tweak the performance of an Xbox 360 connected to a PC running the new Media Center software in Windows Vista. The experience was amazing and frustrating at the same time. Is there a hardware fix waiting in the wings?
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Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor on
You can’t be too rich or too thin, or have a network that’s too fast. I struggled over the weekend trying to tweak the performance of an Xbox 360 connected to a PC running the new Media Center software in Windows Vista. (I’ll have a closer look at Vista Media Center later this week.)

The experience was amazing and frustrating at the same time. Vista Media Center pumps a lot of data over the wire, at true HDTV quality levels. That means even a few small hiccups in network performance can turn into skips in music and pixelated on-screen images. Using the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender, I wasn’t able to get through more than a few minutes of TV without dropouts and glitches.

And this is over a wired network. I pity anyone trying to stream a high-def picture over a wireless connection, especially using an 802.11g connection that’s also trying to serve the rest of the network.

Now, the problem could be on the somewhat tortured network connection between these two devices, with a router, two switches, and several long cable runs to deal with. This could be the incentive I need to reexamine those wiring paths and simplify, simplify, simplify.

A few months back, I tossed away a whole bag full of obsolete network cards, routers, hubs, and other gear. With one exception, every intermediary link in the network chain is now capable of running at Gigabit Ethernet speeds. It’s made a big difference in throughput, but nothing is fast enough.

So I was interested in this morning’s report on Ultrawideband (UWB) technology, prepared by Scottsdale-based market research firm In-Stat. In theory, at least, UWB devices can deliver data at gigabit rates over short distances, which makes them ideal for PC media center applications.

In-Stat says UWB chipsets will first start appearing in wireless USB dongles later this year and will then start to show up as PCMCIA cards on PC motherboards. Eventually, they’ll end up on cell phones and, presumably, iPods and other portable music players.

I can’t wait.

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