Next-gen Media Center Extenders to use 802.11n

Michael Brown

Having failed to convince Americans to drag PCs into their living rooms, Microsoft tried a more indirect approach with the Media Center Extender concept. But the only Media Center Extender product to gain any traction was Microsoft’s own Xbox 360—a popular gaming console to be sure, but definitely not a mainstream entertainment system.

Microsoft plans to change all that with its second effort, now dubbed Extenders for Windows Media Center. The company announced the broad outlines of the new architecture earlier this month at CEDIA Expo (a tradeshow targeted at custom home-theater installers). Last night, D-Link, Linksys, and Niveus Media announced new details about upcoming products that will be based on the new platform.

Linksys’ new DMA2200 ($350) looks particularly interesting. It melds a dual-band Wireless N media-streaming device (there’s a 10/100 Ethernet port in back) with an upscaling DVD player. If you don’t need the DVD player, the model DMA2100 will sell for $100 less. D-Link’s new MediaLounge DSM-750 ($350) will have a USB 2.0 port, 10/100 wired Ethernet support, and support for digital surround sound in addition to its 802.11n support.

All three devices will adhere to the IEEE 802.11n Draft 2.0 technology in order to enable wireless streaming of high-definition video. And in order to satisfy Microsoft’s Vista logo requirement, any Extender for Windows Media Center product must support dual-band operation, so that consumers can simultaneously operate 802.11n wireless data networks on the 2.4GHz band, and wireless media networks (for audio and video streaming) on the 5GHz band.

In spite of its unwieldy name, Extender for Windows Media Center products should offer a host of new benefits over the previous technology. Chief among these will be support for the popular DivX, Xvid, MPEG4 and H.264 video formats and the ability to stream protected content from digital cable systems. Streaming content from premium cable channels such as Showtime and HBO, however, will require an OEM computer outfitted with Vista (Premium or Ultimate) and a Digital CableCARD—DIY builders and satellite TV subscribers need not apply.

Consumers will be able to deploy up to five Extender for Windows Media Center devices in their home, bringing music, digital photos, and video—as well as live or pre-recorded TV—simultaneously into five rooms in the home. A “pause” feature will enable a viewer to freeze live TV in one room, move to an extender in another room, and pick up where they left off.

All three vendors expect to ship their new products in November; I’ll secure one or more for a hands-on review in my new home test environment as soon as I can.

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