Until the Echo hit the street, the Xbox 360 was pretty much the only Windows Media Center Extender still on the market. Companies such as D-Link and Linksys discontinued their extenders years ago—probably because they couldn’t compete with the subsidized price of Microsoft’s gaming console.
You’re looking at the best Windows Media Center Extender we’ve tested.
In case you’ve forgotten what a Windows Media Center Extender is, here’s a quick refresher: Plug one of these networked devices into your TV, pair it with a Windows computer on the same network, and the Windows Media Center user interface from that PC—along with all the movies, photos, and music that PC can access—will stream though the extender to the TV.
If the paired PC is outfitted with a TV tuner, you can also stream live TV. We tested the Echo with an over-the-air USB ATSC tuner (AVerMedia’s model H826SK) connected to an outdoor antenna and got great results. If you subscribe to cable TV and equip your Media Center PC with a CableCARD tuner (from Ceton or any other manufacturer), you can stream any channel you subscribe to, including premium channels such as HBO and Showtime (but not on-demand programming). On top of that, you can record live TV onto the PC’s hard drive, much like a TiVo or other brand of DVR that you might rent from your cable company.
The Echo sells for $180—about the same street price as a 4GB Xbox 360. But being about the size of a paperback book, the Echo is a fraction of the Xbox 360’s bulk, and Ceton claims that it draws about 90 percent less power.
The Echo connects to your TV via HDMI, and it draws power from a supplied USB power adapter. It requires a hardwired Ethernet connection, and the company recommends that the host PC also be hardwired to your network. If you don’t have CAT5 cable in your walls, the company recommends deploying either a powerline or MoCA (Multimedia over Coax) network.
The Echo user experience is pretty much identical to using a DVR, with a couple of exceptions: Ceton’s remote control is craptastically generic. More importantly, you can fast-forward and rewind recorded TV; but unlike a DVR, you can’t rewind live TV unless you’re also recording it. You can cure the first problem by purchasing Ceton’s Companion app for Android or iOS devices ($5 each) to turn your phone or tablet into a remote.
As with those “whole-home DVR” systems you see advertised on TV, you can pause playback on the TV that’s connected to your PC in one room, go to a TV connected to an Echo in another room, and pick up where you left off. Up to five Echo devices can be linked to a single PC running Windows Media Center, and if that PC is equipped with multiple tuners, each Echo can tune to a different channel.
If you want to stream Internet video and media stored on your network, something like Western Digital’s WDTV Live is a better choice; out of the box, the Echo supports only the media formats that Windows Media Center supports. That list includes codecs such as MPEG-2, H.264, and MP3, but not container formats such as MKV or lossless audio codecs such as FLAC. If you want to tune into and record cable or broadcast TV, and you don’t care about Xbox games, the Echo is the way to go.