A while ago I posted my experience setting up a new HP z540 media center. It is one slick PC, and that was my primary beef with it: it was a PC. HP did a great job of including component, S-Video, optical and digital coax connections. Unfortunately, those connections connect to a PC running Windows, and Windows wasn't really designed with audiophile sound, video and usability in mind. Using the Media Center through a Media Center Extender in my living room is pure delight, however.

Hardware

When I bought the Media Center, I also bought a Media Center Extender. This is a small device that is essentially a thin client. It connects to the Media Center though a souped-up version of remote desktop. This device allows the Media Center to support more than one room of audio and video. In fact, you can hook up five extenders to a single Media Center and have them all doing different things. My goal was to use the media center extender in our living room. Our living room is "low tech by design". As Danna puts it, "I put up with a high tech showcase in our media room. I don't want one in our living room too." After quite a lot of research, a few mistakes, and a few furniture upgrades, I finally got the extender hooked up in the living room. I chose components first for how unobtrusive they were, and second for sound quality. Here are the components I chose:

The result is very nice. The Linn is a fantastic component. It's very low-key and is as solid as a rock. It also has a really open sound. The B&W speakers are great for their size. They're seriously lacking in low end, but unlike other speakers I listened to in this size range they didn't color the sound. Because the Media Center Extender doesn't have a VGA output (it has composite, S-Video and component), I needed a converter for the Sony monitor. ViewSonic's video processor is overkill because it has an integrated TV tuner, but hey, it was a lot cheaper than any other component to VGA conversion solutions I found and does full scaling to the 1024x768 of the panel.

Software

Getting the media center extender up and running was simple. Getting it running the way I wanted was more complex. I have a server in my home and that is where I store all my music. It was fairly simple to change the Media Player settings in Media Center to use a share on my server. Getting these settings changed in the extender took some clever hacking -- the Media Center Extender is a thin client and there is no way to leave the Media Center UI! The extender uses its own account and password, which I don't know, so I can't log in myself and make changes. Instead, I went into the administrative templates on the Media Center PC and configured a logon script to run when any user logged in. The I configured the script to mount the media share on my server.

With my new script I could get the extender to see files on the server, but I couldn't get it to treat those files as the main media library. I spent a little bit of time wading through the registry and created a .reg file containing all of the settings I wanted: media player settings for the default location of files as well as Napster settings for where to store downloaded music. I figured I could just run this reg file as part of my logon script. Alas, for some reason it wouldn't work. I didn't get any error messages, but the registry changes wouldn't stick. However, I found a clever work-around. Because the Media Center allows multiple extenders to connect at the same time, it is possible to fiddle with the registry on the console while a media center extender is logged in. While the extender is logged in, its registry hive is mounted and you can make changes to it. Poof, I got all the settings set into the media center extender without it ever knowing what hit it.

Experience

The extender works great. I can go through my entire library using it. I can go to Napster and listen to radio and download albums. The albums I download appear in my album list. I can watch TV in the living room (which Danna says is against the rules) and I can play slide shows against the pictures I store on the server. Great!

The sound quality is really quite good. I ripped a CD with lossless compression and did heavy comparisons between the real CD and the ripped version both in my media room and in the living room. In the living room I can hear virtually no difference between the original and the CD when played in the Linn. In my media room I find the ripped version to be a little thinner than the original CD. I attribute this to the audio electronics in the Media Center because I hear the same difference when I play the CD in the media center vs my Rotel CD player. The same issues probably exist in the living room but the FPM2 speakers are too small to reveal them. So, this setup isn't a replacement for audiophile grade components, but for all but the most discerning listening sessions it works fine.

I think the most incredible thing about the Media Center Extender is how much it gives you. I have all these rich features in my living room. In my media room these features require an entire rack of AV equipment. In my living room I need the extender and an amplifier. While I am using a wired ethernet tap, remember that the extender comes with 802.11g wireless built-in, so I can get these rich features virtually anywhere in the house. That can be huge! Think of places in your home where you would like to have music available: a workshop, workout room, kitchen, etc. As long as the room offers an AC outlet, you can connect an extender and have the entire Media Center experience.

Wishlist

Of course, nothing is perfect, and the Media Center Extender is no exception. First, I'd like the extender to be able to take the PC out of standby remotely, so I don't have to keep the Media Center turned on all the time. The Media Center already supports wake-up on LAN, so this should be possible.

Next, I'd like to see some better software from MSN Music and Napster. Napster's software is very buggy, doesn't blend well with the UI model of the Media Center and isn't terribly user friendly. MSN Music looks a lot better. Unfortunately to use it I have to install additional software, which MSN Music doesn't integrate into the Media Center UI. As a result, the software cannot be installed through the extender, and even on the main PC console I have to whip out the keyboard. There are parts of MSN Music which don't require their download manager, but I cannot get them to work on the extender either. They may work on the main console, but as this was my first introduction to MSN Music I have little incentive to fiddle with it to make it work.

I'd also like to see the extender support the same rich transitions and fades that the Media Center does. I heard a rumor this may eventually be supported.

Finally, I think it would be great if vendors came out with more form factors for the extender. An under-the cupboard version that folded down for kitchen use would be great, especially if it was coupled with a Media Center based recipe database. A small version with built-in speakers would be great for a garage or spare bedroom. Remember, since these devices can use WiFi they only need an AC outlet.