Mossberg… Media Center Pretty Good

Walt Mossberg has been spending some quality time with the HP z545-b Digital Entertainment Center and it’s Media Extender counterpart and came away reasonably satisfied, but in no way recommending the experience for anyone but techies. It’s too bad that $2,000 of kit still does not make it easy enough to just watch and play with your media. Perhaps 2005 will be the year companies finally get that this stuff has to be simple, and tech transparent.

In general, both worked well. But they also had some drawbacks, and it was impossible to escape two of the worst problems of using a Windows computer — security issues and networking complexities.

And the realities of the Windows security mess can intrude on your entertainment experience. For instance, while I was watching TV, I was repeatedly interrupted by pop-up notices urging me to configure Norton AntiVirus. To do so, I had to exit the Media Center software.

I also tested the $299 Media Center Extender, which uses a wired or wireless home network to stream video and audio from the Media Center PC to a television or stereo system in another room. The basic setup for the extender went well. And music and photos were beamed perfectly over my wireless network, which uses a popular Wi-Fi flavor, called 802.11g. (The extender doesn’t work with the most common flavor of Wi-Fi, called 802.11b.)

But video was a problem. When I tried to watch recorded TV shows on the remote TV, the picture stuttered noticeably, and it was grainy. Microsoft and H-P attributed this to the speed of my network, which was being degraded by other computers doing e-mail and Web browsing.

Microsoft says that, for optimal video streaming, Media Center users should buy and install a separate wireless network based on the less-common 802.11a standard and dedicate it to the Media Center extender connection.

This is likely to add another $100 or so to the cost of the setup. Worse, it will plunge users into the morass of installing another network. The complexity of this task is increased by the fact that the H-P computer doesn’t work with the “a” flavor of Wi-Fi, even though the Extender does. H-P and Microsoft provide instructions on how to do this, but it isn’t simple for nontechies. [WSJ]

I can’t imagine having to install a second network for media sharing and distribution as recommended… I’ve got enough stuff pumping through my multiple routers and switch to drive my wife insane. If I had to add another order of complexity to things I would be asked very quickly to just get rid of it. Designing the product to look like a home component is only part of the equation. It has to work like an appliance – which means to plug it in and go. I realize that is way simpler than will probably be possible in the near-term, but that has to be the goal.

Media Adapter / Servers and their networks need to auto-configure while content needs to be found and easily shared and distributed within your home environment. Oh and the UI has to be simple. It’s great that Windows is beneath Media Center but Keep it hidden!! Make me believe it’s just a media center.

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