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Microsoft gives Media Center Extender another try

The concept hasn't proved all that popular thus far, but Microsoft says another crop of devices should hit this holiday season.

Microsoft plans another go at the media center extender concept, but it's unclear whether the new features will be enough to lure more buyers than it did with the first go-around a few years back.

As in the past, the devices are designed to connect to a TV in one room to access music, photos and video from a computer in another room. It's the same idea as the Apple TV, which even Steve Jobs says is more a "hobby" for Apple than a real business.

A real question exists as to how many buyers are interested in these products. Microsoft notes that it has shipped more than 60 million copies of Windows Vista with media center abilities--that is Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows Vista Ultimate. But, of those, how many are actually being used as media centers, storing the kinds of video and TV shows that would make one want one of these extenders?

More importantly, for those that want this feature, Microsoft already builds it into every Xbox 360, meaning that for as little as $279, you get a full fledged game console that can also download and store movies and TV shows, something these new extenders can't do (The $279 console doesn't have a hard drive, but the $349 version includes a hard drive). Also, the Xbox can serve as an extender for Windows Vista or Windows XP machines, while the new devices work only with Vista.

That said, the new devices, which will come from D-Link, Linksys, NiveusMedia and others, have a couple of features not found in the Xbox incarnation--Wireless 'N' and support for the DivX media format. Plus, Microsoft says, their sleeker and quieter than the Xbox.

Microsoft is promising the devices will be "low-cost," but isn't offering pricing details. More details on the devices, the first of which are due this holiday season, is expected to be announced at the Digital Life trade show later this month.

Longer term, Microsoft also hopes the extender feature will start getting bundled into other products, such as TVs.

When Microsoft released the first crop of devices back in 2004, they were none too popular. Among those lined up by Microsoft the first time around were Linksys, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

A lot has changed since, argues Hakan Olsson, a senior product planner for Microsoft's eHome group.

"Last time the media center extenders came around, in addition to (the fact that) HD wasn't that prevalent, it was not that common consumers enjoyed video over the internet," he said. "When we launch these extenders, we will also be launching a new feature called Internet TV."

The new Internet TV option is something that is being added, not to the extenders, but to Windows Media Center. Code-named Newport, it adds a selection of Web-based news and entertainment content to the Media Center's remote-controlled interface.