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Playing with Windows 7's Slingbox-like feature

With the release candidate of the operating system, Microsoft added an option to stream media over the Internet from a home PC. CNET News' Ina Fried found it useful, albeit with some limitations and caveats.

The Remote Media Streaming feature in Windows 7 lets a user on the go access music, photos and video from their home PC. However, the feature has a variety of constraints and requirements that limit its usefulness, says CNET's Ina Fried Ina Fried/CNET

With many versions of Windows, Microsoft chops features as it gets closer to release.

With Windows 7, Microsoft has actually added a few features as it has gotten closer to launch. One of the most intriguing is a feature that debuted with the most recent release candidate (download) allows a user to stream media from one PC to another over the Internet, a la the Slingbox.

There are some noteworthy limitations. The streaming feature works with unprotected video and music files, so one can't watch video from iTunes or other copy-protected content.

Also the remote media streaming, as the feature is known, requires both computers to be running Windows 7 and requires some setup work. That said, the feature is nice for the scenarios and locations from which it works. It seems particularly well suited to a Netbook or laptop user that wants to listen to some music or view some photos that they don't have on their on-the-go machine.

To get a better sense of the product, I decided to put it through its paces. The feature didn't seem to work when one of the PCs was attached to CNET's corporate network, but worked fine when I went to a coffee house and streamed the media off of a Windows PC at home. (The remote media streaming requires the PC that houses the content to be part of a home network.)

In addition to music and pictures, Windows 7 also supports video streaming, provided the content is unprotected, such as the HD wildlife clip that ships with Windows 7. Ina Fried/CNET

Set-up is not overly complex, but nor is it elegant by any means. To get the PC ready, you have to turn on Internet streaming in Windows Media Player. The other piece is associating both machines with the same Windows Live ID. (The feature may eventually support other ID providers, but for now it's only Windows Live.)

Getting up and running required downloading a Windows Live ID Assistant from the Internet, which sends you to a browser. Again, this wasn't super-technical, but it would have been nice if it did all that without opening a browser and requiring so many clicks.

Once I thought I had everything set up, I decided to put it to the test. Rather than go too far from home, I headed to Nervous Dog Coffee, my favorite spot for getting caffeinated and trying out new technology.

I started with what I thought was the easiest task--opening a photo. The library showed up quickly but opening the photo was slow. Also unexpected was the fact that instead of just opening that photo, it launched a slideshow of the whole folder.

From there I moved on to music, streaming the Indigo Girls album "All that We Let In." It sounded good, with no noticeable skips, although I could only listen in short bursts as I forgot to bring along headphones.

I then moved onto video, playing a built-in HD clip of wildlife footage that came as part of Windows 7. The clip played with its accompanying audio, though the video was a bit jerky in places.

Satisfied with the results, I packed up the PC and headed into the office. Interestingly, the media-sharing feature didn't appear to work on the same PC once I got into the office. I tried labeling my office network as both a home and an office network, but perhaps a network firewall or something got in the way.

TV shows recorded in Windows Media Center can also be streamed, although the quality and performance seemed to vary. Ina Fried/CNET

Once I switched from a hard-wire connection to CNET's public wireless network, I was once again able to see content stored on the computer at home. I was even able to stream a Sesame Street episode that I had set to start recording after I left the house.

The quality of that viewing experience varied dramatically. In the best cases, the TV showed up in a small but passable window, while in a couple cases it was in a tiny window or took an unacceptably long time to buffer.

Microsoft says a variety of factors go into the size and quality of the video stream, including the characteristics of the content, the available bandwidth, and the processing power of the serving computer.

At its best, the ability to watch recorded TV is handy; it's not quite the live TV option that Slingbox provides, but still could be useful for road warriors stuck in an airport or at the hotel. But sometimes the delay was enough to send me over to Hulu for sure.

Overall, I found the media-streaming feature to be a nice addition, but both the limitations and the somewhat complicated set-up leaves me the feeling that it will be the enthusiast rather than the mainstream user that gets around to trying this out.