With the introduction of Windows Vista, Microsoft hopes to get consumers one step closer to having a dedicated "family room" PC. Included in nearly all versions of Vista is Windows Media Center, a sort of multimedia portal that can access and play all kinds of digital media stored on a computer. Perhaps what's most attractive about the software is the built-in network streaming capabilities that allow you to stream that media to compatible Media Center Extenders (MCE) as Microsoft likes to call them. That includes photos, audio, and video--as well as live and recorded TV (if you've got a TV tuner card in the source PC.)
The current batch of extenders comes from the usual list of networking and PC luminaries, including D-Link, Hewlett-Packard, and Linksys. But the 800-pound gorilla in the space is Microsoft itself: its Xbox 360 game consoles all double as a Media Center Extender, too.
Linksys offers two versions--the DMA2100 and the DMA2200 reviewed here. With the exception that the DMA2200 includes a built-in DVD player, they're effectively identical. In our testing, we had varied success while using the DMA2200. But we're beginning to think that's more a reflection of the increasingly bloated Media Center experience (as dictated by Microsoft). Unfortunately, the Linksys boxes offer no network streaming capabilities outside of its MCE functions. By comparison, the Xbox, D-Link DSM-750, and HP MediaSmart Connect x280n can all stream media outside of the Media Center "ecosystem," so they offer a degree of flexibility not found on the Linksys.
At 5 inches tall by 9 inches wide by 13 inches long, the Linksys DMA2200 is longer than it is wide--sort of a stretched-out DVD player. The front includes the disc tray, LCD readout, and some basic controls. The rear is bristling with three Wi-Fi antennas, an Ethernet jack, plus all of the AV connections. In that regard, you'll find everything you'd expect on a new DVD or Blu-ray player: composite, S-Video, component and HDMI video connections, along with analog stereo and digital coaxial and optical connections for audio.
The DMA2200's disc player plays CDs and DVDs, and upscales the DVDs to HD-friendly 720p, 1080i, and 1080p resolutions. The advantage here is that you can get rid of the DVD player that's already underneath your TV, saving on space, cable clutter, and TV inputs.
Setting up the DMA2200 was relatively easy. After navigating through the device's setup screens, we were able to connect to our 802.11n wireless network. The 2200 prefers N-networks in order to stream HD content more easily. The setup screen will display an eight-digit number that you'll need for your computer setup, so we moved to our Vista PC where we added an extender in Media Center. Once we launched the program, Media Center instantly detected the 2200 on the network and then automatically began handshaking with the device. After entering our eight-digit code, our extender was officially connected. You may need to reconnect the 2200 with your Vista PC in between sessions, as ours became unrecognizable to Media Center various times.
Even though both devices are connected to an N-network, we immediately noticed a definitive lag in navigating through the Media Center on the 2200. A hard-wired connection seemed to slightly improve the stutter, but nowhere to the point that we'd recommend switching over. Overall, we had a really frustrating time trying to search through our digital media and selecting files to play. If something was playing in the background, with the Media Center menu on overlay, the experience drew close to a crawl.
Chugging interface aside, the 2200 lets you stream picture, audio, and video files along with watching and recording live TV (to be used in conjunction with a PC TV tuner). You can also hook into specific Internet plug-ins that reach out to the Internet for additional content. In terms of local multimedia on our network, most of the MPEG-1, MPEG-2, and WMV videos we streamed performed well. We were most impressed with the picture quality of movie files encoded with the H.264 codec. While the 2200 claims to have compatibility with XviD and DivX encoded movie files, we found that only about 50 percent of the samples tested actually streamed over. We should also note that none of the problem files had issues playing on our Media Center PC.
Unfortunately, some of the high-res media that we were able to stream over to the 2200 did not play flawlessly, with hiccups occurring almost every 10 seconds or so. The low-res movie samples we tried however played with no interference. We got the same results after using the network tuner to improve quality settings, and we fell into the "good for HD streaming" category when we measured our network connection.
Since you can only control the 2200 with the included remote control, we were a bit disappointed when it proved tedious to use. The buttons are confusingly laid out and some of them aren't even labeled.
The picture quality of the DVD player was good, performing on par with most players you'd find in a home-theater-in-a-box. Unfortunately, you cannot play anything other than DVDs and CDs in the player. Any recordable data discs with multimedia files on them will not play.
The main competitor to the Linksys DMA2200 is the Xbox 360, which also has a built-in DVD player. Media Center features are identical, but the 360's interface is smoother (thanks to its extra graphical horsepower). The 360 can also play a huge library of games, as well as access media over the network (via PC streaming) and off a USB drive or CD/DVD. That said, the 360 lacks the Linksys's built-in wireless networking, it's got a ridiculously bulky power supply, and it's often as noisy as a jet engine. (The Linksys is basically silent.)
While the DMA2200 originally listed for $350, it can now be found for less than $130 online (closer to $100 for the DMA2100). And that's pretty much the saving grace here. As it's now available at a bargain price, the Linksys is a worthwhile alternative to both to the cheapest Xbox 360 (for non-gamers, at least) and the HP MediaSmart Connect x280n. But given its limited Media Center-only compatibility, only hard-core and tech-savvy digital media fans with the latest Windows Vista hardware should even consider taking the plunge.