Microsoft's spent millions promoting its Windows XP Media Center edition as the perfect compliment for the home entertainment unit, but there are simpler ways to achieve many of the same effects. From the TV side of things, you could plump for any of a number of hard drive enabled PVRs, including Foxtel's recently launched iQ player. If TV recording isn't what you're after, and your budget is a touch more limited, you could also consider Zensonic's Z400 Media Server, a wired or wireless solution that'll stream audio, video and pictures from any Windows PC.
The main component of the Z400 is a rather nondescript box that connects to your television via either component, composite or S-Video connectors, and then out to your PC via either cabled Ethernet or wirelessly using the 802.11g standard. Realistically, very few people are likely to have their TV and PCs close enough to make wired Ethernet the preferred option, but it's nice enough to have the choice. It's accompanied by a well laid out slender remote that you absolutely must not lose -- because there's no way to otherwise control the Z400 or its accompanying software from the front of the media server box.
The other side of the Z400 is the server software, which at the time of writing only supports Windows based PC systems. Setup of the server software is simple enough, as long as you've got a wired or wireless solution that includes some form of DHCP server; you can't simply use an ad-hoc wireless connection, as the Z400 will also stream Shoutcast radio, and requires net connectivity for any firmware upgrades.
The Z400 server software scans whatever folders and subfolders you point it in the direction of in search of audio files (MP3, WMA, WAV, AIFF, LPCM, MP1, MP2 or OGG), picture files (JPEG, JPEG2000, BMP, GIF, PNG or TIFF) or video (MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4). It won't support every video format out there -- DivX3 most notably -- although you could conceivably recode any video not supported by the unit, or wait for further firmware upgrades. The server software also leaves a drop bin icon floating onscreen which can be used to add files, including shoutcast audio streams, simply by dragging them onto it.
The Z400's main interface is extremely user-friendly, with plenty of clear onscreen instructions, although if you're connecting it wirelessly to a router with any kind of encryption enabled, you'll find it more than a touch chore-some entering encryption keys using only the directional pad on the unit's remote control.
For less intensive applications like audio and picture display, the Z400 performed admirably, with only the slightest lag before launching into file playback. We did hit one minor niggle with the music playback function, however. The Z400 does feature a screensaver to avoid burn-in, but if you're using the music part of the application, the screensaver won't kick in. We did find a workaround for this, as music and internet radio streams will continue to play if you jump into the menu selection screen, but if you take that option, you can't get back to the music playback screen without interrupting playback itself.
One feature we would love to have seen on the Z400 would be the ability to remotely control the playback from the server PC. As it stands, all you can do is stop playback, and that's only by stopping the server itself. If your home is already littered with remote controls, and you're in the habit of losing them, then don't lose this one -- without it, the Z400's just a fancy shiny paperweight.
It's worth keeping in mind that Zensonic has an upgrade for the z400 on the cards, with multi-OS support and the ability to connect USB 2 hard drives. Still, if you want a simple streaming solution that's available well in advance of Microsoft's much-touted Media Center extenders -- and one that's Australian designed to boot -- then the z400 is a solid buy.