Linksys DMA2200 Media Center Extender
At a Glance
Linksys by Cisco Linksys Media Center Extender DMA2200
Well-built extender has draft-n Wi-Fi, but its interface can be lethargic and its remote is awful.
I like the concept of Microsoft's Windows Media Center. It presents many forms of media, such as downloadable movies and TV shows, news and entertainment clips, live and recorded TV content, and your own audio, video, and photos. It even does all that in one interface that you can navigate on your TV set--but only if you keep your Media Center PC in the same room as your TV. Enter third-party Media Center Extenders, devices that link to your TV via a standard connection and use your wireless network to deliver your Media Center content to your TV. Unfortunately, after trying a second-generation extender, the Linksys Media Center Extender DMA2200, I'm starting to lose enthusiasm for the concept.
If any device ought to be able to do Media Center right, it's the DMA2200. This $300 device has draft-802.11n Wi-Fi with three wireless antennas, so it ought to have enough bandwidth to stream HDTV programming effortlessly. It has an HDMI port, and it can send 1080p video to your TV. On the back are a few other high-quality connections, including component and optical audio outputs. An upconverting DVD player is built in, too (another Linksys product, the DMA2100, omits the DVD player and costs $50 less). As a result, the DMA2200 performs much better than previous Media Center Extenders did, but I still ran into hassles that stem from its being a PC-centric product.
After I connected the DMA2200 to a TV in my bedroom, I used its on-screen interface to link it to my wireless network. I then generated an access code to connect it to a PC running Windows Vista Home Premium. To do so, you must enter the code on the host PC (I wrote it down on a piece of paper and walked down the hall to the PC). The Media Center setup changed its firewall settings automatically, and in a minute or so it was ready to go. However, the DMA2200 lost its association with the PC a few times--once after I changed routers (not unreasonable), but also twice after I had shut off the extender. I had to reassociate the device each time. To make matters worse, on each occasion the PC failed to recognize the extender until I had rebooted the extender and generated a new code.
I tried the extender with a Linksys 802.11g router and a new Linksys WRT310N draft-802.11n router. Though Media Center's built-in network utility indicated that the 11g connection had sufficient bandwidth to stream HD content, the Media Center interface on the extender-connected TV was lethargic. Of course, the device is designed to take advantage of more bandwidth; with the 11n router, the interface became much snappier. But when I tried to do two things at once with it--say, watch an Internet TV program in a window while browsing upcoming TV listings--it bogged down again. The WRT310N is a single-band 11n router that costs about $130; Microsoft recommends a dual-band 11n router (such as Linksys's $250 WRT600N), which should perform better because it doesn't have as many interference problems as a single-band router may encounter. That said, the only other device on my network at the time was an inactive TiVo, so there shouldn't have been much of a problem in the first place.
The horrid remote control that ships with the DMA2200 doesn't help matters. It has lots of minuscule, cheap buttons--some of which aren't labeled, many of which are in odd locations, and the tiniest of which are hard to press reliably. None of them are backlit, so using the remote in dim light is difficult. The Media Center interface is entirely remote-driven, of course, so the remote's crappiness significantly detracts from the experience of using the product.
I was impressed with the video quality of TV programs, though. On the best quality setting, live TV looked a little grainy, but it wasn't bad. Playback never stopped, and I also don't remember seeing any jitter, except at the beginning of playback.
If some company were to make an extender that's capable of a reliable, don't-have-to-think-about-it connection, came with a high-quality remote control, and had an interface I could navigate as quickly and smoothly as I can, say, a cable-TV box's interface, I'd be interested. The DMA2200 provides a better Media Center experience than previous devices did, but based on my experience with it, I'd say those wish-list items are still a long way off.
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