Boost a Mobile Hotspot Signal, Extend Windows Media Center to Other TVs

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Reader Lois just moved to an area of California where there's no cable or DSL Internet service available. (Hard to believe, right?) She considered satellite service, but learned that those options are "slow and expensive." Cleverly, she's trying a Verizon MiFi mobile hotspot--a great solution, but it's also proving to be slow. (Lois notes that she gets only two bars on her call phone, so obviously she's in an area with poor cell-tower coverage.) Ultimately, she's "tired of paying for [a] less than quality product."

My mother-in-law is in a very similar situation: no cable or DSL where she lives, and she recently deployed a Verizon MiFi card. Although the signal strength isn't great, she's finding it good enough (and definitely better than the dial-up she was using previously).

So what's the answer for Lois, or anyone else using a MiFi or similar aircard for home Internet? I recommend trying a signal booster, most notably the Wi-Ex zBoost YX545 SOHO or YX540 Metro. They're expensive ($399 and $299, respectively), but based on the reviews and anecdotal evidence I've seen, they work.

These gizmos are basically large (relatively speaking) antennas you mount outdoors, then wire to an indoor receiver. They're designed to improve all kinds of cellular signals, meaning they should help with your cell phones as well.

If you're looking for something a little more affordable, I've heard that the Wilson Electronics Sleek (a universal cell-phone booster designed for cars) can help with the MiFi--though only the 3G versions. I've seen it selling online for around $90--but make sure you buy the optional AC adapter as well so you can use it indoors.

Obviously I can't say for sure that either product will help with your situation--there are just too many variables--so make absolutely sure the store you buy from offers a money-back guarantee.

The Best Way to Extend Your Media Center to Another TV

I've got a pretty cherry Windows Media Center setup in my living room: slimline HP system that fits neatly in the entertainment center, Ceton InfiniTV 4 CableCard tuner, and some decent speakers. I've been a mostly happy camper with it. (I'll explain the "mostly" part in a future post.) If only I could access all this media goodness from one of the other TVs in my house.

I can, thanks to one of WMC's most often overlooked features: extenders. Back in the day, a number of third-party products (remember the D-Link MediaLounge and Linksys DMA2200?) vied for the title of ultimate extender, but in many cases they were overpriced and underwhelming. Today, there's really only one extender left--but it's pretty awesome.

I'm talking, of course, about the Xbox 360. Microsoft's mega-popular game console doubles as a Windows Media Center extender, allowing you to watch live and recorded shows, movies, photos, and the like on another TV in another room. There's no special software to install, just a quick, one-time setup procedure to link Xbox and media center. (This requires a home network, natch. Wi-Fi will work, especially if it's the 802.11n variety, but Ethernet is better.) And WMC supports up to five extenders, so you can share the love all over the house.

I recently replaced an ancient 360 with one of the new Xbox Slim models. The latter is not only more compact, but also much, much quieter, making it an even better choice for extender duty. As an added bonus, you can rent or purchase movies and TV shows, something you actually can't do with Windows Media Center itself. (Alas, there's no way to stream content in the other direction; if you rent a show on your Xbox, you can't view it on your media center PC.)

I hate to sound like I'm shilling for Microsoft, but the bottom line is that if you want to access your media center from another TV, you need an Xbox 360. And the new models (which have built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi) are especially good for that purpose. Oh, I hear they're not bad for games, either

Bonus Tip: My Channel Logos 2 Makes WMC Even Better

A little over a year ago I told you about My Channel Logos, a free Windows Media Center plug-in that adds slick-looking channel logos to the TV guide. My Channel Logos 2 is now available, and it's better than ever. It's no longer free, but it's totally worth it.

In case you're not familiar with the program, here's what it does for your WMC guide:

Nice, right? The software auto-populates the guide for you, meaning you don't have to do any manual labor finding and matching the right logos with the right channels.

Version 2 adds some pretty slick new features. For starters, you can now modify the "logo cell" (the area that contains the channel logo) to your liking: adjust the width, restore channel callsigns, center the logos, and so on.

I especially like the option of adding extra rows to the guide--up to 11 altogether. That means you can view a lot more TV listings per page--great if you have a big TV.

My Channel Logos used to be donationware, but the developer decided to start charging for it--understandable given the time and effort involved in a project like this. The price? A whopping $3.40. (You can always donate more if you want; I did.) That is totally worth it for one of the best Windows Media Center add-ons ever.

If you've got a hassle that needs solving, send it my way. I can't promise a response, but I'll definitely read every e-mail I get--and do my best to address at least some of them in the PCWorld Hassle-Free PC blog . My 411: . You can also sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week .

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