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Unwire Your Entertainment Center

Dave Salvator

The PC's ability to record, rip, store and manipulate audio and video makes it a great media server. But a server with no clients to talk to will get pretty lonely. Wireless networking lets you place media playback clients almost anywhere in your house, but not everyone wants a PC in their entertainment center.

The good news: Several non-PC media clients have come to market.

The bad news: We're still waiting for the perfect thin media client.

Early efforts have gotten a fair amount right, but with lots of rough edges. For example, very few support video playback, relying solely on audio and still images. Still, there are some interesting options to consider, as well as several DIY possibilities. We'll take you through the upside and downside of each, and help you figure out which one's right for you. Define Your Needs To figure out the right media client for you, first decide what you're going to want this client to do. There are three primary types of media you're going to want to pipe into your entertainment center: still images audio video Can you live with just audio -- or a mix of photographs and audio? Or do you need MPEG, DivX or other video playback as well?

For audio only, there are a variety of choices. For audio and stills there are fewer choices, and if you want video too, your choices become very limited. In fact, there's only one client currently shipping in the US that we'd even consider, and that's the Prismiq media player (more about that in a bit).

New software and 802.11 bridge devices can turn a PlayStation 2 game console into a media player, although the currently-shipping application that does this is also limited.

Quite often, the best solution is to repurpose an old desktop or laptop PC to act as your media client, since a playback-only device requires modest hardware. By adding a wireless network adapter or bridge, you can make that old PC become a very versatile wireless media client. You can also build a new, modestly appointed client PC to fulfill this role, although for a playback-only device, using an older PC is a graceful way to put an aging machine "out to pasture," and you can use the money you saved to upgrade your newer high-performance machines.

Let's explore each of these alternatives in turn, starting with the appliance-based thin media client.

Audio-Only Media Client

Our favorite device for accessing a music collection stored on a PC or other media server, is the AudioTron from Turtle Beach, which has cultivated quite a following since it started shipping several years ago. Today's version is even better than the original, with a number of refinements that make it a solid network audio player.

The AudioTron plays MP3, WMA and Wav-formatted audio files, and its svelte form fits nicely into any A/V component rack. It also acts as an Internet radio receiver, tuning in stations that use either Shoutcast or Windows Media Audio. It includes S/PDIF digital audio output so digital music doesn't hit the analog domain until it travels through your receiver's D/A converters.

AudioTron does show its age in some ways. For starters, although it has a solid web-based management interface where you can tweak its settings, you can only access this via a PC. It lacks a video output to connect to your TV, which means you can only control it via a browser or the 80-character display interface on the unit itself. And that 80-character display isn't legible at a distance, which makes controlling the unit from your couch difficult. Finally, the AudioTron doesn't natively support wireless networking, so you'll need an 802.11g bridge to get it on your wireless network.

AudioTron provides a decent audio-only media client. But the lack of a video output, a TV-friendly UI and built-in wireless networking means the total cost to take the AudioTron wireless will be about $350 (AudioTron, $250, 802.11g wireless bridge, $100). The AudioTron needs a refresh, which takes us to our next option.

Product: AudioTron from Turtle Beach Pro: Mature streaming audio client with a good feature set, including Internet radio. Con: Audio-only; doesn't natively support 802.11; expensive for what it is. Price: $250, check prices

Audio/Still Images Media Client

Although better known for its networking products, Linksys has recently gotten into the media adapter business with its WMA11B audio/still image thin client. The WMA11B immediately addresses two of AudioTron's key shortcomings – it includes a TV-friendly UI that displays on your TV, and it supports 802.11b natively, which means it'll connect to your wireless network easily.

The WMA11B supports MP3 and WMA, along with M3U and ASX playlist formats – which means you can reuse playlists built inside MusicMatch and other PC-based music software. In addition, the WMA11B lets you watch slide-shows of your digital pictures on your TV. It costs less too -- around $160. But unlike the AudioTron, it's not designed to fit into your component rack, but it is small enough to be tucked out of the way.

However, one concern is that the WMA11B is 802.11b, so you can hang it on an 802.11g network, but the presence of the 802.11b client could cause the whole network to slow down to 802.11b speeds when the WMA11B is online and streaming media. An upcoming feature called Packet Bursting will address this issue, and allow 802.11b and 802.11g to interoperate on the same network. But each client type will run at its respective link speed.

The WMA11B lacks video playback support, although Linksys has hinted that such a product is in the works. But if you're primarily interested in listening to music and enjoying your digital pictures in your living room, the WMA11B is a good way to get that done.

Product: Linksys WMA11B Audio/Still Image Thin Client Pro: Good price/performance compared to other currently-available media thin clients. Con: Currently 802.11b, which is compatible with 802.11g networks, but can reduce overall network performance considerably. No video playback features. Price: $160, check prices

If you've got a PlayStation 2, there's an even cheaper option. Mad Catz has just begun shipping the GameShark Media Player, which turns a PS2 into a streaming audio/video client. This is an updated version of the QCast tuner from BroadQ, which provided similar, but limited, functionality.

The Media Player currently supports: MPEG-1, 2 & 4 DivX 3.X, 4.X and 5.X video formats MP3 and OGG audio formats JPEG and PNG digital photography format 16:9 display ratio and progressive scan (480p)output (for HDTV) Priced at $50, the GameShark Media Player is an interesting option, although you'll also need the$40 add-on network adapter for the PS2, and a $100 802.11g wireless bridge to bring it onto your network.

At a total price of $190 ( not including the PS2), this option starts to look less appealing. But if you've already got a PS2, it may be the smart choice. And for HDTV owners, this is the only way, currently, to build a media adapter that supports more than a 480i image.

We're going to shake this software down in the near future to see how it performs. If it knocks our socks off, we'll let you know. But as it stands, given the additional cost, we're reluctant to recommend this option.

Xbox: A SourceForge initiative calling itself the Xbox Media Player (XBMP) Project has created a Linux-based media player that can run on the Xbox, turning the console into a streaming media jukebox/client. XBMP requires a mod'ed Xbox that can boot Linux. Version 2.4 of XBMP supports: AVI, MPEG, unencrypted VOB, WMV, XviD and DivX video formats OGG, WMA, MP3, AC-3 and MPEG-1/2 audio formats JPG, GIF, BMP, PNG, TIFF, TGA & PCX image formats Built-in FTP Server IMDb information (The Internet Movie Database) Internet Radio - Shoutcast/Icecast support (native or streaming via RelaX) File streaming from a PC or Server over a network from a XNS (XStream Server) software File streaming from a PC or Server over a network from Windows SMB (Samba) share/s* While the list of supported features is quite impressive, you'll need to be able to boot Linux on your Xbox. Several web sites have demonstrated how to do this.

According to several industry estimates, Microsoft loses around $150 on every Xbox machine it sells, and so has gone to great lengths to thwart casual Xbox hacking. The barrier to entry here is fairly high, but not insurmountable. If you already have a mod'ed Xbox, or have considered adding Linux to your game console, then XBMP may be a good solution. Your Xbox warranty, though, goes bye-bye once you do this.

Decent thin clients that support video, along with audio and photos, remain in short supply.. We recently looked at Prismiq's media player in our recent media thin-client roundup. We found some rough edges, and its TV-based UI still needs some refinement. But the $250 Linux-based box combines audio playback, photo slideshows , video playback and even a web browser and instant messenger in a single appliance.

In addition, Prismiq has already released several updates to address functionality and usability issues. They're even working with a TiVo-like DVR vendor to add that capability to the box.

The Prismiq supports MPEG-1/2/4 on the video side, and MP3 and Wav formats on the audio side. The lack of WMV and WMA support is annoying, but the supported file formats get the job done. If you're "invested" in WMA – in other words, you've ripped an entire CD collection to the WMA format, the Prismiq is not for you –unless you want to re-rip.

The Prismiq has a PC Card slot on its back panel, and supports 802.11b and 802.11g -- including NetGear's WG511 and D-Link's DWL-650G adapters. This slot-based design should let it support future adapters that bring new features -- including 802.11e (Quality of Service) and 802.11i (enhanced security) – as they become available.

Product: Prismiq Media Client Pro: Most feature-complete thin media client we've seen to date. Good feature set, decent TV-based UI. Linux-based. Supports a good variety of 802.11 CardBus cards. Con: Doesn't yet support WMA/WMV; still has rough some edges. Requires an agent app to be running on another PC. Price: $250 (base unit); wireless network adapter prices vary (802.11g adapters priced around $60.)

Gateway Connected DVD Player

Another interesting client that recently came to market is Gateway's Connected DVD Player, which we recently reviewed. It's a progressive-scan DVD player that has a PC Card slot that accepts an 802.11b adapter – but not 802.11g yet. It plays MP3 and WMA audio, MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 on the video side, along with JPEG still images. The DVD player lacks support for the popular DivX and MPEG-4 formats – although Gateway claims its next round of DVD players will add support for them.

In our review we found that the Connected DVD Player played photos and music well over our 802.11b network. But video performance was spotty, with tremendous artifacting at times, even with MPEG-1 files. And the unit occasionally refused to play files that had worked previously. On one occasion, trying to play back a high-bit-rate file resulted in a complete loss of network connectivity on the server PC, necessitating a reboot.

So while this player gets a lot right, the video playback over 802.11b has some rough edges. Once the player supports an 802.11g card, the video performance may improve, but that remains to be seen.

Product: Gateway Connected DVD Player Pro: A/V component form-factor. Good, but not great file format support. Con: Video performance over 802.11b had some trouble. Requires an agent app to be running on another PC. Price: $250, check prices

As we've seen, each of the thin media clients currently shipping come with their own set of design and cost-cutting trade-offs, and none of them is a 100% solid unit (yet). And until a $300 thin media client can slice, dice and frappé all the desired formats -- and offer an elegant TV-based UI -- you'll have to make compromises with each of these products. This leads us to our next recommendation: using an older PC as your entertainment center's media client.

Using an Older PC

Just about any PC with a CPU clock speed north of 400MHz has enough horsepower to act as a playback-only media client. You can retrofit it with either an 802.11 wireless network adapter, or an 802.11 bridge to get it talking to your wireless network. If it doesn't already have one, you'll also want to add a graphics card that has TV-output, so you can connect your PC to your TV to see what's going on, and skip having a dedicated display for the wireless PC client. Add a TV-friendly UI like MyHTPC, or PC Magazine's Media Center, and you're good to go. Or, if you're not using the WMA or WMV file formats for your media, you can run Linux on this client and use a TV-friendly UI like the one found in Freevo or MythTV.

For all its versatility, there are downsides to using an older PC as your media client. For one, there's the form factor. There may not be a good place in or around your entertainment center to park a mid-tower PC case. Another possible show stopper is the PC fans' noise output. If the older PC has noisy fans, the power-supply and CPU fan upgrades necessary to curb the noise may be too expensive. You can build a new PC with very modest components for a few hundred dollars that will keep things quiet, and still give you all of the PC's versatility.

Build A New One

Here's a possible load-out for a modest media client PC:

Component Choice Price Case Antec Sonata $110 CPU Celeron 1GHz $37 Motherboard Intel 815EPFV $55 Memory 256MB Crucial PC133 SDRAM $40 Graphics Sapphire ATI Radeon 7500 $55 Sound Card Turtle Beach Santa Cruz $50 Networking Linksys WMP54G 802.11g PCI adapter $75 Hard-Drive Western Digital WD600JB $60 CD-ROM Lite-On 52X CD-ROM $30 OS Windows XP Home $100 Remote Control StreamZap $50.00 TOTAL: $662.00

Even with these seemingly dated components, this is plenty of system for a media client box. Granted, it's not as inexpensive as the Prismiq or Linksys offerings, but you're not feature-limited here the way you would be with either of the thin client offerings.

Windows XP Media Center Edition would be an interesting OS alternative, but you can only buy it pre-installed on a pre-built system. Most Media Center PCs, while offering up a good feature set, are too pricey ($1,500 or more) for playback-only. Another option is using a PC based on Via's ITX form factor, but its overall video performance, even as a playback-only device, left us unimpressed. We recently received the OneBox – an all-in-one Via-based system with an interesting set of features -- and will have a review up soon.

When adding a wireless media client to your home network, you need to choose between easy-to-use, but feature-limited thin clients or rolling your own PC. While the latter option involves a bigger time investment and more futzing, you'll ultimately end up with the most capable media client currently available, with plenty of versatility for future formats, upgrades and tweaks.

We cannot wholeheartedly recommend any of the appliance-based media clients today. But given the ongoing development, and the amount of resources and dollars Intel and others are throwing at this product category, we expect to see a sub-$400 thin media client that does it all fairly soon.

Until then, you can always add a wireless media client to your entertainment center without breaking the bank.

Copyright © 2003 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.





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