Media Mogul: 3 Media Center PC Extenders

When the Windows Media Center (WMC) PC was introduced in 2002, the idea was to create a computer that also recorded TV programs and had a remote control that let you play them - as well as DVDs, slideshows, or ripped CDs - without sitting right in front of it. The specialized operating system, with a deep blue start screen called up by a green Windows button on the remote, offered choices like My TV, My Music, and My Pictures in big letters you could read across the room.

Now that wired (Ethernet) and wireless home networks have taken off, Microsoft wants you to see that blue screen and green button in every room of your home. The company has licensed custom versions of the WMC system for several A/V components that extend the functionality of WMC computers to other rooms. For example, if you have a WMC 2005 Edition PC loaded with music, TV programs, and photos, a WMC extender lets you access them all on a TV and stereo music system in another room through your network. (WMC extenders aren't guaranteed to work with older software, so if your Media Center PC isn't new, ask the manufacturer about upgrading it.)

While media receivers aren't new, the familiar blue start menu and button arrangement on a WMC extender let you operate the PC from a remote location in virtually the same way as if it were in the same room. And a Portable Media Center lets you copy content from the PC through a fast USB connection and play it anywhere - whether on your lap using the built-in screen or on a hotel-room TV. As with home-bound extenders, you manage all your files from the same WMC start screen.

We tested three Media Center Extenders: the Linksys Wireless A/G ($299); Microsoft's own extender for the Xbox ($80, plus a $20 A/V Pack for S-video or high-def connection, and $109 if you want wireless), which can turn your game console into a remote WMC controller; and the iRiver Portable Media Center ($500).

In my three-room setup, the heart of my mini media empire was an HP m1180n Photosmart Media Center PC ($1,500, not including monitor), a 3.4-GHz system running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Though I hooked the PC into an Ethernet jack, I also set up a D-Link Air Premier AG wireless router so I could test the Linksys extender's Wi-Fi capabilities. Both the router and the extender support the new 802.11a standard as well as the older 802.11g.