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Closing Thoughts

Microsoft has spent a lot of time (and advertising dollars) trying to promote the idea of using a PC as the heart of your home entertainment system. PC manufacturers joined the effort too, trying to produce PCs that were stylish and quiet enough to be welcome in your living room.

But in the end, Media Center PCs (except for some homebrew machines) still looked, and more importantly, sounded like PCs and didn't go mainstream. And even though Microsoft managed to "convince" some of its partners to come out with Media Center Extenders, those too were expensive and tended to stay on store shelves.

The other problem was that Microsoft's initial approach required a special "Media Center" version of Windows, which tended to come only on more expensive machines that were, for the most part, not living-room friendly. So a consumer had to ante up big time before they could even see what all this Media Center hubbub was about.

This time around, Microsoft has taken a smarter approach. First, they've included the Media Center functions in the Vista Home Premium version that most consumer PCs ship with. So that lowers the hassle factor considerably by giving more consumers a chance to play with Media Center without having to spend big bucks on a "Media Center" PC.

And second, they've lowered the cost of the Media Center Extender to be more in line with other networked media players. Of course, the fact that many new PCs are powerful dual-core machines with enough power to handle HD processing and the availability of HD USB tuners has helped a bit, too.

But the Media Center extender approach still depends on a PC, even if you don't need or want off-air TV viewing and recording and just want to watch or listen to stored content you already have. And that adds cost, power consumption (my test laptop drew about 55 Watts), noise and heat—all the things I want to avoid.

That being said, although I found a lot of little issues with the 2200, I generally enjoyed using it for its HD TV / PVR support. If I had better off-the-air coverage and a Windows Vista machine in the house, I might even be tempted to drop my monthly subscription to local channels on my satellite system! I also enjoyed playing back the high-definition demo videos that came with it.

But in reality, I don't have any significant HD videos other than promos and demos. There's just not much full-length content available in downloadable form. And my satellite set-top box is just fine for my live TV /PVR needs, with a better user interface than the 2200, too.

So how does the 2200 stack up against my current favorite media player, the Apple TV? Well, an off-the-shelf Apple TV is even more limited than the 2200 as far as supported video formats. So an apples-to-apples comparison (no pun intended) would favor the 2200. And Apple doesn't have a live TV / PVR solution. You'd have to put one together yourself using products like Elgato's EyeTV tuners and software.

But if you're willing to get your hands dirty, a hacked AppleTV will play a wider range of stored material. In my case, it handles nearly everything in my video library: MPEG-4, H.264, XviD, DivX, VOB files, DVD images, etc. And it's done across the network from small, efficient, and quiet NAS devices; no computer involved. I also find that the photo slideshow and music playback features and the user interface on even the stock Apple TV are head-and-shoulders above the Media Center's capabilities.

So it depends on where you're starting from. If you already have a Windows Vista Home Premium (or Ultimate) machine, then a DMA-2200 for around $300 (or a DMA-2100 for around $250) is pretty attractive compared to, say, a Netgear EVA8000 [reviewed] for around $350, which doesn't have dual-band draft 11n wireless and fairly limited Internet content.

But if you don't have a Vista PC in the house and just want to look at your photos or listen to your ripped / downloaded music in the comfort of your living room, then you'll probably want to give the new generation of Windows Media Center Extenders, including the DMA-2200 and 2100, a pass.

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