HP has been creating devices for years to bring Windows Media Center to the living room. There are two new Vista Media Center Extenders being marketed under the “MediaSmart” name that have some very interesting features. The HP MediaSmart Connect is sitting in my living room doing exactly what I was hoping.
The previous living room occupant was HP’s Z558 Digital Entertainment Center, a computer running Windows XP Media Center in a box with a full complement of inputs and outputs for audio and video. It was fairly quirky to set up – getting the display to fill the screen took long experimentation, for example, and it wasn’t very good at finding media stored on a different computer. It worked for several years but it always ran hot, which eventually doomed it – the proprietary video card died once from overheating and was almost impossible to replace, and the fans have lately been getting louder and louder until they became an unbearable distraction.
There are several new Vista Extenders on the market which overlap in their primary purpose, to bring Vista Media Center to the TV from another computer in the home. HP has developed an HD TV with the MediaSmart technology built into the guts of the TV – an interesting idea that would make setup much more simple if you need a new TV, but it requires a firm belief that the technology running a Vista Media Center Extender will last as long as the TV. I don’t know if I would make that bet.
The HP MediaSmart Connect stood out for me, though, when I read some favorable reviews. It’s a small box, 8 1/2 inches square and less than two inches tall, and completely silent. It has the right outputs to connect to my TV and audio receiver – HDMI, component video, and analog and digital audio. It has built-in wireless networking but I have a network cable running to the living room so I never had to find out if the wireless connection would be jerky or slow, a frequent complaint. HP is reportedly going to lower the price in the next week, giving it a list price of $299 and a likely street price of $249. (Gadgets like this require exactly the same calculation as software: if you get the wrong thing, it doesn’t matter if it was cheap; if you get the right thing, the price is almost irrelevant in the long run.)
The remote control bristles with buttons, since there are just too many functions for it to be simple, but at least the remote is sturdy and solid in the hand, which is not always true of the competitors.
The Vista Media Center experience is satisfying but it would be more or less the same with any Extender. What sets the MediaSmart Connector apart is the proprietary software added by HP.
HP has built an interface that includes seamless access to Vista Media Center in its entirety – but there’s also an attractive, simple interface that provides access to photos, music and videos that runs completely apart from Vista Media Center. HP provides optional software to run on the home computers that delivers the photos, music and videos to the MediaSmart Connect. Browsing photos with Vista Media Center is quite nice, for example – thumbnails, the ability to browse by tag or folder name, etc. – but some people will prefer to browse the same photos with HP’s software, shown at left. Both views are available at any time.
HP then gave its box one more ability that was important to me: the HP MediaSmart Connect is able to connect to other software running on a home computer in addition to the program supplied by HP. It can display lists of media from any standard UPNP or DLNA server.
That means the HP MediaConnect can display music, photos or video sent around the network by a wide variety of programs, including some of the ones I mentioned yesterday. In my case, that means it connected immediately to the UPNP server built into J River Media Center, the program I depend on to keep my embarrassingly large music library organized. I’ve spent hours sorting my music by genre and creating playlists and smartlists, and in just a few minutes, there were those playlists on the TV, ready to be played at the click of a button. I started playing one (“Audio — Recently Imported — Two Months — shuffle”) and wiped a tear from my eye, because I had never been able to go back and forth elegantly between Windows Media Center and J River Media Center before.
That probably isn’t important to you. There are a hundred reasons why this works for me and might not work for you. Maybe you’d be frustrated that the experience is not troublefree – I can’t see cover art for music albums, I’ve wrestled with video formats (that story comes later), and the interface is sometimes a little slow, for example. You might be fiercely interested in streaming high-definition video or 5.1 surround sound, which I can’t tell you about because I don’t care.
The good parts far outweigh any negatives in our living room. Vista Media Center has a tremendous program guide for live and recorded television that I can reach with a single click of a button. I can browse through thumbnails and start a slide show of last month’s family photos. I can play my video and music collection. All of those things are handled by an interface that’s easy to navigate from the couch with a single remote control. That’s good stuff!
All of this requires a computer in the house doing the work, and some hard experience to discover which formats work and which don’t work. I’ll tell you more later about how I’m handling those things.