Since the market for living room computers never developed, Microsoft decided to focus on “extenders,” a different way to deliver media to your television.

Huge numbers of people already have a computer in the house running Windows Vista Home Premium, holding photos and music. An “extender” is a small box for the living room that connects to the computer over a wireless or wired connection to display the photos on the television and play music on the living room speakers. If the computer is set up for it, the extender can also handle all the TV programming and record TV shows like a Tivo. It works exclusively with a remote control – no keyboard or mouse! – and looks great from across the room. Here are some cute animations from Microsoft about how it works.

Extenders are not a new concept, and Microsoft is not the only company offering products that work this way. Apple TV is a box that streams music and video from your computer’s copy of iTunes to the living room, hemmed in by Apple’s fairly restrictive selection of supported formats and features. There is a rich selection of third party software and hardware that will send streams out onto a home network – Twonky, Tversity, music devices from Roku Soundbridge and Sonos, and much more. Tivo supplies software to send photos and music to the Tivo in the living room. Do-it-yourselfers and gadget freaks and technical types are having a wonderful time squabbling about the pros and cons of various setups.

Microsoft gets more attention in the mainstream because the technology it has chosen is elegant and because, well, because it’s Microsoft, I guess. Media Center Extenders are based on a simple concept. The small living room box connects to the computer over the home network and displays the Vista Media Center interface, exactly as if it was running directly on the computer. Under the hood is a specialized version of Remote Desktop, which many businesspeople use to connect to their office computers from home.

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All the work is done on the computer, but the computer can stay in the room suited for it. Multiple extenders can be connected to the same computer, and the computer can be used normally while it’s sending media to the other rooms. The physical connections to the television for audio and video can be difficult but mating the computer with the extender is pretty straightforward.

Some people already have this technology without knowing it, because an XBox 360 can be a Media Center Extender. Chances are the XBox 360 is already on the home network to get updates and play online, so the only setup involves a bit of fumbling to bring a new blade to life in the XBox dashboard, full of photos and music. Microsoft recently announced that the XBox 360 dashboard would be completely overhauled to make it look like Media Center.

In addition to the XBox 360, there was a first generation of extenders from Linksys and others for Windows XP Media Center Edition, but they were slow and cranky and became obsolete when Microsoft rewrote everything for Vista. A new generation of extenders are now being introduced with some attractive features.

I don’t have an XBox 360 – noisy things that fail a lot. (If you’re interested, a good article appeared a few days ago about the XBox 360’s sad history of hardware problems.) Instead, I’ll tell you tomorrow about HP’s MediaSmart Connect, which is the best of the extenders on the market now.

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