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Extenders for Media Center aren't dead, they just seem like it

Ben Drawbaugh

Many Windows Media Center enthusiasts were very disappointed by the fact that Microsoft didn't mention Extenders for Media Center at CES 2010. This anxiety started some time ago when both Linksys and HP let it be known that their current Extenders had been discontinued. Of course not every was shocked, as Extenders aren't as popular as many had hoped -- which is expected considering they left so much to be desired. Sure they were quiet, power efficient and easy to setup, but with a few new features in Windows 7 Media Center not being supported, the Extenders looked pretty antiquated. Not only do the existing Extenders not support H.264 in the new WTV container of Windows 7 -- commonly used for broadcast TV in the UK and other countries -- but even worse, the new internet streaming features included with Windows 7 require Flash and Silverlight, neither of which are supported by Extenders. Now although we understand the Media Center community's belief that Microsoft has given up on Extenders for Media Center, we think it is a little premature. In fact if you click through you'll not only find out why, but you'll also learn when we think new Extenders might make it to market.

Linksys v1 Extender for Media Center
Since our prediction is based on history, let us start there. Windows Media Center came out in 2002, but the first v1 Extenders weren't announced until CES 2004 and finally came to market 10 months later in October -- along side Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Needless to say XP Media Center fans had to wait a long time for the first Extenders. But in January of 2007 when Vista Media Center hit the streets without any support for 3rd party Extenders what so ever, those extenders were rendered obsolete. Fortunately the Xbox 360 was a Vista Extender from day one, but Microsoft remained silent about letting 3rd parties join in the fun for 9 months until September of 2007 when a new Extender reference design was announced, and eventually shipped a few months later. So all in all, while XP fans had to wait almost three years for the first Extender, Vista Media Center fans only had to wait 12 months. So now that we've jogged your memory, you're probably wondering how long we think Microsoft will make Windows 7 Media Center fans wait for at least some news? Well Windows 7 was released in October, so our best guess would be CEDIA 2010. For one Microsoft has proven it prefers to make Media Center related announcements at this show, but also it is within reason to assume that, just like the v2 Extenders, 3rd party manufacturers would like to have their new hardware ready by Christmas.

Linksys v2 Extender for Media Center

What Microsoft could do instead of making another Extender platform.
Of course we've been wrong before and based on the level of a disappointment in the first two generations of Extenders -- for manufactures and consumers alike -- it isn't too crazy to think that everyone has had enough. If this is truly the case, there're a few ways this could end up. One possible route would be for Microsoft to give up on its RDP protocol as a foundation and go with a standard instead. Microsoft has already adopted DLNA in a big way in Windows 7, and that spec happens to include a remote user interface protocol. But some say that protocol couldn't do justice to Media Center's rich 3D interface, which is why the RVU alliance built its own remote UI protocol on top of DLNA. So if Microsoft added an RVU server to Windows 7, then instead of building its own Extender platform it could just leach off of it. This would enable new HDTVs from Samsung and Sony -- due to support RVU this year -- to work as Extenders. And of course Linksys or HP could still make a media streamer with an RVU client built in. And with many new Blu-ray players featuring DLNA clients, even disc players could get in on the fun. This seems like an ideal solution, but we're making a big assumption that the RVU experience would be a good one. Because one thing is for sure, with the 360 selling for $200, if the experience isn't every bit as good, no one will buy it.

RVU Alliance

What if Extenders are dead?
The other possible scenario of course is that Extenders are just dead. The problem with this theory is that while a full blown Media Center PC can do lots of things Extenders can't, for those who use Media Center as a DVR, there are plenty of things a PCs can't do either. Now no one outside of Redmond really understand why a Media Center PC can't do everything an Extender can -- commonly referred to as softsled -- but the fact is that currently there are a few big drawbacks of using a PC as an extender. The biggest problem being that a copy protected recording on one PC can't be played back on another. But even if you're lucky enough to have all unprotected content, multiple Media Center PCs still can't participate in a whole home DVR. What we mean is that there's no conflict resolution and there are multiple Scheduled Recordings lists. This means that if you scheduled Lost to record in the bedroom and you don't have enough tuners on that PC to also record the Olympics, you'll have to walk into the other room to leverage another tuner in the living room to resolve the conflict. There are also some problems resuming content in another room, but we don't pretend to know what they are exactly as we haven't tested it very extensively. Luckily HomeGroup does make it easy to have a single Recorded TV list, but as TiVo owners will tell you, that alone is a long way from a true whole house DVR.

Never say never.
So yeah, no one really knows how this is going to play out, but with only a few months since the release of Windows 7, and without Microsoft saying otherwise, claiming that Extenders are dead is just premature. We do believe there is a market for Extenders both stand-alone and built into other devices like TVs and Blu-ray players, but without support for just about everything a Media Center PC can do and at a great price, there really isn't much of a point so why bother?

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