Here's the formula for the gadget of the year: A device that delivers Internet video on the TV.
It sounds simple, but no one has really cracked this market, which should be huge. Apple Inc., Sony Corp., Netgear Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Netflix Inc. are some of the big tech names angling in on it.
Of course, this isn't a party Microsoft Corp. is going to stay away from. The software juggernaut has supplied hardware partners like Cisco Systems Inc. and D-Link Corp. with updated software and blueprints for the Extender for Windows Media Center, a box you put in your entertainment center and connect to your TV.
(MSNBC is a joint Microsoft - NBC Universal venture.)
You control the extender with a remote, gaining access not only to the movies, music and photos stored on the PC, but also some free Web videos and subscription movie services.
The first generation of extenders came out in 2005 for use with Windows XP, causing little excitement. The updated boxes, which work only with Windows Vista, started coming out in January. I tested the Linksys DMA 2200 (made by Cisco), which sells for $299.99.
It worked pretty much as advertised, but for a number of reasons, I think this generation of extenders will be met with as little enthusiasm as the first one. I expect we'll find that some other company, like Apple, will be the one to really spark people's interest in this category.
The main flaw is Microsoft's approach: It makes the software, and lets others build the hardware and provide services like Web video. It's nice of Microsoft to let others get a piece of the action, but it makes for a confusing, poorly integrated mess of a system. You can't afford that in this category, which consumers are only just figuring out.
And speaking of figuring things out, Apple didn't exactly help by naming its competing extender, which came out last year, the "Apple TV." But that device is dead easy to use, because Apple makes the software and the hardware. It sells the movies that play on it.
The remotes for these devices are perhaps the best illustration of their differences. The Apple TV's remote has six buttons. The DMA 2200's remote has 48, many of them with cryptic little symbols that I never figured out. There's a large numeric keypad, which I never used, while the oft-used Back button is tiny.
The Apple TV lets you watch iTunes movies and YouTube videos. The Windows extender shows some clips selected by Microsoft, and works with Web movie rental services like Vongo, each of which has its own, sometimes confusing interface. For instance, I tried to use Showtime's application, which sells episodes of "Weeds" and other shows for $1.99 each, but could never figure out how to register for the service. No "Weeds" for me.
The funny thing is that Microsoft does have its own online video rental service that's easy to use and works well, but it's only for the Xbox 360 game console.
The 360 also can do everything an extender can, and it's only a little more expensive, so it looks like a good value. But the console's cooling fans sound like a miniature vacuum cleaner, so it's understandable if people who are not gamers balk at putting one in the entertainment center.
Unlike most Xbox 360 models and the Apple TV, the extenders don't have their own hard drives — all the content is streamed from the PC the moment before it's shown on the TV set. That means the speed of the connection is critical.
The extender can connect to a router via Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet, but the connection between the router and the PC is equally important. When using a fast two-year-old router of the "draft-N" flavor, the connection to the PC in the same room was not good enough to allow me to stream high-definition video captured with the PC's TV tuner card to the extender.
Only by using an even faster router and connecting the laptop and extender to the relatively uncrowded 5 gigahertz Wi-Fi band was I able to watch HD video on the extender. That did look very good.
Another nice thing about the DMA 2200 is that it includes a DVD player. None of the competing products do, except for the Xbox 360. That means the extender can replace another box in your entertainment center rather than adding to the collection. It's an "upscaling" player, for a better picture on HD sets. A Linksys model without a DVD player is available for $50 less.
But the hardware has other quirks that do not leave a good impression. In particular, the extender doesn't really seem to understand the distinction between "off" and "on." When turned off, my unit randomly turned itself on. Also, when I measured the unit's power consumption, I found it used almost as much power when off as it did when it was on (8 watts versus 11 watts).
In other words, the "off" buttons on the remote and front of the unit are a waste of the user's time.