Bridging the PC, living room gap

The Roku HD1000, shown, is a media adapter that's designed for high-definition televisions. Roku, which means "six" in Japanese, also could mean "opportunity to buy more stuff." Without any additional purchases, it's basically a memory card reader for either your digital camera or the pricey art packs Roku is more than happy to sell you.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

You've got hours of home movies, thousands of songs and countless digital pictures on the PC in the den. But the best places for watching and listening -- the big television and stereo -- are in the living room at the other end of the house.

The gap can be bridged with a wired or wireless home network and another PC in the living room. But there's a less expensive option: Devices that connect to the network, grab content from the PC and stream it directly to the TV or stereo.

So-called media adapters, or media hubs, are getting more advanced and capable. Some now stream video, Web content and Internet radio along with music files and pictures. But there's no clear standout, and still plenty of room for improvement.

I sampled four devices, ranging from the inexpensive (Hauppauge's MediaMVP) and the hyped (Roku's HD1000) to the fancy (Elgato's EyeHome) and the simple (Netgear's MP101 Media Player).

All four added to the surplus of remote controls crowding the coffee table. They also had major areas of weakness, particularly in the area of unsupported file formats.

Some might argue that the category is still evolving. I'll be more blunt: These gadgets aren't quite ready for mass adoption.

MediaMVP (Hauppauge Computer Works Inc.)
The $100 MediaMVP, from a leading maker of PC tuner cards, is among the least expensive media hubs, and it shows. Even the documentation (a whole, two-sided sheet) is lacking.

But the biggest problem is that it requires an Ethernet cable from the computer to the device, which then connects to a TV via standard composite cables. Laying new cable is a lot of trouble if your TV is located in another room and your house isn't already wired to the hilt.

The PC software, once loaded, locates playable media files and serves them across the network to the device. It's about as Spartan as it gets.

On the TV, the display looks blocky. It did play MP3 music files, video and pictures from my PC. (It also makes it possible to surf the PC's entire directory from the TV.)

The remote control offers no easy way to quickly scroll through large amounts music or search for a specific tune. It has buttons with no printed labels.

Like most other players, it could not play music legally purchased from online music stores.

HD1000 (Roku LLC)
The $299 HD1000 is designed for high-definition television sets and seems to be based on the assumption that people who spend thousands on an HDTV can afford to shell out a few hundred more to display artwork and other pretty pictures when the set's not being used to watch TV.

Besides the HDTV capability, it reads memory cards -- either from a digital camera or you can buy "art packs" that Roku sells for $40 to $80 a pop. It also connects to regular computers, using the PC's built-in networking tools to access video, MP3 music and other media files.

My first test involved a standard TV, and I was impressed with its easy-to-navigate and clean user interface. It's appealing to the eyes and supports a wireless connection, though a bridge must be purchased separately.

To test its much-hyped HDTV features, I lugged it to a relative's house.

The picture quality is indeed very good, but I'm still not sure it's worth the premium price.

There is some hope that this device might someday offer more: The HD1000 is built on an open software platform, so developers can write interesting programs. So far, nothing has been announced.

EyeHome (Elgato Systems)
With a shiny exterior and stylish vent holes, the $249 EyeHome looks like a cousin of Apple Computer Inc.'s Power Mac G5. In fact, it works only with Macs.

After the software was installed and the EyeHome connected to my TV, it instantly recognized music, pictures and video on the computer. (It also helps that I primarily use iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie, which keeps content in specific folders.)

Though wireless isn't built into the device, EyeHome had no trouble streaming video over an 802.11g Wi-Fi network once I connected it to a separately purchased bridge. Ditto for pictures and music (though not any protected songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store).

Besides the usual media, it also turns a television into a Web browser. That's not as neat as it might sound since browsing involves a lot of horizontal scrolling. EyeHome also connects to Internet radio stations.

The TV interface won't be confused with anything designed by Apple, but at least it's not confusing. The remote control is well labeled, though typing in Web addresses is a time-consuming exercise.

EyeHome has another annoying quirk: Its otherwise polished exterior has a green light that glows on when the unit is off and shuts off when the unit is on.

MP101 (Netgear)
The MP101 media player is designed just to plug into a stereo. But it's got a built-in Wi-Fi antenna and a set of features unmatched by other devices.

The plain-looking $149 device sports a small screen that displays setup and song information. To stream songs from a computer, a program must be running on the PC.

Unlike other adapters, the MP101 can play songs from a legal online music service. In this case, it's Real's Rhapsody and it requires a $9.95 a month subscription. The host PC also needs to be running a program separate from the main Netgear software.

On the device itself, the Rhapsody server must be selected each time its songs are to be played -- a clumsy requirement at best.

The MP101 also can connect to hundreds of radio stations around the world via Vtuner, which offers a 60-day free trial before asking for a one-time fee of $20.

In the course of an evening, I listened to Iranian radio, a classical station in Los Angeles and National Public Radio affiliate. Sound quality ranged from excellent to barely audible, though it had more to do with each station's stream than the MP101.