Home > Media Center > Windows Media Connect vs Windows Media Center Extender

Windows Media Connect vs Windows Media Center Extender

The topic of Windows Media Connect devices comes up very often alongside discussions of the Windows Media Center Extender.  I don’t blame anyone for being confused, Microsoft has done a bad job of distinguishing their digital media offerings as of late.  I’ll save the “too many products, too little cohesion” rant for another day, onto the clarification of just what these two device categories can do for you.

I’ve had the opportunity to test both Media Center Extenders and one Windows Media Connect device (a generic brand connected DVD player that was very beta).  Each has its place, depending on what you’re looking for.

Windows Media Connect (WMC) Devices

Windows Media Connect is a communications platform that allows digital media devices access to media files on all flavours of Windows XP.  The software itself was made available several months ago via Windows Update, meaning you probably already have this on your computer and don’t even know it yet.  Once installed, it appears as a new icon in your Control Panel and sits idle until you use it to grant access to a Windows Media Connect device.

Dlink_Medialounge_VideosOnce setup to connect to your PC, a Windows Media Connect device has access to your music, pictures, and videos that are stored on the computer.  From the perspective of the Microsoft-provided software, that’s about all that it does.  Presenting that media list to you and playing it back is left 100% up to the device manufacturer.  Between manufacturers capabilities will differ greatly between the devices including the way the user interface is presented, and the file formats that can be played back.  This allows for greater variety in the devices and greater choice for the consumer who is looking for something to fit their needs.  For example, if you’re only looking for something that will play back your music files, then the small Roku Soundbridge with its front-panel display is probably ideal for you.  If you want to be able to playback photos and videos, then perhaps the DLink Media Lounge with a nicely done UI via the television is what you need.

RokuSoundBridge

Unfortunately, this variety also means that the manufacturers are free to deliver you a horrible awful user experience as well (as was the case with my beta hardware).  I recommend that you pay close attention to the user interface when buying a Windows Media Connect device to ensure it will be usable by your family.   As noted earlier, playback capabilities also vary by WMC device, so be aware of the files you want to playback (ie your home movies, or DIVX movie archives) and ensure that the device you’re considering can handle that format.

Windows Media Connect provides a one-way, read-only listing of your media files that you can play back in another room.  If that’s what you are looking for, then WMC is the device for you.

Windows Media Center Extender (MCX) devices

The WMC universe is currently limited to three manufacturers:  HP, Linksys, and Microsoft via its XBox gaming system.  All devices function similarly, the most obvious difference being that the XBox contains a DVD player while the other devices do not.

MCX_Xbox_MainScreenWhile the technical details are somewhat complex, it is best to think of an Media Center Extender almost as if it were a second, third, or fourth monitor connected to your Media Center PC.  From an interface perspective, you will always get the MCE interface that you’ve grown to love in Windows XP Media Center Edition, and will enjoy a two-way interaction with the Media Center PC.  Like Windows Media Connect, you have access to a listing of all of your media files including music, pictures, and videos.  Unlike Windows Media Connect, you can also interact directly with the PC to access more rich media experiences such as watching Live TV, browsing the TV guide, setting up recordings, downloading a movie via Online Spotlight.  The MCX allows multiple people in the household enjoy their own digital media independently, regardless of what is happening on the PC.

Hp_MCX

The file formats that can be played back via a Media Center Extender are well-known (but very limited) so you shouldn’t have any surprises between devices when you’re shopping for an extender.

Specific Aspects Compared

Operating System Compatibility

  • WMC:  Windows XP Home, MCE, Pro, Tablet
  • MCE:  Windows XP MCE

File Playback Compatibility:

  • WMC: Varies by device
  • MCE:  Anything your PC can open, except video is limited to WMV, MPEG-2

Form Factor

  • WMC: Varies by device
  • MCE: Stereo component

User Interface

  • WMC:  Varies by device, may or may not be connected to a TV
  • MCE: Windows MCE user interface, connected to a TV

Interaction with PC:

  • WMC:  Read only
  • MCE: Full control of PC via MCE interface (includes Live TV)

Summary and Recommendations

Windows Media Connect is a read-only playback platform for a multitude of different devices that are out on the market, whereas Windows Media Extender is a two-way extension of the full Media Center experience.  If you’re looking for a networked digital media device, make sure you know what specific functionality you need before you hit the stores looking for a solution – most needs can be met by Windows Media Connect based on the queries I get from interested parties.  WMC is relatively simple, and does what most people want it to do: play back music and view photos.  Because of the variety of manufacturers, video file formats can be much more comprehensive than that of the MCX, for example people with DIVX videos are probably going to be best off with a WMC device.  But buyer beware, the interface and playback capability is different on every single device.

If you already own a Windows Media Center Edition PC, or if your needs include the ability to play back Live TV and Recorded TV, then consider a Media Center Extender.  The experience is always the same and the interface is great.  Just make sure it’s not overkill for what you’re trying to accomplish

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Categories: Media Center
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