The Living Room - it's the holy grail of computing. Indeed, much of Microsoft's strategy in recent years seems to have been focussed on getting the PC into the Living Room, be it through a Home Theatre PC (HTPC), Xbox 360 or a dedicated Media Center Extender. Unfortunately, its whole strategy has been a pretty mixed affair. PCs are generally considered too noisy for multimedia situations, as is the wind tunnel that is the Xbox 360, while previous Media Center Extenders (MCEs) were crippled by poor format support and sluggish performance.
Never one to give up easily, though, Microsoft has once again partnered with Linksys to produce what Microsoft considers the third generation of MCEs, the Xbox 360 being the second, and Linksys' second effort in this arena. It aims to correct many of the problems encountered in past dedicated MCEs, while also being the first designed specifically with the much improved Vista Media Center in mind.
From the outset the form factor is a definite improvement. Past MCEs were large beasts but the DMA 2100 is suitably small and compact and though the black casing is hardly an inspired piece of design and won't sit so comfortably with smarter looking consumer electronics products, it at least fades into the background. It's worth noting, too, that the DMA 2100 isn't the only offering available, since there's also the DMA 2200 that adds an upscaling DVD player to the basic spec and is consequently larger. This, however, is the only difference between the two, with both offering otherwise identical features and performance.
So, what about features? Well, as reported back in November, high on the feature list is integrated Dual-Band Wirless-N. With a theoretical throughput of 300Mbps this makes wireless streaming of HD content a reality, something that couldn't be said of 802.11a, b, or g. It also adds support for the Xvid codec, while also expanding codec support to many commonly used standard definition and high definition codecs.
Thus, the DMA2100 will playback video encoded in MPEG 1, MPEG 2, WMV9, VC-1 in any container supported natively by Windows, along with audio encoded in PCM, MP3, WMA, WMA-Pro, Dolby Digital AC3, MPEG Audio and AAC-LC. It also expands connectivity, with HDMI 1.2, Component, Composite, S-Video, S/PDIF RCA and Stereo RCA making up the video and audio outputs, with a 10/100 Ethernet port for wired network connection and a USB port, though it's only used for Firmware upgrades when an Internet connection isn't available.
On paper, at least, it looks like a great feature set, especially when you include the traditional capabilities of MCE devices, such as PVR functionality when used in conjunction with a TV Tuner and access to all your PC media, such as photos, video and music as well. That you can now stream HD content wirelessly is obviously a great feature too, but can the DMA 2100 bring all this great functionality altogether in useable way?