Getting Media Where it Matters
If you’re anything like the average tech user, you’re swimming in photos, videos, and music tracks. They’re piled into your PC or media storage devices, and they only see the light of day on 10" photo frames or 19" desktop monitors. Isn’t it time to set your media free? You want it at the nexus, the big screen, the hub of your home media enjoyment: the TV. But how to get it there? That depends on your budget, patience level, and media-consumption style. We’ll start with D-Link’s latest Media Center Extender (DSM-750)—a product that any PC owner can buy to help move many kinds of media. We’ve created a recipe for using this device, but stay tuned as we progress through half a dozen other media-moving options over the next few weeks. At least one of them (or more) should be just right for your home.
Building a Better Bridge to the TV Through the PC
The concept and value of a media center extender—a product able to take audio, video, and photos from the PC directly to the TV—is easy to describe but hard to pull off in such a way that most people can easily understand and get working. Coming up with an intuitive-yet-powerful user interface is hard enough. But ask an electronics manufacturer to throw in seamless connectivity (most of us who’ve tried 54 Mb/s 802.11g in the real world know it really can’t stream video reliably) and to deal with how most people don’t have Ethernet jacks near their TVs, and you’ve placed a tall order.
D-Link’s DSM-750 ($299, launched in May 2008) is one of the best extender devices we’ve seen to date. The triple-antenna design gives it full Draft 2.0 802.11n (both 2.4 and 5.0 GHz) compatibility, and—in the end—we had no trouble displaying any type of content, including high-definition (HD) video, wirelessly or with wired connections.
Those who prefer wired connections can use the integrated 10/100 Ethernet port. For video ports, one can choose from HDMI, component, or S-Video connections. For audio, one can select from RCA stereo, optical SPDIF, or coax SPDIF. A good remote control is hard to find, but the one included here is passable and built particularly for D-Link’s MediaLounge interface. Unlike some remotes, it sits well in the hand and doesn’t require significant dexterity to reach the Enter button.
Here’s exactly what we went through to get the D-Link DSM-750 working.
When you first connect and turn on the DSM-750, you are prompted to go through the Setup Wizard. No big surprises here. If you have an Ethernet cable plugged in, the default is set for Ethernet. With no LAN cable connected, the DSM-750 assumes you’ll use a wireless connection. We had no trouble connecting to the Linksys 802.11n access point located near our home theater. If you want to use wireless security, the DSM-750 supports WPA and WPA2.
Wired Connection Glitch
We did have trouble establishing a wired connection, but this was more likely the fault of our Verizon FiOS router than of the D-Link box. In any case, one of the wizard screens asks if you want Auto or Advanced Setup. If you choose the latter, then select Configure Network and the device will prompt you to enter an IP address manually. We did this, and D-Link made the connection without further incident. Make sure you don’t input an IP address already in use by another device on the network.
Interface Decision Time
D-Link offers two interface choices, either the company’s own MediaLounge platform or Microsoft’s Media Center user interface, which is available in products everywhere from Windows XP to the Xbox 360. The functionality of these two options is similar, but the differences are important. On the D-Link remote control, the D-Link MediaLounge button is located right below the MCE green button. These correspond to the MediaLounge and Media Center icons within D-Link’s main interface. (Note that the DSM-750 automatically recognized the D-Link DNS-343 network-attached storage box we had upstairs in a closet and wired into the main LAN switch, which is a very slick-and-handy feature if you don’t mind single-sourcing your network gear or you already happen to own another D-Link product.) As we’ll see, the interface you choose will probably have more to do with your media formats and the online services you use than any particular aesthetic preference. In many cases, though, the two interface approaches overlap considerably.
Install D-Link’s Client
In order to access the media on your PC, you’ll need to install D-Link’s client utility, D-Link Media Server (available for free from D-Link’s site in case you lose the CD that ships with the extender). This is a rudimentary but effective application and really shows the lengths D-Link went to for file format support. Everything from OGG to H.264 to TIFF are readable by D-Link.
Help D-Link Find Your Media
Once you have D-Link Media Server up and running, go to the application’s first tab, Shared Folder, and click the "Add a Folder" button to start adding your media locations for indexing. Unlike some other products, D-Link doesn’t make you add photo, audio, and video folders separately. Just throw all your folders at the Media Server, then click on the Media Files tab. You’ll see (once indexing is completed) that your content has been sorted by type and metadata. For example, under Music, you’ll see that you can sort by All Tracks, Genres, Artists, Albums, and so on. Now you’re ready to head back to the extender and start playing.
Sorting Made Simple
Navigate into the My Media area and you’ll see a box with three folders in it: Movie, Music, and Photo. D-Link sorts by both metadata and folders. For instance, if you hop into Music, you can then click on Genres and start scrolling through “alternative and punk,” “celtic,” “pop,” and all the other usual choices.
Keeping Media Together
One advantage of a unified folder view that you don’t get on something like a TiVo HD (stay tuned for our coverage in a future installment) is the ability to handle different media types together. For instance, when we plugged in our SanDisk Cruzer USB drive into the D-Link’s front-mounted USB port, the extender scanned the drive and made it accessible through the remote control. In the main menu, we highlighted USB Direct, selected "usb1," then were greeted with a screen showing all 14 media items on the flash drive. We selected the first music item (shown with a headphones icon), started that playing, then backed out to the USB drive and started viewing photos with the music still playing in the background. In fact, the bar for metadata info shown when you bring up a photo will also keep scrolling the name of the song currently playing. Had we selected a video, the music would have stopped.
A Question of Online Services
The key differences between MediaLounge and MCE are the online services tied to them. If you go down to the Online Media area, you’ll see that D-Link has stitched together plug-ins for Rhapsody, Totalvid, Flickr, Live365, vTuner, My Kids Tunes, and Napster. Some of this content is free and some is subscription-based. Either way, that’s a lot of content, and it’s a different selection than what you’ll find under MCE.
Making the MCE Connection
Associating the DSM-750 with your MCE-enabled Windows XP or Vista PC is very easy. When you click the green button–either on-screen or with D-Link’s remote–a loading screen will appear, then you’ll be shown a screen with an eight-digit number. Write this number down, take it back to your PC, and bring up the Windows Media Center interface (available through the Start menu if you don’t have an icon for it). MCE will detect a compatible extender across the network and prompt you to enter that code. Do so, and the next thing you know your DSM-750 will have you sitting at MCE’s start screen.
MCE Does More
There’s no question that MCE is a sexier interface than MediaLounge is. Microsoft is much more savvy with two-dimensional navigation compared to D-Link’s stodgy-feeling, forward-and-back action through folder trees. MCE gives more search capabilities, the online content selection is superior, and Microsoft puts thumbnails to better work, letting you see the thumbnail, say, of a running video, while you’ve surfed into a different content area. Go into the Music area, then Music Library, and select an album. With MCE, you have options not only to play the album but to also add it to your queue for playback after the currently playing material finishes, or you can edit its metadata. As you can see above, we selected a single track from an album, giving us the ability to alter its title, artist name, and the star rating ascribed to it. We also like the convenience of MCE pulling its playlists straight from Windows Media Player.
Is the Microsoft Experience Enough?
There’s nothing really wrong with D-Link’s MCE implementation. Its weaknesses are Microsoft’s. You’re at Microsoft’s mercy when it comes to what you can watch. Microsoft obviously prefers Microsoft-friendly media formats. For content, expect to find commercial sites weighted toward MSN or similar Microsoft-affiliated properties. Big names like Flickr should be listed in this MCE but aren’t. in general, the quality of the free online video and audio content here, whether within MCE or MediaLounge, is decidedly behind the times. Video tends to look like it spooled off of a trampled videocassette and streaming audio is usually far below CD quality. Should you expect more? Perhaps. But you get what you pay for, and some of the content services are still in beta. What’s comforting is that D-Link is assiduous about pumping out patches and updates, so if it’s possible for D-Link to provide a higher quality experience on the DSM-750, then the company will probably offer it for free as soon as possible. What providers like Microsoft and its content partners decide to do with the quality and bit rates is anyone’s guess. But you can expect that there will always be premium, higher-quality services to pay for.
Even with these limitations, the DSM-750 is relatively easy to use given its feature flexibility, and it’s a good fit for those with a wide variety of media types to support. Having two interfaces is both a positive and negative, but for anyone who considers himself of herself beyond the level of novice when it comes to media, it’s better to err on the side of more options and support.