Media Extenders and Home Servers
As early as the first versions of Windows Media Center, Microsoft had the excellent idea to build support into it for a device called a “Windows Media Center Extender”. A Media Center Extender device could attach to any television in your house (assuming it was on the same network as your main Media Center) and access to all the main Media Center’s features or functions as if the extender device was the Media Center box itself. You could set up and stream television recordings, stream music, video or even live TV from your Media Center to the TV attached to your Media Center extender, all over IP.
The reason I say Microsoft had an excellent idea is because just like Media Center itself, support for it seemed to be non-existent. Back in 2007 there were a batch of devices that came out such as the D-Link DSM 750, Linksys DMA2100/2200, or the HP x280n MediaSmart Connect, but they relatively quickly became discontinued and the only way to get your hands on them was to hunt through eBay and hope for the best. As of late, there are only two real options left if you’d like to set up some Media Extenders to connect to your Media Center, the Xbox 360 and the just released Ceton Echo.
You may very likely already have an Xbox 360 in your house. If you do, you can use the 360 as a Media Center Extender, and other that some sluggishness in the menu’s, it works great. Instead of walking you through the process, I’ll point you to Microsoft’s own site where they walk through how to set up your 360 as a Media Center Extender.
The newest, and only other, Extender device is the recently released Ceton Echo. Ceton’s newest offeing looks to be a potential winner for someone looking for an extremely small form factor and easy to setup extender. Marketed as the “Ultimate Media Center Sidekick” this little black box could be a great addition to your Media Center setup, and we’ll have more information on the Echo in an upcoming review.
Media Servers and NAS
Unless you plan to get all your content from your antenna or online sources like Hulu and Netlfix, it’s likely you will want to be able to play some of your own media files. Whether it’s family photo’s and videos, your digital music library or movies ripped from your DVD’s/Blu-Rays, you will need somewhere to store all those files. There’s certainly no reason you can’t store that media directly on your Media Center HTPC, assuming you don’t mind losing hard drive space that might otherwise be used for storage of television recordings. Using Windows Media Center’s Libraries, there’s no reason your content can’t reside anywhere on your network, whether on another machine, a home server or even on a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device.
My Experience: Regardless of where you decide to store your content, if it includes any important content such as family photos or home videos, be sure that you are backing it up to both onsite and offsite locations. When I back up anything important, I always make sure there are 3 copies of my data. The original copy of my data, a second local backup that I can quickly backup and restore large amounts of data to (and preferably on a removable device I can grab and take with me easily in an emergency,) and a third backup that is at some offsite location. The offsite location should be somewhere that if there’s a major catastrophe at your home such as fire, flood or earthquake, that it’s not affected as well. If you ask your neighbor to hold a backup drive for you, it certainly won’t help if a hurricane hits your area and you both have issues. There are various ways to back up your data to online locations using services like Dropbox, Google Drive or Skydrive, but there are also full automated online backup services like Crashplan or Carbonite that are excellent as well. I currently use Crashplan for most of my backup needs.
For storing media on other machines or in a NAS device, you simply need to ensure the Media Center has access to the data through the use of Homegroups or shared folders/drives.
My Experience: One thing to consider if you are using network shares is that you may not want to allow the deletion of those files, but still want to be able to read them. Make sure that you set up access to shares like Photos, Music and Movies to “Read Only” for everyone but the local admin on the box the files are shared from. If you’ve ever deleted a file in a network share, you’ll know there is no way to recover that file. So remember, set up backups for important media, and make sure it is all set to be Read Only or you might accidentally wipe out your wedding video.