Simplifi Digital AV Expander Review


Simplifi Digital recently released their line of AV Expander Cards that will allow Media Center users to do basic input switching without worrying about the 2-second delay that is common with TV Tuners and Media Center.  Media Center requires TV Tuners that do hardware MPEG-2 encoding, which introduces a 2-second delay.  This is a deal breaker if you want to connect something like a video game console or other analog devices.

Product Background
AV Expander Cards fix all problems associated with Media Center and display of legacy devices such as game consoles, VCRs, and camcorders. Simplifi Digital was nice enough to send me a unit to review, and I’ve been playing around with connecting several devices over the past few days.  Among my test devices are a Playstation 2, Xbox v1, VCR, and analog camcorder.  Simplifi Digital has two versions of the AV Expander, the AVEX-4W and AVEX-2B.  The AVEX-4W allows for up to four devices to be hooked up all at the same time, and the AVEX-2B allows for two devices.  Two free PCI slots will be needed to use the four inputs, as a daughter board (AV header) is used.



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Setup and Installation
Setup and installation is quite simple, and I was very impressed with the included instruction manual.  Unlike other expansion cards that you buy now-a-days, Simplifi Digital has included a great instruction manual that explains everything in very simple English.  While I’m making a big deal about the manual, don’t think for a second that this card is difficult to install and setup.  I had the card installed and devices hooked up in under five minutes, then I was ready to launch Media Center and try it out.

Program and Settings
Open Media Center and under More Programs there was a new entry “SimplifiDigital AV Expander”.  The AV Expander program was nicely laid out and simple to use and understand.  It includes pre-named inputs such as S-Video, VCR 1-4, Game Console 1-4, Composite Video 1-4, and Camera 1-4 which I selected to match the devices connected.  Quality or Speed can be selected to optimize the interlaced to progressive conversion, Speed is used for fast moving video (Ex. game consoles) and Speed can be used for something like a security camera.  Dialog Alert was an unexpected feature to me, if checked it will alert you when Media Center wants to display a dialog (Guide download, CD finished burning, etc).  Setup was simple and quick overall.



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Video Quality
I tested video quality on several displays including a 27” Toshiba SDTV, 37” Westinghouse LCD HDTV, and a 19” PC Monitor.  I found the best video quality experience on the SDTV, which fit my expectations.  Both on the PC Monitor and HDTV the output was jaggy when playing console games.  In my option it was still very watchable/playable, and didn’t cause too much of a distraction.  Using on a SDTV was preferred though, with the video nearly identical to the output from the console hooked directly up to the SDTV.  Running a VCR through the AV Expander was no problem, and the VHS video looked as good as it can be for being a VHS tape.  The same holds true for an analog camcorder.  The only problem in terms of video quality was the jaggies when playing a console game.



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Wants
Something I would like to see is the ability to manual change the input naming.  Instead of “Game Console, I would rather type in “Xbox” or “Playstation”.  Other than that, I didn’t run into too much that I would change.

Future Outlook
I would like to see an AV Expander Card that supports Component Input.  The 32-bit PCI bus can’t handle uncompressed HD video through component, and I know if Simplifi Digital would be able to develop at card that could do accept component input while keeping costs down.  I think this is defiantly something Simplifi Digital should look into, but there are technical impactions in developing such a card.

Conclusion
The AV Expander Card from Simplifi Digital works great and does exactly what they advertise.  In my opinion, every Media Center PC should include one of Simplifi Digital’s AV Expander cards.  Input switching has been one of the most requested features for Windows XP Media Center Editions for years, and this product delivers!  If I was an OEM/System Build, I would include the AV Expander Card as a standard feature on every PC shipped.  Please see AV Expander Card Homepage for ordering details.   The AVEX-4W 4-input AV Expander retails for $99.99.  View my full AV Expander Image Gallery.

Pros
It just works!
2-4 Inputs (1 S-Video, 1-3 Composite)
Allows for input switching, a commonly requested feature

Cons
So-so quality for console gaming
Only supports analog devices (S-Video/Composite)



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The Media Center Show #63



The Media Center Show #63 | 22nd June 2006 (47min 4secs) MP3 - 14.1MB (Download Here)





This week Ian Dixon talked with Niall Ginsbourg about his Big Screen Photos application. A Flickr application for Windows Media Center, developed using the latest .NET 3.0 technologies (with a great Vista Media Center style UI).  Also talk about the application and how using XAML has made for a rich application UI.  You can download a beta from here!

Microsoft Planning an Embedded Media Center Solution?


In one of Microsoft’s WinHEC 2006 PowerPoints (MED004_WH06.ppt) they had this to say about an XPe/Vista Embedded version of Media Center.

Need To Offer Two Software Options

  • Windows Vista Premium – for those who want to load their own applications, games, etc.
  • Embedded XP/Windows Vista – for those who want a more stable/externally supported solution
    • Device updated by CE manufacturer or service operator (cable, sat, or telco) only
    • Still leverage PC applications base, commodity HW, and infrastructure

Calls to Action

  • Microsoft
    • Investigate Embedded OS with 10’ MCE/Diamond features

I’m not sure if I should be excited about Microsoft thinking about an embedded version of Media Center or very disappointed that they can’t get Windows Vista to the point where Media Center and it’s related technologies (DirectShow, WMDRM, Windows Media Player, etc) to the point where it’s “reliable” in comparison to CE Devices.

I don’t have any issues with Media Center being reliable myself, it does exactly what I want it to when I want to (MCE 2005).  I also don’t have any issues with my parents machine, and it gets used as an actual PC daily.  Having an embedded solution that could be deployed by third parties might be useful, but who exactly would they target with this?  Cable, Telco, Sat already have their own solutions, and Microsoft TV (not eHome) also has an solution that is currently used by Comcast in Washington State.  Maybe Microsoft has too many solutions targeting the same market? Maybe the CE Pro/Media Center Pro market is the key.  Would any integrators think about installing these type systems?  Time will tell.

Thoughts?



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Sony XL1 DVD Changer Drops To $399


Matt Goyer pointed to the Sony VGP-XL1B2 DVD Changer @ Amazon for just $399.99!  Great price, and as Matt points out it just keep climbing in Amazon’s Top Seller for Computers (Currently 13th).

I would have purchased one of these for my parents, but since I can’t stream to an Extender I don’t see any point in spending the cash to be limited to a single-room solution.



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What’s In-Store For Codename Pika?




Microsoft launched there new MCX Partner Site for Pika the other day.  Pika is the codename for Media Center Extenders (MCX) v2.  According to Microsoft, Media Center Extender Technology Features are as follows…

  • Hardware, operating system, and middleware independence and adaptability
  • OEM-local user interface flexibility and extensibility
  • Based on DLNA 1.0 framework and protocols (including an optional DLNA stack implementation)
  • Reliable wired and wireless network AV streaming
  • Standard and high-definition graphics and video
  • Support for Windows Vista-compatible premium digital TV, including U.S. Digital Cable (Open Cable)
  • Simple, inexpensive OEM licensing

Microsoft has finally partnered with Sigma Designs for the MCX design.  I’ve said that Sigma was the perfect partner for Extenders for awhile now.  In fact, over a year ago I said “I am a tremendous fan of Sigma Designs and their EM8620L series processors. Building an Extender around this processor enables endless options for audio and video decoding” in my Site Feed of the Day feature for Tim Coyle.  Now Sigma Designs has their EM8622L processor which is a step above the EM8620L from last year.

Sigma Designs has a Dev Kit for enabling OEM’s to quickly build Extenders for those who are a part of Microsoft’s MCX Partner Program.  OEM’s should be aware that consumers are looking for Extenders that take full advantage of the EM8622L processor. 

The EM8622L supports the following formats…

  • MPEG-4 Part 10 (H.264)
  • VC-1 (WMV9)
  • MPEG-2
  • MPEG-4 Part 2 (DivX/XviD)
  • Dolby Digital
  • WMA/WMA Pro
  • MPEG-1/2 Audio
  • AAC
  • MP3
  • And more!

If you are an OEM thinking of joining the MCX Partner Program please enable decode of non-Microsoft formats.  You have the ability to do so, don’t let the your consumers down!



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Update: TGB Down

Being worked on right now.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

Update: Back up and running smooth.  [:)]


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New Xploder Media Center Challenges Transcode 360


Xploder Media Center for Xbox 360 Set for International Release | Xploder is set to release their transcoding utility to be used with the Xbox 360 Media Center Extender functionality.  Not really sure how successful this software will be, going up against Transcode 360 which is free, but see the full press release here.

As a side note, My Movies and Transcode 360 will soon work together to create an all-in-one solution.



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Okoro Media Systems Launches High Performance Digital Entertainment Systems


Okoro Media Systems, manufacturer of digital entertainment systems for the high end audio video market, is pleased to announce the availability of the high performance GX Series. The OMS GX series is based on the AMD FX and Intel Duo 2 Technologies and comes with 1 Terabyte of storage. The GX Series will feature uncompromising gaming performance and will allow the use of up to five media center extenders for high definition video and audio distribution. This series also features a seven inch touch screen display with HD transcoder for 720p resolutions.

“Our customers enjoy playing the latest video games on their HDTV and have requested that we provide a higher end media center pc. We feel the GX Series digital entertainment system will allow them play these games at HDTV resolutions and allow them to easily manage their media with the built-in touch screen LCD.” said Christopher Curry, VP of Sales & Operations.

The GX series will launch with the GX300 model. This model is based on the dual-core AMD FX-60 processor with 1 GB of Crucial Ballistix RAM, NVidia 7950 GX2 video card and 1 TB of storage. All GX models feature the following:

  • 7.1 HD audio with Dolby Digital Live technology
  • Dual ATI 550 PVR Tuner Card
  • HDTV Tuner Card
  • 1GB of Crucial Ballistix Memory
  • Upgradeable to 3.0 Terabytes of media storage
  • Dual Layer DVD Burner
  • 7” LCD Touchscreen with 720p Transcoder
  • My Movies plugin for DVD archival Storage

For more information about the GX series, please visit www.okoromedia.com.
For more information about the My Movies plugin, please visit www.mymovies.name.



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