HP MediaSmart Connect Review Part 1: Overview

The HP MediaSmart Connect x280n (formerly MediaSmart Receiver) is HPs latest entry into the Media Center Extender/Adaptor market.  Building on the success of their MediaSmart HDTV lineup, the MediaSmart Connect brings the same experience you get on the MediaSmart HDTV to any display via an elegant set-top box. Last week I got a review model to put through some rigorous testing to see how it stacks up against Linksys, D-Link, and the Xbox 360 Extender.

The first thing you will notice about the MediaSmart Connect is the focus of the device is not necessarily the Media Center Extender functions.  Much like the Xbox 360 and D-Link DSM-750, the MediaSmart Connect features two distinctively different media experiences.  The MediaSmart UI operates as a standard UPnP/DLNA media device, and the Media Center Extender function connects to Vista Home Premium and Ultimate PCs running Windows Media Center.  This was done for several reasons, but on the top of the list seems to be support of additional OS’s and additional features/functionality not supported by Media Center.

Warning: MediaSmart Connect is HDTV Only!

Before we get any further in this review I want to note that the MediaSmart Connect is meant to be connected to a widescreen HDTV capable of 720p or 1080i input (a la Apple TV).  There are no SD analog outputs (eg.S-Video, Composite) and the Component output is meant to be 720p at least.

MeidaSmart Connect Specs

  • MediaSmart UI and Media Center Extender functionality
  • USB 2.0 port (one front, one back)*
  • HP Pocket Media Driver Bay*
  • SPDIF (optical) output, RCA 2-channel audio output
  • HDMI, Component outputs (HDMI cable included)
  • Wireless-N (802.11 a/b/g/n, dual band N, internal antennas)
  • 720p and 1080i output options
  • 10/100 Ethernet
  • 5-device universal backlit remote

*Functionality only applies to HP MediaSmart UI, not available via Media Center Extender

Included Accessories

The MediaSmart Connect retails for the relatively high price of $350, however HP has attempted to make the price worth it by including a few generally absent accessories.  Included in the very well designed package are a 6-foot HDMI cable, a fully backlit universal remote, and a $20 CinemaNow coupon.  Do the accessories make it worth the extra cost?  That’s up to you to decide, but the fact that they are included is a nice touch.  (Keep reading and find out why that HDMI cable might have been a worthless expensive)

PC Setup for MediaSmart

You can tell that HP focused heavily on their MediaSmart UI over that of the Media Center Extender which is pretty much a Microsoft endeavor that is just licensed by OEMs.  Because of the clear focus on MediaSmart I wanted to cover this end of the product as well as the Media Center Extender functions.

HP ships the MediaSmart Connect with a pretty bulky software load to facilitate the MediaSmart features of the Connect (software not needed for use as a Media Center Extender).  This includes a large install of various programs and frameworks such as AJAX Extensions, SQL Server 2005 CE, HP Services Gateway, CinemaNow, HP Update, HP Sharing Wizard, and more.  This is a bit larger than I would have liked to see, but considering the resource impact of Media Center and Extenders the difference evens out if you are worried about the resource load on your PC.  It is worth noting that the Connect is an UPnP/DLNA device, so you can load up your own media server application to serve the device.  On the device itself you can switch between UPnP servers on-the-fly, and depending on the server you use (eg. Windows Media Player) the MediaSmart UI will aggregate all media shares in your home into one display on the MediaSmart itself.

Moving back to the HP software install, despite the load of software and install time (15+ min), everything is integrated nicely including a one click (more or less) signup process for the online services (SnapFish, CinemaNow, Live365) that the MediaSmart UI gives you access to.  Considering the horrible experience that Windows Media Center provides for signing up for services like this I praise HP for a simple setup process.



HP MediaSmart Connect Review Part 2: MediaSmart UI

HP MediaSmart Connect Review Part 3: Extender

mControl 2.1 Goes Final

Embedded Automation has released the final build of mControl 2.1 for download.  The build is actually the same as the previous RCGOLD2 release, and as there were no significant issues reported Embedded Automation has now shifted their focus to the next mControl release.

You can download mControl 2.1 here, and of course you get a 30 day trial if you don’t already use mControl.  All current mControl users can upgrade to 2.1 for free.  See the User Manual for more (PDF).

Interested to know what other features mControl has?  Check out the updated mControl Feature Summery (PDF).


Microsoft Updates Extenders, Set-top Box Support in Media Center

Microsoft has just released two updates for Vista Media Center, fixing up STBs and Extenders.  KB950124 adds and fixes support for newer STBs connected to Media Center, and KB950125 which adds a few Extender issues including 50Hz output fixes for those of you outside the US (no additional codec support).  Grab the updates on Windows Update or download the standalone packages below.

Description of an update that provides broader support in Media Center Extenders for Windows Vista for newer TV set-top boxes (KB950124)

This update provides broader Media Center support for newer TV set-top boxes.

Download: Windows Update | 32-bit | 64-bit

Description of the Media Center Extenders for Windows Vista update that was released on June 24, 2008 (KB950125)

This update addresses the following issues. These issues occur when you use Media Center on an Xbox 360 console.

  • This update addresses a picture quality issue that occurs when you use Media Center Extender on an Xbox 360 console that has a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) connector to the TV for video and a Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format (S/PDIF) connection to the audio device for audio.
  • This update addresses an issue in which the Media Center Extender stops responding (hangs) when you play a large non-WMV video over an HTTP session.
  • This update provides support for 50Hz output together with better quality for HD models. This feature applies primarily to regions that use the PAL video standard.

Download: Windows Update | 32-bit | 64-bit

Has Media Center Been a “Miss” for Microsoft?

Dennis Morgan pointed to a recent MSNBC article on Bill Gates hits and misses during his time at Microsoft.  One of the first products in the miss category is Media Center, what do you think? 

Based on the author’s semi-outdated understanding of Media Center, I’d agree with them 100%.  Media Center has been a miss when you consider their concept of Media Center being a product “aimed to move into the living room, tying the PC and the TV together for recording television shows on the computer…”  I think it would be hard to argue that Microsoft’s first plan for Media Center was a failure.  Gateway, ViewSonic, HP, and other top tier OEMs have tried to move into the living room with HTPC form factor PCs, and that failed big time.  The initial concept of Media Center is still is a miss (unless you’re taking about the custom market).

That brings us to Media Center today where the PC in the living room is much less of the target.  That idea has been replaced by using your main Desktop PC as a host and Extenders, mainly the Xbox 360, to drive content into the living room.

Defining Media Center as a miss might be a bit much; however it is still a product with so much potential that has yet to be capitalized on.  As I’ve said many times before, Media Center will never be a replacement for the standard cable/satellite STB.  It will always be for those who want more than what those STBs can offer.  The only problem is what that market wants, Media Center fails to do correctly.

So my question is does Media Center, with all of its unreleased potential belong in the same category as Microsoft BOB and Clippy?

Media Center Nabs More Online Content: Olympics & Fight Network

NBC has teamed up with TVTonic to provide online coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics via Media Center.  Be sure to watch the ‘Explore’ section of Media Center for more, as well as TVTonic (requires install).  More information at TVTonic.


In addition the Queensberry Fight Network has launched an online application available now in Media Center to get your fighting/boxing fix 24/7.  Considering the downfall that has been network TV, Microsoft needs to make sure they are making every effort to get more online content up and accessible via Media Center.  I’m dying for a Hulu plug-in.


More on Cannon PCs Six CableCARD PC

On Friday Cannon PC demoed a system recording from six CableCARDs all at once, while playing back a recording and the system didn’t skip a beat.  This was demoed in the YouTube video, but I got some higher resolution screenshots of Media Center showing the six streams at once.


Given the system resources that they had to spare, what do people think the max number of tuners would be?  Considering local playback most likely added from 5-10% on ~35% of the CPU being used, I think this shows that processing speed is no longer a bottle neck for Media Center PCs.  So the question is which dies first, USB throughput or the hard drive(s)?


mControl Adds Support for CentraLite JetStream

Embedded Automation has just added CentraLite JetStream to their growing list of supported home control systems.  CentraLite JetStream is a new standard for home control based on Zigbee, and as you will learn in the embedded video it was actually the first standard that Embedded Automation supported in mControl but delayed the launch due to a lack of devices on the market.


Cannon PC Demos Media Center with 6 CableCARDs

June 18, 2008 – Cannon PC, LP demonstrated a capability of their Media Centers to accommodate 6 Digital Cable Cards and simultaneously record 6 different HD Digital Cable Channels.

Cannon PC, the award winning Media Center specialty company, demonstrated to a select group of people the capability of their Media Centers to manage 6 Digital Card Cards. They have also posted a video on YouTube and on their web site demonstrating this capability. The video shows the actual ATI Digital tuners, the Recorded TV section showing the 6 current recordings, the Performance Monitor showing how little impact the process has on performance and resources and the smooth video playback while all this is taking place.

“We believe we are the first company to demonstrate such capabilities. Since Windows Vista for Media Center natively only supports 2 Cable Cards, we had to figure out how to modify the system in order to have it properly recognize more than 2 cards in the system” said Gregg Cannon of Cannon PC. “We have exceptional people on staff that are very knowledgeable of the Media Center product and spent many hours of research to make this happen. We feel confident that we can add even more digital Cable Cards to our systems based on the process and knowledge we have learned.”

For those not familiar with Digital CableCARDs, they allow customers to watch and record their cable TV channels, including premium HDTV channels like HBO-HD and ESPNHD directly on their media center without the need for a set top box. With more Cables Cards in the system it allows the HD experience to be shared more with the extenders in the home. What happens many times in a family environment with a Media Center and several extenders is that there are not enough TV tuners installed the Media Center to share the Live TV experience with more than 2 other rooms. Breakthroughs like this make that a thing of the past.

As the winner of over nine national and international awards, Cannon PC has been designing Microsoft Windows based Media Centers for over four years. Their business model is specifically targeted to Media Centers and Media Center technology. “We pride ourselves on bringing leading edge technology and ground breaking ideas to our customers. A system with 6 Cables Cards is just one of those ideas.” said Cannon.

Cannon PC offers a of line of Media Centers for the tech savvy consumer as well as a high end line of Media Centers tailored for the custom integration market. Cannon PC has a unique dealer program for qualified A/V installers and integrators that are looking to offer their clients reliable feature rich Media Centers at a competitive price. Unlike other Media Center manufactures, each system can be completely customizable to fits the customers need or the A/V project.

Their Home Series line of Media Centers consist of the AMD based ultra small form factor FX Series Media Center as well as the Intel based MX Series house in an A/V style case. Either system can be purchased through their online site.

The Cannon PC Pro A/V Series consists of three models; the LX, EX and RX. The LX has been redesigned to include a stylish new case that integrates gold plated front audio connectors, quick access USB and Fire Wire connections as well as a 28 in 1 media card reader. The EX features a 12″ HD touch screen and room for over 6 TB of disk storage. The RX unit is a sleek rack mount system that will fit nicely into any standard A/V rack and each system comes standard with a blu-ray DVD drive.

All Cannon PC Media Center comes standard with features such as a 52-in-1 media card reader, front IO, USB and fire wire connections, dual NTSC and HDTV tuners with the option to upgrade to Cable Cards, 8 channel HD audio, P35 Express chipset, Quad Core and Dual Core Processor, high end ATI or NVIDIA graphics cards, up to 8 GB or RAM and up to 6 terabytes of internal SATA hard disk storage. Each system uses state of the art motherboards and components that utilize cool and quiet technology to ensure that their systems are whisper quiet and low on heat. All systems are backed by a 1 year factory warranty.

Cannon PC has been designing high end Media Center since its founding in 2004. To learn more about Cannon PC Media Centers, visit them online at http://www.cannonpc.com.

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