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
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.