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.

image

 

HP
MediaSmart Connect Review Part 2: MediaSmart UI

HP
MediaSmart Connect Review Part 3: Extender

13 thoughts on “HP MediaSmart Connect Review Part 1: Overview

  1. Am I reading this right? Only HDMI…no component connections? Makes it hard for those of us using switchers with only component inputs.

  2. No, it has Component and HDMI. From the specs above “HDMI, Component outputs.” It is not meant to be connected to an SDTV however.

  3. So is the software install optional for usage with reduced functionality (or just VMC extender usage)? I don’t like the idea of introducing additional 3rd part software to my HTPC.

  4. The software install is really for use of the MediaSmart UI and its features. If you are just interested in the Extender functionality you don’t need any extra software installed (Just Vista Home Premium/Ultimate).

    Now, you can still skip HPs software and use the MediaSmart UI with a standard UPnP server on the PC (eg. Windows Media Player), but you miss out on some of the other features of MediaSmart like online services.

  5. With extenders gaining improved UPnP Client functionality & UI’s..Microsoft better watch it. They need to make sure Media Center/Extender capabilities far exceed what the generic UPnP clients out there are providing. Now, don’t get me wrong, anyone can make a beautiful menuing system with animations, etc. But if it streams better, supports more formats, able to access local storage and connect directly to internet services…watch out.

  6. I can’t believe HP continues to push that ridiculous “pocket media drive bay”. I have one of these things in my Slimline and I really would have preferred that they just save the space.

  7. So, I can do the normal xBox 360 Extender stuff and watch recorded TV, both standard and high definition, that is recorded on my Vista Media Center box. Right? Does it allow the streaming of DVD video in any way shape or form, e.g., as VOB’s or a DVD in a physical or vitrual drive? I am guessing, not likely.

  8. dnr: I’ll have two other parts of the review coming soon. One will cover exactly what the HP MedisSmart UI of the device can do, and another will cover the Media Center Extender functionality.

  9. Aaron, I think HP was smart to include that pocket media drive bay if they do what I think they will. Buying an extender currently assumes you have a dedicated PC or Home Server. To make extenders attractive to someone just starting out..they should offer some basic PC-less capabilities. I’m not sure it currently works this way, but it could make it possible to download CinemaNow locally or perhaps support NetFlix in the future. Add a PC or WHS to your network, and you’ve got the beginnings of a whole house entertainment solution.

    It will be interesting to see what HP plans for their next generation MediaSmart Server (codenamed Encore) and how that might benefit MediaSmart Connect users. Personally, the only missing ingredient in the Media Smart hardware platform is Live TV/DVR. C’mon Microsoft, get Media Center ported to WHS!

  10. Whoa. “pretty bulky software load” ??? I was hoping to have the Connect find the media files on my HP Windows Home Server machine. How will Connect interface with the MediaSmart Server EX470? Or will this be in part deaux?

  11. JohnCz: CinemaNow downloads to the PC still as there is PC-side software that does the real work, but yeah you have the idea right about the Media Bay and MediaSmart in general. The market for true Media Center Extenders is pretty small, the market for UPnP devices is also small, but applies to a larger % then MCX only.

    Sam: This will be covered in part two (basically), but I believe HP already has UPnP software on the MediaSmart Server, so for basic functionality you are ready to go without an additional software install.

  12. Do recordings with Sage or BeyondTV display ok via the extender? Am able to record h.264 using these from a Hauppauge HD-PVR. This is the key additional capability am looking for until VMC works with the HD-PVR in future (hopefully).

  13. I have an HP MediaVault, which has UPnP capabilities. So it sounds like this device could play directly from that server, and I would not need to install software on a pc. I would be forgoing the online services, of course.
    thanks for the info!

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