Windows Media Center has kind of died completely to death in the last few years, as Microsoft’s support of the platform has dwindled to the point that it’s pretty much an afterthought to Windows 8, an add-in that now must be paid for as a separate entity along with DVD playback. It’s a shame, though, because it really is a powerful platform that makes using your PC as a DVR and media server a snap, and that’s one of the reasons why HTPC owners in search of a turnkey solution have long relied on it.
Of course, most people don’t want to have a full-on PC in every room, which makes the Media Center Extender such a seemingly attractive solution. With the lack of standalone devices, many Media Center enthusiasts have turned to Xbox 360s to keep their media portable — a hot, power-hungry solution when all you want to do is stream your media around your house. Enter Ceton’s Echo — a compact, sleek solution that blends in with your existing equipment, or can easily be tucked out of sight behind your TV or other gear.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Echo, despite its size, is that the device lacks proper setup documentation in the box. Far from being plug-and-play, the Echo requires a plug-in to be installed into Windows Media Center to function, which the company doesn’t do a very good job of telling you. Without it, video is squished and oddly zoomed, and it’s almost impossible to use in any way. Once you install the plugin, and force 1080p output (assuming this is appropriate for your display), all of these problems iron out, and it behaves the way one would expect. Wi-Fi is not supported by the Echo, so be prepared to either have it in the same room as your router, get an Ethernet-to-wireless adapter, or invest in a powerline networking kit to get up and running.
So, yeah, needless to say, Ceton’s WMC Extender isn’t the easiest of devices to install and set up, but after a few hours of swapping out cables, switching inputs, and finally resorting to reading the support site, I was ready to actually begin using the Echo.
With the Echo — as with other Media Center Extenders — you get almost exactly the same experience you would if you had a home-theater PC attached directly to your TV, at least with actual streaming media. Of course, streaming of protected content like DVDs or Blu-ray discs doesn’t work, but all of your media and recordings that are native to the program are yours for the consuming. You can customize the interface by hiding the sections you’re not interested in — sports for example — and designate a starting row, or even push directly to live TV if you desire. Responsiveness is great for an extender: a slight, but noticeable increase increase over the Xbox 360 I was using previously. Video loads quickly, and bumping through commercials on recorded TV is about as smooth as can be expected.
Unfortunately, in many other ways, the Ceton Echo just isn’t quite ready for mass consumption. While the hardware is solid, the software seems very much still in development. Firmware updates are rolling out fast and furious to fix bugs like 1080i video incompatibilities (that’s a doozy, especially if you use WMC as a DVR), incorrect black levels (currently in beta testing), and implementing features like turning off the illuminated logo. These issues really should have been ironed out before going public with the device, though.
The included remote is serviceable, but the lack of labels on the buttons and the small size make it tough to use in the dark. Much less easy to lose, and easier to use, to boot, is Ceton’s Companion app, which not only allows you to manage your entire Windows Media network, but gives you an onboard remote control that you can flip between devices at will.
The biggest potential in the Echo lies in the upcoming ability to run Android applications on the box, which should allow access to the usual suite of streaming apps, Ultraviolet support, and custom applications to be written for the box. Once the firmware issues are ironed out, and Android support enabled, the Echo has the potential be a pretty amazing little box. As it stands, the Echo is a bit on the expensive side at $179, but is a capable, efficient Windows Media Extender, that has a lot of potential it just isn’t using yet.
Special Note: If you’re not sure about it, Ceton has a special offer to try to make up for their growing pains. They’re sure enough that they’ll be in good shape soon that they’ve instituted a 90 day full refund policy if you’re not satisfied, and a warranty extension to 2 years if you are. That gives beta testers and pre-orderers until the end of February to make final decisions.