Nik's Technology Blog

Travels through programming, networks, and computers

Media Center Extender - Network Congestion

Media Extenders are particularly useful for streaming video to your TV. Here in the UK the only available Media Extenders you can purchase come in the form of an Xbox 360.

I have been using my Xbox 360 to stream movies stored on my main Media Center PC to my living room over a wireless network (802.11g).

Occasionally I get a "Network Congestion" message appear in the top-right-hand corner, which comes accompanied with a small amount of picture judder/stutter. It's still highly watchable, just a little annoying. Information is available to help you improve your wireless performance; however the crux of the issue is the wireless standards. The Xbox wireless networking adapter supports the following WLAN standards 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. The 802.11n standard has not been ratified by the IEEE yet, but when it comes around it will improve the throughput of data.

The Xbox 360 wireless networking adapter doesn't support any draft version of the 802.11n standard however, so we are stuck with 802.11a,b,g, unless we run an ethernet cable from the router to the Xbox, but that kind of defeats the object, doesn't it?

Microsoft recommends the following:

  • Only have 1 wireless route between your PC -> Router -> Media Extender
  • Use 802.11a standard as it works at 5GHz compared to the congested 2.4GHz channel
  • Use a router designed for Windows XP Media Center Edition

I fairly certain 802.11a is not legal in the UK, can anyone confirm this?

Where does Apple TV leave the Xbox 360?

Apple have just released Apple TV, essentially a device used to wirelessly bridge the gap between iTunes on your computer (Mac, PC) and your TV set in your living room.

Apple added video downloads to the iTunes service a while back, by getting several Hollywood studios on-board. These videos have so far only be available to watch on your computer screen or on your iPod video. Apple TV aims to fix this, by allowing your iTunes library to be wirelessly streamed to your HDTV.

Xbox 360's Media Capabilities

Microsoft on the other hand have similar strategies on invading peoples' living rooms with digital content, theirs though, is in the form of the Xbox 360, which as well as being a high definition games machine is also a very capable Media Center Extender.

As a Media Center Extender it wirelessly streams content from Windows Media Center, or Windows Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate editions) computers. If you don't have a Media Center edition of Windows you can still stream your music, pictures and just recently WMV videos too from the Xbox console using Windows Media Connect.

So How Do Apple TV and Xbox 360 Compare?

Ok, here's a matrix comparision table between Apple TV and the Xbox 360, so you can make your own mind up.

Apple TV
Xbox 360
HD Games Machine
Stream Audio
Stream Video
Stream Photos
Component Video
Audio Out
Yes (optical and RCA analogue)
Yes (optical and RCA analogue)
Ethernet connection
Wireless capabilities
Yes (built-in) (pre-n)
Yes (sold separately) (a, b, g)
HD Resolution capabilities
1080i, 720p, 576p, or 480p 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480i,480p
DVD player
HD DVD player
Yes (sold separately)
iTunes compatibility
Remote control
Yes (sold separately)
HD drive
20GB (premium package only, not needed for streaming)
Video formats supported
H.264 and protected H.264 (from iTunes Store): Up to 5 Mbps, Progressive Main Profile (CAVLC) with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps (maximum resolution: 1280 by 720 pixels at 24 fps, 960 by 540 pixels at 30 fps

iTunes Store purchased video: 320 by 240 pixels or 640 by 480 pixels

MPEG-4: Up to 3 Mbps, Simple Profile with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps (maximum resolution: 720 by 432 pixels at 30 fps)
WMV only, although a Windows 3rd party app called Transcode360 will allow most other formats to be streamed
Audio formats supported
AAC, protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3, MP3 VBR, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV MP3, WMA, un-encoded AAC, CD, DVD audio

Apple vs Microsoft (iTunes vs Media Player)

I'm no fan of big companies with monopolies that strangle the life out of the IT industry, but Apple and Microsoft do have a knack of producing some fairly good software.

Until recently I had just been ignoring the smug Mac users when their claims that Apple's computers and software are the best things since sliced bread.

I'm not convinced that the DRM (Digital Rights Management) strategy adopted by either Apple or Microsoft is the best way forward, but I am slowing warming to Apple's philosophy.

After buying an iPod and solving the issue of it crashing on me while converting to Windows format, even before I'd even used the thing, I have to admit, they got a lot right with the software. iTunes even though some features that should be there are missing on purpose is the business!

It's a joy to find and update your music. ID3 tags are so easy to edit, even for multiple files. Artwork can be added through the interface, although it would be better if the music library Apple uses to write the ID3 tags in the first place had the said album artwork (Something Microsoft's Media Player does).

As for the iPod, well it's sexy, easy to scratch and heavy, but not as heavy as all those CD's that it's replacing!, oh and it does crash once in a while, no blue screens though :-)