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Popular Network Media Hubs

Several brands of network media hubs are on the market now, with more in the pipeline. Even though all these models perform similar functions, they range in price from around $140 to close to $500. Let's take a quick look at the main players on the scene as of Fall 2004.

Apple

Apple's AirPort Express is a teeny-weeny little network media hub (small enough to fit in the palm of your hand) that lets you stream your iTunes music library to your home audio system. The AirPort Express ($129) works with Macs or PCs, and operates via the fast 802.11g WiFi standard. The built-in AirTunes functionality works with the iTunes software on your computer to access all the AAC and MP3 files on your computer's hard disk. Connect multiple AirPort Express units to play music in other rooms.

Creative

Creative's Sound Blaster Wireless Music is a full-featured network music hub that operates over an 802.11b or 802.11g WiFi connection. The Sound Blaster Wireless Music ($199.99) is a small unit that can be placed horizontally or (in the included holder) stand vertically. What's really neat is the wireless remote control, which has a built-in LCD screen that displays songs and playlists. Connect up to four Wireless Music units to send music to multiple rooms in your house.

NETGEAR

The NETGEAR MP101 is the lowest-priced network music hub available today (just $139.99), and probably the simplest to set up and operate. Unfortunately, it's also the most limited in terms of functionality. The MP101 connects to your home network via wired Ethernet, or wireless 802.11b or 802.11g WiFi. To connect to your home audio system, all you have are analog RCA jacks—no digital connections. It does come with a wireless remote control, though, and you can connect multiple players to send music throughout your house. It's also good about searching a PC for existing Windows Media Player and MusicMatch playlists.

Pinnacle Systems

Pinnacle's ShowCenter ($299.99) is a complete digital media hub. Not only does it let you play your PC's digital music files on your home audio system, it lets you use your PC as a personal video recorder (PVR) to record television programming—and then play back that programming on your home theater system. It's a wireless solution, using a fast WiFi 802.11g connection.

Roku

Roku's SoundBridge ($499.99) is an expensive but cool-looking network music hub, contained in a slim cylindrical aluminum tube that's just 12 inches wide. The SoundBridge unit supports MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, and Ogg Vorbis files; streams Internet radio; and even supports Apple's iTunes. It connects to your PC via wired Ethernet or wireless WiFi connection (via an optional adapter), comes with a wireless remote control, and has a variety of audio outputs—including analog RCA, digital optical, and digital coaxial.

Also from Roku is the HD1000 ($299.99), a unique unit that's a hub for both music and pictures. This puppy is designed especially for displaying digital photographs from a PC on a high-definition TV. The HD1000 connects to your home network or displays photos stored on digital media cards. (Roku even sells prepackaged Art Packs if you don't have enough photos of your own.) If your normal video source is turned off, the HD1000 automatically kicks in and generates a changing screensaver. Picture quality is terrific; the HD1000 displays photos in true high-definition. It also plays digital music files, although it's not as versatile in this respect as Roku's SoundBridge.

Slim Devices

The Slim Devices Squeezebox ($199) is my favorite of these media hub devices. It's unique in that it's a Linux-based device, capable of playing the widest variety of digital file formats: MP3, WMA, AAC, Apple Lossless, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, WAV, and AIFF as well as SHOUTcast Internet radio. The Squeezebox is a low-profile unit with built-in display, and connects to a PC via wireless WiFi or wired Ethernet. You can synchronize multiple players for whole-house audio, and it even has a built-in alarm clock!

Turtle Beach

The Turtle Beach AudioTron AT-100 ($299) connects to your home network via a fast Ethernet connection (it's not wireless) and plays MP3, WMA, and WAV files as well as Internet radio. The nice thing about the AT-100 is that it's a little larger than the other units described previously; it looks and feels like a regular audio component, complete with a nice front-panel display. It features both analog and digital coaxial audio outputs, and you can connect multiple units throughout your house. Unlike other hubs, it has no trouble playing music protected by rights-management schemes—with the notable exception of music purchased from iTunes.

NOTE

Windows Media Center Extenders

If you have a PC running Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, another alternative is to purchase a Windows Media Center Extender. This is a network media hub in the guise of a small-profile set-top box that connects (wirelessly) to a media center PC and plays music and video files stored on your computer. Media Center Extender boxes are currently available from HP ($299.99) and Linksys ($299); expect more manufacturers to join the media center extender game in the coming months.

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