One of the pleasures of writing a tech column is that I get to try gadgets that are absolutely unnecessary for daily existence but are fun to fool around with. And it's really fun when the gadget works as advertised.
So it is with the Hauppage MediaMVP, a $100 network appliance that allows you to use a television to play the music, video or digital photo files stored on your computer. It will work up to 100 feet away, assuming you're willing to snake a cable that far from your PC to your television.
The manufacturer, Hauppage Computer Works, is a longtime supplier of television tuner and video capture cards for PCs. The company's $50 WinTV-GO is still the best buy around if you want to watch your favorite programs on your computer, but Hauppage makes fancier gadgets for serious video buffs and folks who want to turn their computers into personal video recorders (PVRs).
The problem with turning a PC into a digital media center is that all the stuff you want to watch or listen to is on the computer. And that PC is probably not in front of your sofa or favorite chair. Nor is your PC a good place to show a gathering of family and friends that slide show of photos you took at the Grand Canyon. Actually, your family and friends will tell you there's no good place to watch your slide shows, but that's another issue.
In any case, MediaMVP bridges the gap between your computer and home entertainment center. The silver box, a bit larger than a paperback book, is small enough to fit easily on the top of a TV. Inside is a tiny, single-purpose computer running the Linux operating system. When you plug it in, MediaMVP starts up software that connects to your PC and plays the music, videos and digital photos stored on its hard drive.
To use MediaMVP, you'll need a PC running Windows XP or 2000, which unfortunately leaves Win 98 or ME users out of luck.
You'll also need a TV with external video and audio input jacks - which most sets have these days. On the back of the MediaMVP box are two TV connectors - a standard RCA composite output and an S-Video jack for higher quality if your set has an S-video port. Unfortunately for HDTV owners, there's no digital video output, so you're stuck with conventional analog signals.
For sound, MediaMVP provides standard stereo RCA audio jacks. You can plug them into your TV's audio jacks or hook them up to a stereo for better sound, which I recommend if your stereo is nearby.
The last port accepts a standard network cable, which connects to your network's router or hub. However, there's no provision for wireless networking - which would eliminate the need for a cable - but for a hundred bucks, how much can you expect? You can also connect the MediaMVP directly to a single computer (laptop or desktop), but you'll have to buy a "crossover" network cable and tweak the PC's network settings.
To make everything work from your easy chair, Hauppage includes a handheld remote control unit.
Hooking up the video and audio to the TV and the network cable to my router took about five minutes. That done, I installed Hauppage's MediaMVP software on my PC. It includes a server that streams video, audio and digital images over your home network, and a media manager, which identifies the folders where your media files are stored. You can search for media files on your PC directly from your TV, too, but it's easier to do it ahead of time.
MediaMVP is easy to use. There are no controls - not even a power switch. When you plug it in, it looks for a network connection, downloads the additional software it needs from your PC and displays a simple TV menu offering video, pictures and music. From there, it's a matter of navigating with the remote control.
The only glitch I encountered involved my firewall, Zone- Alarm, which required a bit of tweaking before it would let MediaMVP make contact with my PC. That's what firewalls are supposed to do, and Hauppage's instruction manual walks you through the process - although it took me a couple of tries.
Once that was done, the only thing that kept MediaMVP from being an absolutely great product was a set of playback features that were disappointing in an otherwise sophisticated package.
On the music side, MediaMVP will only play MP3 music files - the standard for kids who trade files over the Internet and music buffs who "rip" their own music from audio CD's. But it won't play the protected AAC files downloaded from Apple's iTunes store or other protected formats unless you convert them to MP3s first. A beta (test) version of the MediaMVP software, available for download from Hauppage's Web site, will play Windows Media Audio files (WMAs) - but as a matter of principle, I never let any software labeled "beta" anywhere near my PC.