Since the creation of Microsoft's Windows Media Center, people have looked for ways to expand it's usefulness. One of the items that really set Media Center apart from competitors was it's support for Cable Card tuners. But while support was there early on, even Windows Vista Media Center, it wasn't until late in the game that cable card tuners became common and affordable. Ceton made it's first big splash by taking a serious effort to think about making Windows Media Center a real home hub for media and entertainment. It's Ceton InfiniTV 4-Channel PCI-E Cable Tuner was one of the most hotly anticipated Windows accessories for HTPC fans in 2010. Heck, I spent time on the waiting list to make sure I got a pair early on. And once the Ceton InfiniTV came onto the market the entire world of Windows Media Center changed. Doubt it? Check some of my HTPC posts here about using 4, 8, 12 tuners for video distribution and DVR usage. And since you control the disc space, your DVR can have infinite depth (I have TV recordings I've held onto for YEARS).
But with all those tuners, how do you really make the media center pay off? One of the best ways was the Media Center Extender. Built into every Microsoft XBOX360, the Media Center Extender allowed those XBOX devices to connect and run Media Center, have access to TV tuners, watch stored videos, pictures, music and browse content data. It was an ideal way to centralize a DVR, allow every family member to watch what they wanted and throw away the cable boxes.
But there were a few problems with this. The XBOX360 isn't really designed for this purpose as a primary goal. So, it tends to be noisy. Buying a remote control is an extra accessory, and the XBOX controller is a crummy navigation device. The XBOX also has the negative of being used by kids to play games, and in order to gain access to decoding CODECs, you have to upkeep an XBOXLive Account (there are ways around this for the most part).
So how do you improve on this? Ceton looked for a way to do exactly that by introducing the Ceton Echo, a next generation Media Center Extender. What makes the Ceton Echo extender different?
Well, let's cover the stats:
Minimum System Requirements:
Display with HDMI input
Wired Ethernet network
PC with Microsoft® Windows® 7 with Media Center. A PC with a TV tuner is required for TV and DVR features.
Size: 3.9" x 0.8" x 4.3"
Power Consumption: less than 5 watts
Outputs: HDMI, Optical Digital Audio (TOSLINK)
Other Connectors: USB 2.0, Mini USB (for power)
Network: Ethernet (10/100/1000)
Audio formats supported: Dolby Digital AC-3, MP3, PCM, WMA, WMA Pro
Photo formats supported: BMP, GIF, JPG, PNG, TIF
Video formats supported: MPEG-1, MPEG-2, H.264, WMV9
The Ceton Echo is TINY. I mean VERY tiny. A comparison is provided by them:
About the same size as your iPhone4. A little thicker of course. Power requirements are low. Like REALLY low. I have had no issue powering my Ceton off of my TV's internal USB port (this is not a guarantee, I would recommend using the power connector, but I was able to successfully use this as a test)
I've had almost 6 weeks to evaluate the Ceton Echo. Those 6 weeks have been up and down. Ceton has been surprisingly responsive to tickets, questions and issues, but quite a bit of the way this device was originally to function has changed. As you'll note above, early thoughts of outputting DTS via Bitstream are currently not supported. Ceton has issued roughly a firmware a week and as they go, numerous issues have been addressed. But it doesn't mean that issues don't remain.
Some are going to look at this as a negative. I'm a bit reminded of my recieving an early InfiniTV and SiliconDust Prime.. going through all the driver changes.. imaging that is going to be the case here, as well. Ceton has recently announced that they are planning to come out with an Android basis for this device that also runs the Extender (There is some confusion, they may be talking about a phone app, currently they support Windows Phone and iPhone via application).
In the last week, the feature set of the Echo has been significantly expanded. 1080P support has been added. A custom Windows Media Center plugin to allow the device to set and control it's resolution has been released, and updates to phone apps have rolled out. It's obvious that THIS is release week.
In hardened testing, there are definite advantages to the Ceton over the XBOX, especially with the newest firmware. The biggest of course is that it easily hides within a room and takes almost no energy. Ceton notes that the difference in running your XBOX year around VS running a Ceton Echo year around is $60 on your electric bill. I would absolutely believe it.
The other benefit is that the Echo comes with a decent - though slightly too small remote, and it's built for Media Center usage. You're also buying in at the start of a platform. IF Ceton rolls out their Android ICS platform before year end, this could become a very interesting device as not just a MCE, but also as a network display device.. we expect more news on how those functions will come about, but there is no doubt that the Echo will likely maintain the same level of incredible support that Ceton has provided to all of the products in the past.
The Ceton Companion App for Tablets and Phones: http://cetoncorp.com...ucts/companion/
There is one monumental negative. That being this is a VERY young unit. As of last night (and ongoing really) the Beta development continues. Firmware releases have come out about weekly, and so we are still in what I can only call the "Green" phase of a product. If you're looking for this to be fully matured, you might want to wait a bit. But these are going to be items that fly off the shelf because with Ceton's track record by Christmas we're going to have something pretty exceptional.
That doesn't mitigate the issues for people now, though. The Echo still occasionally has issues with High bandwidth content. It doesn't bitstream out Audio quite as originally planned, and the menus aren't as snappy and smooth as we'd want. The unit occasionally misdetects your TVs resolution - which you at least now can manually change by the Ceton Echo Media Center plugin.
If you're the kind of person that is committed to your Windows Media Center, and you like to tinker, this is going to be a buy immediately item. You're going to want to make sure you get an early unit before stock gets light, and you want to be the person who can say you did it first. On the other hand, the $179 price tag puts it almost equal to an XBOX. And, we're just talking Media Center Extender functions. Yes, some of the improved support for native decoding and better design do matter - but can it justify the price tag?
I've really struggled with that as well. The access to an iPhone / Windows Phone app and solid look and feel to the unit really do matter. And I admit, for someone who uses the extender most in my bedroom, it will be nice to eliminate the fan noise of an XBOX. But is it enough? I'm still not quite sure. I'm holding onto mine for now, because the promise of what this unit could be are exceptional. It has the right pedigree and a company dedicated to support it. In the end, this could turn out fantastic. But if you're a casual user now may not be the right time to grab an Echo. You may find that the process of basically being a paid beta tester for the next few months just isn't what you're interested in.
I have to applaud Ceton for their effort to really do something exceptional with Media Center. I've often thought that Media Center is Microsoft's most misunderstood and most poorly marketted application. The Ceton Echo really shows us how strong Media Center could and should be. That's why I'm sticking with the gamble, and I'm keeping my Ceton Echo. Because if I'm going to bet on something, I'm going to bet in a company I believe in, and I believe Ceton is on the right track.
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