February 02, 2013, 7:25 AM — The universe of Windows Media Center Extenders--a class of networking hardware that enables you to connect the PC in your den to the TV in your living room--rapidly shrunk to just one device after Microsoft rendered its Xbox gaming console capable of the trick. Now Ceton is trying to carve out a niche in this space with its Echo--a component barely larger than a Roku box.
The only means of connecting the Echo to your TV is via HDMI (Ceton provides a cable in the box). You'll also need to run an Ethernet cable from your router to device, as the Echo doesn't support Wi-Fi. The FAQ on Ceton's website claims that the quality of service available with wireless networking hardware isn't sufficiently robust to deliver a satisfactory HDTV experience, which is a curious supposition considering that other media-streaming devices (such as the Roku XS and the Slingbox 500) handle HD video over Wi-Fi just fine. If Ethernet isn't convenient, Ceton suggests powerline or MoCA (Multimedia over Coax) networking as alternatives.
The Echo must be paired with a Windows 7 PC equipped with a TV tuner (the Xbox 360 being the only Windows Media Center Extender currently compatible with Windows 8). I used a machine equipped with Ceton's InfiniTV 4 USB tuner and a CableCARD, which was connected in turn to a digital cable TV service. The combo forms a robust DVR that can record even premium channels such as HBO and Showtime. If you abhor paying for TV, the Echo will work also work with any TV tuner--or without one if you simply want access to your media libraries.
After a few more simple setup steps, the Echo lived up to its name, producing a full-on Windows Media Center experience on my TV, same as if I was sitting in front of my PC--or if I'd used an Xbox. Thus I could watch, pause, and record TV shows; listen to my music library; view my photos; play my videos; stream Netflix; and so on. It can't stream DVDs, but that's a Windows limitation.
Unfortunately, my joy was tempered by some frustration after trying to navigate Windows Media Center with the Echo's remote, which is small and crowded with mushy, non-backlit buttons. What's more, the Echo didn't recognize input at all unless I pointed the remote directly at it. There's an alternative in the form of the Ceton's new My Media Center mobile app for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone devices, but Ceton expects to collect an addition $5 for it. I think a $179 set-top box should have a fantastic remote, not the chintzy one provided here.
The good news is that the Echo performed superbly with just about everything, most notably live and recorded TV. There was very little lag in the Windows Media Center user interface, something I've noticed when using an Xbox for the same purpose. My only other complaint was when the Echo decided to install an update right while I was watching a show, with no warning and no option to delay it. It not only interrupted my viewing, but made me wait for a good five minutes while it downloaded, installed, and rebooted.
Ceton hopes to add Windows 8 support in a future update. An Android "layer" that will open the door to Android apps, including a Web browser, is also in the works.
It's hard to recommend the Echo given that a $200 Xbox 360 performs the same function and plays top-shelf games, too. The Echo is smaller and quieter, but it would be a much more attractive solution if it came with a better remote, supported Wi-Fi, and cost a whole lot less.