Linksys Wireless-B Media Adapter

By Eric Griffith

December 18, 2003

If you're looking for playback of digital audio and still pictures on your TV, this product delivers with simplicity and quality -- but is it worth the price?

Model: WMA11B
Price: $199
Pros: Simple server software, good sound quality
Cons: Installation hassles, no video, only one PC can be a server at a time.

Wireless adapters that let you enjoy the digital media stored on your home computer using your living room entertainment center are nothing new these days. Arguably a big name like Linksys -- a division of Cisco Systems and still the number one producer of home networking equipment according to Synergy Research -- legitimized the space when they released this product.

Unlike many others in the category (from Gateway to PRISMIQ to SMC and others), Linksys decided the Wireless-B Media Adapter would use only 802.11b instead of the higher bandwidth 11g. Because of that, the WMA11B unit is limited to supporting audio files and still pictures -- no video.

The company line on this decision is that until Quality of Service for video is available with the 802.11e standard, they don't think customers will see the value of video on wireless. That's debatable. The decent if not excellent quality of wireless video playback on products like Gateway's Connected DVD Player says different -- and considering the price differential of only fifty bucks, it's hard to recommend the Linksys. But what the WMA11B does, it does very well.

Installation was the only bugaboo I ran into. The unit comes only with software for Windows XP systems (though Windows 2000 software is now available). The software has to be installed so a PC can be used as a server to deliver audio files and pictures that the WMA11B can play back. The software forces the installation of the Windows .NET Framework 1.0 -- a move I have never made on my workstations under the heading of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I did an install of the .NET version 1.1 instead using the Windows Update service. This brought my Pentium III system to a slow crawl. Mixed with several other issues, I ended up nuking the entire hard disk and reinstalling the OS (hey, it happens). When I was back up and running, much faster, thank you, I went with the suggested .NET 1.0 from the CD -- which worked just fine.

When the server software is installed, you're given an opportunity to select the folders of music and pictures you want to have available. The defaults are, unsurprisingly, the My Pictures and My Music folders that Windows creates by default in your My Documents folder. You can change these selections at this point, or any time after by clicking the Wireless-B Media Folders Manager icon that's placed on your desktop. Another icon appears in the System Tray whenever the server software is running. The server software has little or nothing to futz with -- perfect for home users.

The setup utility that seeks out the media adapter couldn't find the unit at first over the wireless, even though the unit's default IP address of matches up with how I use IPs on my home network. However, plugging the product into a hub via Ethernet brought it up instantly. You can use the one page Web interface to choose to use the WMA11b wirelessly and whether it should get its network information automatically (via DHCP ) or not. Security settings are limited to wired equivalent privacy (WEP) -- no WPA.

Unlike other media products like the aforementioned Gateway, the WMA11B will only look at one server at a time. So if you've got audio on multiple PCs you'd like to play back, you can't. It could be time to consolidate all your MP3s on one system.

The media adapter itself is the size of a paperback book, and stands upright on a stand. Lights on the front indicated that its powered on, and whether its using the wireless or wired connection. There's also a power button on the front. The non-removable antenna on the back juts upward to give it a height over one foot.

The back of the unit has a power port, Ethernet port (with an uplink button for using a crossover cable so it can connect directly to a PC), S-Video out, and composite video and audio out ports. All can be covered with an included plastic sheath when the cables are installed. A reset button is there to set it back to the factory specs.

The unit hooks to any television with an S-video or composite video in, and the right/left channel audio can go to the same TV or into a stereo receiver. Turn it on, and once it finds the server on your network -- which ours did instantaneously -- you're greeted with the most simplistic of interfaces: three buttons that say Music, Pictures, and Help. You won't get past this point without the included infra-red remote control (batteries included!).

Music can be played in groups of artist or genre, or by using playlists saved in .M3U and .ASX format, which you can create and export with programs like MusicMatch and Windows Media Player. You can also sort by the folders you store the music in. Once you select a list of music, you can shuffle them, or have them repeat infinitely. Audio files supported include MP3 and WMA files only -- this is not going to work on songs you download from Itunes.

Pictures you can choose by folder -- or just choose every picture available. You'll see thumbnails on screen, six pictures at a time. There's a Play button on the remote that will start a full-screen slideshow of all the images in the folder you picked. If you start playing music first and then go to Pictures, the tunes will play while the pictures change. Excellent for displaying your vacation pictures to Jimmy Buffett songs.

The playback quality for both music and pictures is exceptional (thought dependant, as always, on the quality of your original digitized recording). The 802.11b links is more than adequate for playback of music, and it definitely sounds better on my stereo than on my PC speakers.

In essence, the WMA11B does exactly what Linksys says it will, and it does it with aplomb. But is that enough? For fifty bucks more, you can get a product that does the same, plus video playback and more. Consider what you really need now, but also what you might want out of such a product in the future.

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