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Shopping for a Network Media Hub

On the surface, most network media hubs look somewhat alike; they're all small rectangular boxes with little antennas in the back. However, there are major differences in how different units connect to your home network, what audio and video formats they support, and how they handle playback operation. If you're in the market for a network media hub, here are some key questions to ask:

  • How does it connect to your PC—via wired Ethernet or wireless WiFi? Most folks will find it difficult to run Ethernet cabling from their PC across the house to the living room.

  • If it connects via WiFi, does it use the slower 802.11b or the faster 802.11g standard? In most cases, 802.11b is okay for streaming audio, but you'll need 802.11g to display videos and photos.

  • What audio formats does the accompanying software support? Most units support MP3, WMA, and WAV files; a select few support AAC file (used by Apple's iPod and iTunes); and only a handle support FLAC and other lossless compression format. The larger the file size (especially with uncompressed WAV files), the more likely you'll need a faster network connection.

  • Can it stream Internet radio broadcasts?

  • Does it play audio only, or can it also stream videos or display digital photos and artwork?

  • Does the unit have a built-in display or does it use your TV to display song information? Or does it display song information on the remote control?

  • Can you control playback from the unit (via remote control, or course), or do you have to set everything up from your PC? Trudging over to your PC every time you want to change playlists can get old real quick...

  • How user-friendly is the playback software? How easy is it to create custom playlists?

  • Can you connect multiple units to provide music to other rooms in your house?

Whichever unit you choose, make sure that the retailer has a good return policy. You can't fully judge how a unit really works until you have it set up and in use for a few days. Make sure that you can take the unit back if it doesn't do everything you want, in just the way you want.

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