NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, February 2006
Optimizing Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005,
Xbox 360 and Media Center Extender Networks

by Barb Bowman
Windows XP Expert Zone Community Columnist

(click to email author)

With Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, Xbox 360, Windows Media Center Extender, and Windows Media Center Extender for Xbox, you can now enjoy media content in new ways in your home. Whether it's live TV, recorded TV, or music ripped from your collection of music CDs or downloaded from an online music store, you can broadcast digital entertainment throughout your home. Media Center Extender devices connect a Media Center PC with TVs and monitors in the home, so you can enjoy TV, photos, music, and movies on any TV in your house.

You'll need a Media Center PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 to operate the Media Center Extender. Also, you'll need a fast and reliable network to stream content from the Media Center PC to the Media Center Extender devices or to your Xbox 360; otherwise, the viewing and listening experience could be marred by connectivity interruptions and network dropouts. Microsoft recommends a wired network for best performance on a Media Center network. That's where you get the high data rate transfers needed for streaming live TV from a Media Center PC to a Media Center Extender.

However, using a totally wired Ethernet network just isn't possible for many of us. Your significant other may forbid wires in the living room, or your landlord won't allow holes drilled through the walls, or you're put off by the amount of work needed to run cables through the ceiling. That's when you need to go wireless.

My experiences using Media Center Extenders and helping other users with network connectivity highlighted the need for a Media Center Extender wireless networking guide. With the introduction of the Xbox 360 and built-in Media Center capabilities and accessory wireless 802.11a/b/g adapter, many people will be setting up wireless networks for the first time. In this column, I assume that you have a broadband connection. Although connecting the audio and video components from a Media Center Extender to televisions or home theater receivers will be easy for most people, I'll provide the basic rules for Media Center/Xbox 360/Media Center Extender networks. I'll also cover how to do the following tasks:

    · Set up Media Center/Media Center Extender/Xbox 360 networks with a single 802.11a/g router
    · Add wireless capabilities to an existing network using an 802.11a/g access point.
    · Wirelessly enable an Xbox 360.
    · Explain why 802.11a is the best choice for going wireless with Xbox 360.
    · Super charge a wireless 802.11g Xbox connection with Super G.
    · Create advanced segmented networks for multiple Extender/Xbox 360 environments.

I'll point you in the right direction to get more help too.

Use Wired 100 Mb Ethernet for Network Configuration
Mbps stands for megabits per second and measures the transfer rate of data over a network. Microsoft recommends a wired network that supports 100 Mbps (also called Fast Ethernet) as the best choice for a Media Center network. If you're a gamer and a Microsoft Xbox Live user, you probably already know that a wired 100 Mbps connection is the best option when split-second timing counts.

The ideal Media Center broadband home network starts with a router that minimally supports 100 Mbps Ethernet. Home routers sold today (both wired and wireless) all support 100 Mbps Ethernet. Media Center Extender, Xbox 360, and Media Center Extender for Xbox both support 10/100 Mbps wired Ethernet. Media Center Edition 2005 computers that are available in retail stores include a minimum of 10/100 Mbps-capable connectivity. By default, most home routers will assign an IP address to connected devices via DHCP. Just plug-in your Ethernet cables and using out-of-the-box default settings, standalone Extenders and Xbox 360 consoles should just work.

Planning a Wireless Media Center Network
Although wired Ethernet is recommended, Microsoft recognizes that many users may prefer wireless. The Microsoft specification for the standalone Media Center Extender therefore includes 802.11a/g dual band wireless. If you plan to use wireless, a router that supports both 802.11a and 802.11g is ideal. You can learn more about 802.11a and 802.11b in my earlier column on 802.11a Wireless Networking with Windows XP and about 802.11g wireless in Raising the Speed Limit with 802.11g Wireless Networking and Windows XP. The Media Center Extender comes with everything you'll need for making a wireless connection using both 802.11a and 802.11g. You can also add additional access points to any wired or wireless router you already have and run them as separate access points using different SSID names and channels. There are some limitations to wireless connectivity that you need to consider before purchasing wireless equipment. The number of walls and/or ceilings that the wireless signal will pass through can be a limiting factor. The construction of your home may be a limiting factor. Modern wood structures are great environments for wireless networks. Older homes with chicken wire embedded in plaster walls are poor wireless environments. You'll also want to keep your wireless devices away from large metal objects, duct work for HVAC, and any electrical appliances that generate RF noise, especially microwaves.

The presence of an 802.11b device on a mixed 802.11b/g network will slow down your network. The 2.4 GHz band in which 802.11b/g wireless operates is also used by cordless telephones, microwave ovens, and other devices. Also, 802.11b/g has proliferated to the point that many neighborhoods are saturated with wireless access points and routers close enough to disrupt your own network. I use Netstumbler to try to find the best channel to configure on my wireless equipment. You can see how saturated my neighborhood is in the figure below.

You can view available wireless networks in the Media Center Extender as shown below, but you won't see an overview of all access points and channels without moving the onscreen cursor or by using the handheld remote to display each one individually. This feature works similarly to the

View available wireless networks command in Windows XP. If you have a wirelessly enabled computer, I highly recommend Netstumbler as a time saver.

You may already have laptops, PDAs, or other devices that use wireless on a home network. All the computers and devices share the wireless bandwidth of the wireless radio inside your wireless router or access point. 802.11a is not as widely used and over shorter distances of 20–30 feet, it has greater sustained throughput than 802.11g. For these reasons, 802.11a is the preferred type of wireless connectivity for the Media Center Extender.

Set up a Media Center Extender Network with a Single 802.11a/g Router
The most important advice I can give you in this column is to segment your network to provide dedicated wireless connectivity between a Media Center PC and a Media Center Extender, the Xbox 360 or Media Center Extender for Xbox. If you have multiple Extenders that will be used simultaneously, you'll optimize performance by putting each device on its own dedicated network segment.

When you first set up a standalone Extender, it automatically checks connectivity first for a wired network. If none is found and wireless is available, you'll be presented with options to set up a wireless network.

The easiest way to segment a network is to use a single device dual band a/g wireless router. Use the 802.11a side for the Extender and the 802.11g side for computers, PDAs, and other devices. Because there are so few devices that support 802.11a other than computers and Extenders, this is a logical arrangement. This gives the Extender the entire available wireless bandwidth of the 802.11a channel. You'll be able to move large files around over the 802.11g side of the network and not impact streaming video over the Media Center network.

Important: If you use the built-in wireless of the Media Center Extender or the accessory 802.11a/b/g adapter for Xbox 360, you'll need to disable any built in "super" or "turbo" modes on your router or access point.

The 802.11a/g wireless router that performed the best for me during the Media Center Extender beta and that I have used on my own home network is the D-Link DI-784. This is one of the most reliable routers I've ever used. It has every imaginable feature I could possibly need and an easy-to-understand interface. For a basic segmented network, I use the 802.11g wireless for computers and other 802.11g devices, and use the 802.11a wireless exclusively for the Media Center Extender. The D-Link DI-784 supports WPA-PSK on both the 802.11g and 802.11a sides, so I have great wireless security. I've been advised that the Linksys WRT55AG Dual-Band Wireless A+G Broadband Router Version 2 with firmware upgrade v1.61 or higher also works well, and it carries the Designed for Windows XP Media Center Edition logo.

Add Wireless Capabilities to a Network Using an 802.11a/g Access Point
No matter what you use as the base router on your home network, you can add one or more wireless access points (not additional routers) to provide dedicated network segments for one or more Extender devices. While most wireless is interoperable, there can be variables between vendors using different user interfaces. It's advisable to use products from a single vendor and from the same generation of products. This helps provide a consistent user interface for configuring equipment and the wireless capabilities should be the same. To prepare for this column, I asked D-Link to supply me with additional wireless networking hardware suitable for a multi-Extender environment. I found great performance, a consistent interface, and a great user experience mixing and matching the various pieces of equipment they provided.

I've used and tested two much newer 802.11a/g wireless access points plugged into various routers to provide dedicated wireless network segments for Media Center Extender devices. Both the D-Link DWL-7200 (which also provides power over Ethernet) and the DWL-7100 work well to provide 802.11a connectivity for Media Center Extenders. The 802.11g side can be used to provide connectivity for computers and PDAs. Both of these access points provide WPA-PSK encryption on both the "a" and "g" sid

Set up an Xbox 360 on your Wireless Network
While I've not had hands on experience with an Xbox 360 yet on my own network, I've attended workshops on Microsoft's Redmond campus and the information that follows is based on those sessions. The first step is to connect your Xbox 360 to your wireless network. To do this, navigate to the System blade, select Network Settings, Edit Settings, and then choose Wireless.

After your Xbox 360 is connected to your network, go to the Media Blade on your Xbox 360 and select the Media Center option (the green button).

A check will be performed to ensure you have a solid network connection. An 8-digit setup code will be displayed, as well as information on where to download the necessary software for your Media Center 2005 computer.

Write that code down and go to your Media Center PC and get and install the software. Note: You can find the software at http://www.xbox.com/en-US/pcsetup (for the US). This download will contain everything you need to update your Media Center Edition 2005 to connect to your Xbox 360 (it will contain MCE 2005 Rollup 2, Xbox 360 images, service packs, and the Media Center Extender/Xbox 360 Extender setup and network performance monitor.) Follow the instructions and the wizard prompts to add the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender to your network.

Wireless 802.11a for your Xbox 360 is the best wireless option
Note that you'll need at least 22 mbps for an effective Xbox 360 wireless network. If the reported speed is less, the Network Performance Tuner application on the MCE host machine will display options that may help you improve conditions. The Xbox 360 will offer options as shown below. You will be presented with options to override the reported network restrictions. With the High Definition capabilities of the Xbox 360, you'll definitely want 802.11a connectivity, if at all possible. Microsoft's own 802.11a/b/g adapter should be an option to consider because it's designed explicitly for the new Xbox 360. I'm sure that the D-Link DGL-3420 I already own and use on my network will work quite well as I'm seeing 22-24 mbps throughput. Linksys has a logo'd wireless a/b/g gaming adapter that I understand works quite well, but I have not tried it myself.

Super Charge a Wireless 802.11g Xbox Connection
I don't allow network cables in my living room where my legacy Version 1.0 Xbox resides. To add wireless capabilities to an Xbox, an external gaming adapter or wireless access point client is required. I originally configured a D-Link DWL-G820 gaming adapter to use WPA-PSK, attached it to my Xbox, and associated it with the 802.11g side of the DI-784. (A newer gaming adapter, the 802.11a/g, also works perfectly with my Media Center network).

I don't find 802.11g fast enough for Xbox Live gaming and I was not happy with the Media Center live or recorded TV performance of 802.11g wireless using the Media Center Extender for Xbox kit. I experienced some network congestion and dropouts. Here is an explanation of network throughput versus maximum data rate to help you understand network performance. For better wireless performance, I configured both the DI-784 and the DWL-G820 to use Atheros Super G modes. I've experimented with Super G with Turbo disabled, Super G with Dynamic Turbo, and Super G with Static Turbo. Static or Dynamic Turbo provides near wired network speed performance for me with between 40–44 Mbps throughput with bursts that add another 10+ Mbps. This also works with the DGL-3420. The Super G table below compares the various operational modes.

Table 1: Super G Operational Modes and Compatibility Matrix

Turbo State Capabilities

Disabled Standard 802.11a/g support, no enhanced capabilities
Super A/G without Turbo Capable of Packet Bursting, FastFrames, Compression, and No Turbo mode

Super A/G with Dynamic Turbo Capable of Packet Bursting, FastFrames, Compression, and Dynamic Turbo.
This setting is backwards compatible with non Turbo (legacy) devices. Dynamic Turbo mode is only enabled when all devices on the wireless network are Super A/G with Dynamic Turbo enabled

Super A/G with Static Turbo Capable of Packet Bursting, FastFrames, Compression, and Static Turbo.
This setting is not backwards compatible with non-Turbo (legacy) devices. Static turbo mode is always on and is only enabled when all devices on the wireless network are Super A/G with Static Turbo enabled

Although Super G is totally interoperable between the various D-Link products (and should work with other vendors who use Atheros wireless radios and advertise Super G), this special mode won't work with wireless equipment powered by chips from others such as Broadcom or Intersil. As it turned out, my neighbors using channel 6 were far enough away that I had no interference and I was able to use Static Turbo with great success. Super G with Static Turbo uses channel 6 (as shown in the image below) and bonds with a small portion of both channel 1 and 11. Super G with Dynamic Turbo picks the best available channels with the least traffic.

Construct Advanced Segmented Networks for Multiple Extender Environments
If you don't happen to have an 802.11a/g router or are already using an 802.11a/g router for computers and devices, you can add wireless access points to any existing router to create multiple network segments. If you are going to use more than one Extender for Live and Recorded TV simultaneously (a Media Center 2005 computer can support up to five Extenders depending on the PC's hardware configuration), each Extender should really be on its own dedicated network segment. I've tested and used the equipment below and highly recommend it.

To add 802.11a and g segments to my network (in addition to the DI-784), I've successfully used these 802.11a/g access points plugged into my router:

    · DWL-7100AP (supports WPA-PSK and Super G)
    · DWL-7200AP (supports WPA-PSK and Super G and Power over Ethernet)

To add wireless 802.11g Super G, I've successfully used these access points plugged into my router:

    · DWL-2100AP (Supports WPA-PSK and Super G)
    · DWL-2200 AP (Supports WPA-PSK and Super G and Power over Ethernet)
    · DWL-G800 in access point mode only (Supports WPA-PSK and Super G)

To provide wireless Super G for my Xbox or super connectivity for a standalone Extender:

    · DWL-G820 (Supports WPA-PSK and Super G)
    Note: You can also attach a wireless adapter, such as the DWL-G820 or DGL-3420, to the wired Ethernet port of a standalone Media Center Extender or Xbox 360, which will improve performance over standard 802.11g.

Basic Rules for Optimizing Media Center/Xbox 360/Media Center Extender Networks
Don't buy or use an obsolete router that uses a 4-port hub (as opposed to a switch) from an online auction for $5. All modern routers use 10/100 switched Ethernet ports. Use a 10/100 switch if you need to expand an existing network. Never buy or use a hub since a hub is slower than a switch. A hub needs to broadcast traffic through all ports. A switch learns what clients are attached to each port and optimizes network traffic accordingly. Don't put both a computer running Windows XP Media Center 2005 and a Media Center Extender or Xbox on wireless connections. If you need to use wireless, it's best to use a wired connection on your Media Center Computer and use wireless on the Extender device. Remember, to wirelessly enable an Xbox to use as a Media Center Extender or for Xbox Live, you'll need to add an external gaming adapter.

Don't use wireless repeaters to cover large distances. Most wireless repeaters have a single wireless radio, which means they have to communicate in two directions. This divides your effective throughput by two.

Segment your wireless network. Although casual activities such as Web surfing won't significantly impact a connection shared by computers and Media Center with Extender networks, intensive network activities like gaming and large file transfers can consume a large part of the shared wireless bandwidth. In my testing, I've experimented with segmenting and giving each Extender dedicated bandwidth. Below is a diagram of a three-Extender network where all three Extenders use wireless connectivity. (You can connect up to five Extenders to a single computer running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005). Note that the Media Center PC is wired to the router so that only one end of the connections is wireless.

Experiment with different locations for your wireless router and/or access points. Changing the location by three or four feet may make the difference between network dropout issues and solid connectivity. Place the wireless device on a high shelf or attach it to a ceiling if your devices are on a floor above.

The position of the external antenna of a wireless device can make a huge difference. Experiment to find the best position. If you have a wireless device that has no external antenna, change the position of the device itself.

Before putting any wireless router/access point/gaming adapter online, check the firmware revision and update to the most recent firmware available from the vendor.

Be sure to use WPA-PSK as the encryption method for Extenders if at all possible because it provides far more security than WEP. Don't let a sales person tell you that wireless security isn't as important for devices as it is for computers. These devices are still part of your network and if you don't use security or use weak security, you've provided an entrance point to everything on your network, computers with your personal data included. If you shop carefully, you'll find gaming adapters and access point clients that support WPA-PSK.

Getting More Help
For the best networking experience, Microsoft recommends using networking equipment that carries the Designed for Windows XP Media Center Edition logo. The list of networking equipment submitted for compatibility testing on the Designed for Windows XP Media Center Edition Logo Partner List is currently a short list, but is being updated regularly, so check back before making any purchases. Check with others who have already had experience or ask about specific network hardware and pose your Media Center networking questions in the Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 newsgroup. You'll find quick and accurate answers from Media Center Edition MVPs and Microsoft employees. See you there!

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