Plugging a glaring hole in its home entertainment strategy, Microsoft on Thursday announced the return of hardware-based Media Center Extenders for Windows Media Center. The new Extenders, which will come in dedicated set-top boxes as well as TVs and DVD players, work with Windows Vista-based Media Center PCs and remotely display live and recorded TV shows and other multimedia content. Previously, users of Vista-based Media Centers could only use an Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender, which is problematic because of the amount of noise the 360 generates.

"With more than 60 million Windows Vista Media Center PCs in use worldwide, there are many customers eager to bring the simple and elegant Media Center experience to the televisions in their homes," said Microsoft general manager Dave Alles. "The new Extenders for Windows Media Center make it easy to get a wide range of personal and Internet content not only on someone's main TV but on all the TVs in the house. Whether it's a high-def show recorded from digital cable, new Internet video, or your personal library of pictures, music and videos, it's all on your television, just a remote-click away."

Microsoft's hardware partners had previously created Media Center Extenders for the Windows XP version of Media Center but they sold poorly and offered mediocre features. With Windows Vista, customers could turn to the Xbox 360 as an Extender, and while that device offers the full Media Center experience, complete with animations and the full Media Center feature set, the 360 is too loud for a typical living room or home theatre environment.

The new generation of Extenders seeks to solve both of these problems. The standalone set-top box versions are quieter than the Xbox 360 while offering the full Media Center experience. And thanks to new video format support, they're much more compatible with the content people are actually using today. Microsoft says the new Extenders include support for DivX and Xvid video files as well as Windows Media Video HD files. They also support Wireless-N high-speed wireless technology for HD-quality streaming over the air. The new Extenders should be made available in the US in time for the holiday selling season, Microsoft says.