Anyone interested in photos, music, TV shows and movies, and video games of all kinds will find a lot to like in Windows 8, which offers the most full-featured entertainment experience of any Microsoft OS version yet.
This is part 5 of 8 of an ongoing review of Windows 8. If you missed them, previous parts of this review discussed the many improvements to the desktop in Windows 8, the often uneasy relationship between that desktop and the new Metro environment, how that new Metro environment is in fact a completely new mobile platform on which Microsoft is staking its future, and of course the new productivity environment and apps in Windows 8.
But Windows 8 isn’t just about productivity. And my guess is that a new generation of tablet and hybrid touch devices will trigger a revolution in how Windows users enjoy digital media—music, photos, and videos—as well as video games. To that end, Windows 8 includes virtually everything you need to stay entertained at home or on the go.
Here’s a rundown of the new entertainment experiences in Windows 8, all of which are provided in the form of individual Metro-style apps.
As you might expect, Windows 8 includes a decent solution for viewing photos. Imaginatively called Photos, this app integrates with a few reasonable online services as well as other computers connected to your Microsoft Account, providing access to your photos wherever they may be. And it features a few very basic photo editing capabilities.
That integration with services—which includes SkyDrive, Facebook, and Flickr—and with other connected PCs is arguably Photos’ biggest strength, and assuming these locations are where you do store your pictures, Photos provides a nice one-stop shop for viewing them. On the flipside, you can’t trigger cross-server/cross-PC photo slideshows, which is disappointing. And the slideshow features are pretty basic, in that there really aren’t any.
There are nice touches, however. (Pardon the pun.) Viewing an individual photo, you can rotate and crop, though those are literally the only editing options at the moment. (C’mon, Microsoft: Auto-fix?) And you can easily set a photo as your lock screen picture, app tile picture, or app background.
Beyond that, Photos features a useless photo importing capability: Skip this and use Windows Photo Gallery (or anything else) instead, as this feature lacks niceties like photo naming and organization. It’s really bare-boned. My guess it will get better over time.
As with other mobile platforms, Windows 8 includes a camera app that works with the rear- and front-facing cameras you’ll find on many tablets or whatever cameras (web cams, etc.) you may connect to your PC. If you’re familiar with smart phone camera apps, you get the idea: It supports multiple camera resolutions, stills and videos with optional video stabilization, and has a few configurable options, though they vary from camera to camera. You can switch between cameras if there’s more than one, and there’s a timer so you can jump in the shot.
Taking pictures and triggering video recording is as simple as tapping the screen. Which, I have to admit, took me a while to figure out.
While few people are probably all that familiar with Microsoft’s Zune platform, the simple version is that Microsoft built an iTunes rival that few knew about or used, and the next generation version of that platform has been handed over to the Xbox team, which is expanding it pretty dramatically. The music part is of course called Xbox Music, and the app through which you access Xbox’s music services is confusingly also called Xbox Music. And while it has a simple enough interface, the truth is that there’s a lot going on here.
Xbox Music (the app) lets you listen to music you already own, assuming (for now) that it’s on your PC or device (while a coming update will add access to your music in the cloud, via SkyDrive), as well as Microsoft’s own voluminous online collection. Here’s where things get interesting. As I write this, only users with an Xbox Music Pass subscription (which costs $9.99 a month) have unfettered access to the entire collection of music that Microsoft hosts (and otherwise sells) online. But by October 26, an update to the app will allow Windows 8 (and RT) users only to have free, unfettered access to that collection for six months. After that, you get free streaming of the Xbox Music Store collection—again, only via Windows 8 and RT devices—for 10 hours per month. (On other devices, like Windows Phone and Xbox, you will always need to pay for Xbox Music Pass to access the collection this way.)
This functionality provides Windows 8 and RT early adopters with a wonderfully unfair advantage, and I suspect it’s going to make a big difference for a lot of people and, over time, change people’s minds about how they consume digital music. You can browse around the Xbox Music Store, or use the integrated Search charm to find something specific, and enjoy nice, full-screen experiences with artist biographies, discographies and more, find and buy, or just stream, music, and so on.
Users with Xbox 360 and the latest Dashboard update can use their Windows 8 (or RT) tablet or device like a full-featured remote control and utilize Play To to stream any music—from your own collection, or the store—to the console, perhaps accessing the best stereo system in the house while simultaneously enjoying the full-screen experiences on the device. Or, you can use the proprietary Play on Xbox feature to hand off store-based song playback to the console and get on with the party. (You can still use the Windows 8 device to control playback, which is a nice touch. Or turn it off: Unlike with Play To, the PC device doesn’t have to stay on and connected.) Both options work really well.
(Play on Xbox utilizes and requires the Xbox Companion or Xbox SmartGlass apps, which are described below.)
There’s a lot more coming in future updates, including access to cloud-hosted playlists that work across device types and more, but even in its current form, Xbox Music is a nice little music playback app, and a fairly superior solution if you’ve bought into the Microsoft ecosystem (especially with Xbox Music Pass) as I have. But it’s missing a few power user features like meta data editing, so you’ll want to keep a dedicated Windows application handy for that stuff. (Windows Media Player, while a bit outdated, can serve in a pinch.)
While the Xbox Video service hasn’t gotten a formal re-launch like Xbox Music, it won’t surprise you to discover that this service is essentially a rebranded and improved version of Zune Video, that it provides access to rentable and buyable movies and buyable TV shows, and that the Xbox Video app is a front-end to both this service and to your own on-disk videos. Because that’s what it is.
Xbox Video will be updated in the days ahead too, but in the current version you get access to your own videos as well as TV shows and movies sold through the Xbox Movies and Xbox TV Shows Stores, respecitively. All the Play To and Play on Xbox stuff works as it does with music, and you get similar full-screen experiences for discovering and buying/renting content online.
In the current app version, video playback is pretty basic. There’s no support for closed captioning, though I’m told that’s coming (and it is present on the Xbox 360 with the new Dashboard update).
There’s also some missing integration bits with the online stores, though of course that will be coming too, so no need to ding Microsoft on a missing feature before Windows 8 even launches. (For example, if you purchase a movie from Xbox Movie Store, there’s no way to access it from the cloud from the Xbox Video app in Windows 8 … yet.)
Overall, a work in progress, but looking good even in pre-release form.
Xbox Companion and Xbox SmartGlass
Microsoft generated a lot of excitement when it announced Xbox SmartGlass earlier this year, but the truth is, this app is just a new version of a solution called Xbox Companion that’s been around for a couple of years. Originally designed for Windows Phone, the apps provide interesting integration between the Windows 8 device (in this case) and your Xbox 360 console. Today, this is primarily for media consumption, but in the future Microsoft will enable second screen gaming scenarios too.
Since SmartGlass is the new version of the app, let’s just focus on that. The way it works today is that the app brokers a connection between the Windows device and your console. Compatible apps—which today include Xbox Music and Xbox Video—can then use the app behind the scenes to hand off media playback, using Play on Xbox. Or, you can simply launch SmartGlass and dive into the various Xbox-branded media stores. When you find something you wish to play, SmartGlass will launch the appropriate app for you. So it works both ways.
You can search the Xbox stores from SmartGlass too, and while the built-in Search works just fine, there’s a dedicated Search area on the home screen that’s off to the far left, much as it is on the Xbox 360 Dashboard. Searches can trigger movie, TV show, and game results, and while the games results today only let you view games in the store, or trigger play on the console, that’s the one area where there’s no real integration … yet. I expect at least a handful of games to support using a Windows 8 or RT device with SmartGlass as a second screen in the coming months.
If you don’t have a game you’ve launched via SmartGlass, incidentally, your console will prompt you to purchase it, assuming an electronic version of the title is available from the Xbox Games Store. (This happens on the Xbox 360, not the Windows 8 device.)
Xbox Games is a strange animal, as it comingles access to Xbox LIVE games for Windows 8 and RT (Metro-style games, from Windows Store), the Xbox 360, and Windows Phone. Looking at the default Spotlight view, then, it’s not clear where the games can be played, and curiously enough, these games are in fact a mix of console and Metro (Windows 8/RT only) games.
Xbox Games provides access to separate Windows Game Store (Metro only) and Xbox 360 Game Store views, and you can even buy (electronically available) Xbox 360 games from the app; the next time you turn on your console, you can download and install them. When you access a Windows 8/RT game, however, the app hands off to Windows Store for purchasing or download, or to the app itself for play.
But it also provides access to your Xbox LIVE Gamertag persona and avatar, much like the Xbox Games app on Windows Phone. So for starters, there’s a full Game activity view which lists all of your Xbox LIVE games: Windows 8/RT Metro games, Games for Windows LIVE games, Xbox 360 games, and Windows Phone games.
But you also get a full set of Gamertag/avatar viewing and editing features, plus access to your Xbox LIVE friends.
This includes the ability to customize your avatar, view and really dive into achievements, view and manage friend requests, edit your profile, and more. The app is pretty much a complete, cross-platform front-end to virtually anything you’d want to do over Xbox LIVE.
But wait, there’re more
Overall, Windows 8 provides a decent entertainment consumption experience but very little in the way of editing or managing your content. Hopefully that will change in the future, along with the coming changes we already do know about.
In the next part of this review, I’ll examine the new reliability, security, and networking features in Windows 8.