Xbox 360: Digital Media Hub

When the Microsoft's Xbox 360 launched over two years ago, it was the first video game console to offer pervasive and extensive digital media functionality. This included the ability to play audio CDs and DVD movies, rip CDs, connect to PC-based digital media content using the 360's Media blade or, if you had the right kind of PC, the Media Center Extender software, and the ability to play back content from a variety of portable media players including the Apple iPod. (See my original Xbox 360 review for information about these connectivity choices as they were circa-late 2006.)

So much has changed in the intervening two years, but the Xbox 360 is still the best console out there for digital media. For example, it can still play and rip audio CDs and play DVD movies. But thanks to an inexpensive HD DVD add-on, Xbox 360 owners now have access to a library of stunning HD DVD movies as well. This product has been so successful, in fact, that over one-third of all HD DVD players out there are Xbox 360s.

The Xbox 360's PC connectivity functionality has also been enhanced dramatically over the years, the most important update of which came very recently as part of the Xbox 360 Fall 2007 Dashboard Update. It's now much easier to switch between different PC sources in the Xbox 360 dashboard, giving power users like myself a fast and easy way to choose between the content stored on multiple PCs. And thanks to compatibility with PC-based TV show and movie services like Amazon Unbox, CinemaNow, and MovieLink, Xbox 360 users have access to massive collections of paid and rented digital media content online.

Device connectivity has also improved. In addition to the iPod and other portable media devices, the Xbox 360 is now compatible with Zune 2.0 (Zune 4, 8, and 80) devices as well.

The biggest improvement, perhaps, involves the Xbox Live online service: Whereas the service provided mostly game-related functionality in late 2006, today's Xbox Live is a multimedia wunderkind with a vast library of downloadable TV shows and movies via the Xbox Live Marketplace, much of it with HD versions available. The only real problem is that most Xbox 360s ship with either a 20 GB hard drive or no hard drive at all; 20 GB just isn't big enough to store a local collection of video, especially HD video. The Xbox 360 Elite's 120 GB drive--or any Xbox 360 with the 120 GB replacement hard drive--is a better solution.

While the Xbox Live Marketplace is a stunning service for a set-top box, it's still no match for what's available on the PC. (Plus, PC-based content won't stress the storage limitations of the 360; this stuff works just fine with any Xbox 360, even one without a hard drive or Memory Unit of any kind.) And since the PC connectivity functionality on the 360 has improved so much over the past few years, I think it makes sense to see what's happening there. If you thought the Xbox 360 was just for games, you're going to be pleasantly surprised.

Making the PC connection

There are two basic interfaces for connecting to PC-based digital media on an Xbox 360: The 360's native "blade" user interface and the more attractive and functional Media Center Extender user interface, the latter of which emulates the Windows Media Center software on PCs. Unfortunately, things are more complex than this because the Xbox 360 can actually connect to the PC using three different methods, each of which brings its own set of compatibility issues. In fact, if you have the right version of Windows installed, you can connect to media on that single PC in three different ways from the 360 and see a different subset of your digital media files in each.

Confusing? You bet. But let's try to sort through this by taking a look at each of these methods.

Windows Media Connect

Natively, the Xbox 360 can connect to your Windows Media Player-based digital media library using a technology called Windows Media Connect. This is a standard part of Windows, so it will work with any XP- or Vista-based PC and utilizes the content in folders that you manage with Windows Media Player (WMP).

One of the big pluses of Windows Media Connect is that it's compatible with purchased or rented content. So if you purchase music at Zune Marketplace, any PlaysForSure-compatible music store, or rent or purchase videos from Amazon Unbox, CinemaNow, MovieLink, or any other Windows-oriented video service, it should work fine through this Windows Media Connect interface.

There is one oddity, however. Though the Xbox 360 is natively compatible with video formats like H.264, WMP is not. So if you are monitoring a folder full of H.264 content with WMP, that content will not show up in the Xbox 360 if you attempt to access the library that way. Instead, you will see WMP-compatible content, like WMA and WMV files, as well as DivX and Xvid video.

Zune

If you install the Zune PC software--and you might consider doing this even if you don't have a Zune portable device--you will gain access to a second method of connecting to your PC-based digital media files. You will also gain access to those H.264 video files that, as mentioned above, do not natively work with WMP. However, because Zune is not compatible with DivX and Xvid, those types of videos will not show up in the Xbox 360 if you access your video library via the Zune connection.

Put simply, if you want to access PC-based H.264 video content with the Xbox 360 over your home network, installing the Zune software is an excellent choice. However, you'll have to switch the Xbox 360's video source to your Windows Media Connect client to access DivX and Xvid content, or any paid or rented content from places like Amazon Unbox, CinemaNow, and MovieLink. It's silly, but at least you can access all of your PC-based content, even if you do have to fiddle around a bit.

Windows Media Center Extender

As with Windows Media Connect, Media Center Extender connectivity is standard on each Xbox 360. However, unlike Windows Media Connect, this superior looking connection technology won't work with any PC: It must be a version of Windows XP Media Center Edition or Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate, all of which includes Microsoft's excellent Media Center software.

While the Media Center Extender interface is much nicer than that of the Xbox 360's Media blade (see below for more information), there is one big difference between this connection type and the two mentioned above. That is, Media Center Extender is essentially a remote connection to the connected PC. So not only can you enjoy content from PC-based TV show and movie services like Amazon Unbox, CinemaNow, and MovieLink, or music-based services like Napster, but in many cases you can actually browse, rent, and purchase content from these services directly from Media Center. This is a huge advantage, and it allows Media Center to function more like a cable TV set-top box. Instead of running into your home office to rent a movie from, say, CinemaNow, you can do so using your Xbox 360 remote from the comfort of your couch. That said, not all services have Media Center versions. Amazon Unbox and the Zune Marketplace both require you to be at your PC, for example.

Understanding the user interfaces

The Media Center Extender software in the Xbox 360 hasn't been updated since Microsoft shipped Windows Vista, but the device's Media blade and general digital media functionality have undergone dramatic changes in the past year, especially with the most recent Xbox 360 system update. That said, these interfaces might not be especially familiar to you, so it's worth examining them to see how they perform and how they differ from each other.

Xbox 360 Media blade

If you haven't utilized the Xbox 360's Media blade much since the device first shipped two years ago, you might be surprised to discover how much has changed. On the surface, it looks quite similar to the initial version from 2005: The blade is still a pleasant blue color and offers quick access to PC-based music, pictures, video, and to Media Center, which we'll look at in the next section. But dig a bit deeper and you'll see that the elves in Redmond have been quite busy indeed.

First, Microsoft added a Video Store link to the Media blade about a year ago. This link now connects users to the Video Store on Xbox Live Marketplace, which provides rented movies (many in both standard definition and HD, with HD movies being more expensive), free movie trailers and movie shorts, purchased TV shows (again, many in a choice of standard definition and HD), free TV shorts, purchased music videos, free game videos, and paid game strategy guide videos. This content is downloaded, not streamed, and given the multitude of high-definition choices now available, you can see where the paltry storage space allotted to most Xbox 360s is now becoming problematic.

Bigger and more relevant changes have occurred within the Media blade's core music, pictures, and video playback functionality. Now, when you choose one of these options from the blade, you can pick, on the fly, from a number of source locations for digital media. (Previously, switching among these choices was more laborious and time consuming.) These source locations include the console itself, an inserted CD or DVD disc, a connected portal digital media device, or any Windows Media Connect- or Zune-equipped PC on your home network. If you have installed the Zune 2.0 software on a PC, that PC will confusingly appear twice in the source list: One choice (like "PCNAME: Paul's Zune") will represent the content shared via Zune, while the second ("PCNAME: Paul") will represent that content shared by Windows Media Connect/Windows Media Player.

Media playback functionality via the blade interface is still pretty bare bones, but it does the job. Via the Music section, for example, you can connect to a music source and then navigate between albums, artists, saved playlists, songs, and genres. Playback occurs through a simple software player with a full-screen visualization option. Or, you can start a playlist playing and then navigate back up through the Xbox 360 blade interface, go into the Pictures section, and start playing back a photo slideshow to accompany the music. It's not Media Center, but it does the job. (Secret: Though there's no warning to this effect, the music and pictures cannot come from two different sources.)

Video playback works similarly, though as mentioned above, what you see in the source list from a video format perspective will differ according to which connection type you make (Windows Media Connect or Zune). If there's a problem with the Xbox 360's video playback functionality, it's in the granularity of control you get. Many purchased and rented videos can only be paused and played and not fast forwarded or rewound in any way, which is annoying. And even your movies, or those you've ripped from DVD perhaps, are difficult to navigate from a performance perspective. Put simply: This is a fine solution for watching video, but you're not going to want to use it to step through a PC-based video still frame by still frame using the Xbox.

As you would expect of video playback, Xbox 360 defaults to a full-screen mode, but you can bring up a handy onscreen controller by tapping many of the buttons on the hand controller. From this controller, you can control such things as play/pause, skip back, rewind, stop, forward, and skip forward, as well as determine the play mode (letterbox, full screen, stretch, native, and auto). There are also language and subtitles buttons.

Windows Media Center

Microsoft describes its Media Center interface as the premier interface for enjoying digital media content, and there's certainly an argument to be made there. Media Center first shipped in 2002 as part of Windows XP Media Center Edition; since then, Microsoft shipped three evolutionary updates to the software on XP and then a fourth as part of Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate in late 2006. Today, Media Center is pretty mature and functional, though there are still a few rough spots, mostly related to the partial UI refresh that occurred during the Vista changeover and to various weirdnesses in accessing HD content via Media Center.

In addition to the Windows-based Media Center, Microsoft has also created so-called Media Center Extender (MCX) software that works today on the Xbox 360 and, in the near future, on a new generation of TV sets, set-top boxes, and other hardware. MCX is designed to remotely access Media Center-based content--including live and recorded TV shows, digital music, photos, and videos, and various online services--across a home network. The idea is that a PC is too complex a machine to use reliably in the living room. So with an Extender and a Media Center-based PC, you can keep the PC where it belongs--the home office--but still access all that content using the familiar and powerful Media Center interface you've presumably come to know and love. That is, Media Center works virtually identically on the Xbox 360 as it does on a Windows-based PC. You navigate with a remote control (or, in a pinch, with the Xbox 360 wireless controller) and output the results on your HDTV or standard definition television.

As you can see, the Media Center UI is dramatically nicer than that offered by the Xbox 360 Media blade. There are subtle animations, thumbnails, visual overlays, for example. But Media Center isn't just better looking, it's also more functional. During video playback, for example, you get much better control over in-move navigation. You can access a variety of online stores from this interface, not just Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace, and because any content you download will be stored on your PC, you can take advantage of the more voluminous storage possibilities on that machine. (And sync that content with portable devices if needed.)

There are limitations to Media Center, of course. It only works with Windows Media Player-compatible audio and video formats, so you can't use this interface to watch H.264 movies. It only works with compatible versions of Vista (Home Premium and Ultimate), potentially stranding users of other Vista versions. And if you do opt to set up TV recording functionality on your PC, the procedure is still very complicated. In fact, it's arguably beyond the capabilities of most consumers.

Still, Media Center is a gorgeous interface. And it really comes alive on the HDTV set you're probably already using with the Xbox 360.

Concerns

While the Xbox 360 is in many ways the ultimate digital media hub for the living room, there are problems. First, there's no one interface on the 360 that will give you access to all PC-based content. Instead, you'll need to navigate between Windows Media Connect- and Zune-based sources and, if available, Media Center, in order to get the full experience. This adds an unnecessary level of complexity to the whole operation, one that could bedevil many people.

A bigger problem, of course, is that the Xbox 360 is too loud to be acceptable in most home theater environments, though this has gotten better with devices manufactured after mid-2007. Those who purchased Xbox 360s in the previous two years are almost completely out of luck: The first few Xbox 360 generations (all consoles made through mid-2007, for the most part) are as loud as jet engines. Some operations--like playing a disc of any kind in the internal DVD drive or playing a game--bump up the sound even more.

Finally, the Xbox 360 isn't compatible with iTunes, so most content purchased from Apple's online store--all video content, certainly--will not work on the Xbox 360. If you want to watch movies or TV shows rented or purchased from iTunes, the Xbox 360 isn't going to cut it. Sadly, you'll need yet another device in your living room--either an Apple TV or an iPod with a multimedia dock--to access that content on your HDTV.

Final thoughts

While no one living room-based set-top box can do everything, the Xbox 360 comes pretty close, and is particularly well-suited for those who intend to keep playing in Microsoft's various digital media sandboxes. It integrates well with PC-based content using a variety of interfaces, can access content purchased or rented from Amazon, CinemaNow, Movielink, Napster, and other online services, and, with the appropriate PC-based set up, can be used to watch live and recorded TV. It's also a heck of a video game machine, by the way. In a world that increasingly expects its technological devices to perform multiple functions, the Xbox 360 is, perhaps, the most impressive digital media multitasker made so far.

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