By Michael Stroh
My wife's parents flew in from Japan the other day for a long-awaited visit. High on their to-do list? Checking out the latest digital snapshots and goofy videos of their two young grandkids. What followed was that most awkward of modern family rituals: We all piled into my home office and spent the next hour crammed around the computer screen.
I don't know about you, but cozying up to a computer on a few sharp-cornered filing cabinets isn't exactly my idea of family fun. Problem is, I'm just too lazy to transfer a PC's worth of pictures and video to DVD—and too chintzy to buy a dedicated media computer for the living room.
But lately I've been tinkering with a new way to unshackle all the digital goodies trapped on my office computer and enjoy them from any room. The secret, it turns out, was already parked under my TV: an Xbox 360.
Say "Xbox 360" and most people rightly think video games. Lesser known is that you can pair the device with Windows Media Center as an Extender. Okay, so Microsoft isn't going to win any awards for that snoozer of a name. But trust me: it's a match made in couch potato heaven.
Media Center, of course, has been around for years. But if you haven't seen it since Windows XP, you're in for a surprise. Already considered by some to be one of the company's coolest products, the software has been seriously spruced up for Windows Vista. People gush over the glassy new 3-D graphics in Windows Vista, but I think Media Center—which comes with Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate—is the operating system's real scene stealer.
"People who know about it love it. Problem is, nobody knows about it," says Dennis Morgan, a Microsoft program manager who oversees work on Media Center Extenders. As I prepared to rig up my own Extender, I dropped in on Morgan and his colleague, Jonathan Aroner, for a quick tour of the new Media Center and its Xbox 360 sidekick.
These guys toil all day long in offices packed with humming Xbox consoles, glistening flat-screen TVs, high-horsepower PCs, and top-secret test products. "Where is that remote?" Aroner mumbled as he pawed through a pile of controllers that would make any gadget fanatic weep. Tissue, please.
So what can Windows Media Center do? A lot, it turns out.
After setting up the software (more on that in a bit) you'll have access to sleek, neatly-organized thumbnails of all your photos, music albums, and videos. If your PC is equipped with a TV tuner card, you can also use Media Center to watch and record live TV, including high-definition programming.
There are too many cool features to go into here. One personal favorite: the Media Center slide show. With its customizable soundtrack and cinematic pans and zooms, this feature lends even the most mundane domestic moment—look, Dad with bed head!— the lofty air of a PBS documentary.
The best part about Media Center, though, is that it can stream digital media on your PC over a home network to your Xbox 360. These days, Morgan says, some people are even buying the Xbox 360 as an Extender first and a game console second. After the demo, I wasn't surprised.
Xbox 360 Extenders support most of the major audio and video formats, including MP3, WMA, and WMV. But there are some it won't play, such as DivX and XviD. It can also handle tunes from online music subscription services like URGE that rent copy-protected content.
The only real downside to Extenders is that there are so few of them. For now, only the Xbox 360 works with Media Center in Windows Vista. But Morgan promises that alternatives are in the works. Among the possibilities: everything from stand-alone set-top boxes to Extender-equipped DVD players and TVs. Third-party offerings are expected to hit stores by Christmas 2007.
Now it was my turn to play. Setting up Windows Media Center to work with an Xbox 360 looked like a cinch. The hardest part: deciding how to link the two devices.
Connecting my PC and Xbox 360 directly via Ethernet cable would be the best way to ensure hiccup-free streaming. Problem is, my three-bedroom apartment doesn't have Ethernet jacks studding the walls. So I decided to compare two alternative networking technologies: Wi‑Fi
and power line networking.
Since I already have a 802.11g wireless home network, I simply picked up an Xbox 360 Wireless Networking Adapter. This nifty little gadget, roughly the size of a pack of gum, plugs into the Xbox 360's universal serial bus (USB) port and supports the three most popular flavors of Wi‑Fi: 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g.
I also bought a pair of power line network adapters from Linksys.
Power line networking doesn't get much press these days—a shame, I think, since it's a neat solution to the networking dilemma. After all, everybody has power outlets. The latest power line networking standard, Home Plug AV, is reportedly more reliable that its predecessors and can theoretically hit 200 megabits per second (Mbps). That's about four times the speed limit of my 802.11g network.
Unlike Wi‑Fi, it also looked dead easy to set up: According to Linksys, all I had to do was plug these little boxes into outlets near the devices I wanted to connect, snap in some Ethernet cable, install a bit of software on my PC, and I should be good to go.
Once I had my Xbox 360 networked, it was time to complete its transformation from game machine to multimedia jukebox.
On the Xbox main menu, I selected the Media tab, and then selected Media Center. The Xbox asked if I wanted to connect to a computer running Windows Media Center. I selected Continue and waited for the Xbox to locate my PC. The Xbox then displayed an 8-digit setup key. I wrote it down because I knew I'd need it later.
Leaving the Xbox, I headed to my home office and started Windows Media Center. On the Start screen, I scrolled to Tasks and then clicked Add Extender. Media Center asked for the Xbox's setup key. I entered it and clicked Next. It then asked if I'd like to share media with my Extender. I selected Yes and then clicked Next. (When a User Account Control dialog box suddenly popped up asking permission to run the Media Center Extender, I simply clicked Continue.)
Media Center spent a minute or two configuring my media library. Afterwards, I clicked Finish to complete the setup process. On the other end of my apartment, my Xbox 360 now displayed the Windows Media Center Start screen.
And that's really all there was to it. In about 15 minutes, my wife and I were sprawled on the living room sofa, beaming as our Xbox 360 flashed photos from our last family Christmas onto our big plasma TV. Using the Xbox's wireless controller, I pulled up Miles Davis' Kind of Blue from my PC's library as background music. Sweet.
In the end, pictures and music played seamlessly over both my power line and 802.11g wireless networks. But when it came to video, power line had the edge, at least in my home. A video of my old band jittered noticeably when I attempted to stream it wirelessly to my Xbox 360 Extender. It was also easier to set up than wireless. The downside of power line? It can be pricey.
I did improve my Wi‑Fi network's performance using the Extender's slick built-in Network Performance Monitor, which can check and help tune the connection to your PC. But the tool also made it clear that no amount of tweaking would have allowed my wireless network to handle high-definition TV. (According to Morgan, the Microsoft program manager, a network must be capable of shuffling data at 22 Mbps or higher to do that.)
My dad recently phoned to say he's planning a visit to see the grandkids. Once he's settled in, I suspect that once again there will be requests to see snapshots and videos.
This time, however, I'll be keeping the office door closed.
About the author
Michael Stroh is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. Before joining the company in 2007, he spent more than a decade writing about science, technology, and medicine for publications that include Popular Science, The Baltimore Sun, ESPN The Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times. His work has been cited in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.
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