Friday, 6 June 2008

A first appreciation; for Microsoft.

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It is not often that Microsoft gets praised. The big bad corporate entity that it is, regularly witnessed collecting multi-billion Dollar fines from the EU Competition board. And I will not pretend to be a staunch admirer of their business practices, but I will today focus upon a piece of software that has taken me utterly by surprise; Windows Media Center.

Firstly I recognise that this is nothing new, it has been something I have been using a little since I began tinkering with Vista at the beginning of this year. It was the connectivity to XBOX:360 that has really lit my interest in this software's capabilities and features. I have found it genuinely first rate and in carrying out the tasks often bemoaned by end users like myself, it fulfills the simple requirement of actually working!

Firstly I must compliment the seamless music integration. As those who used the original Xbox or 'Extender' for the 360 and streamed music to play whilst gaming, it could be temperamental in terms of the network and really offered nothing more than a folder of your music cycling through endlessly. Now though, we are presented with a seamless and very intuitive interface. It glides effortlessly, looks great, sounds nice and is just very un-Microsoft. The cynics amongst you, and Playstation 3 owners as well no doubt, will point to the PS3 interface as the reason for the emergence of a similar system. My response is that this perhaps shows the limitations of Sony's design. The Xbox being so heavily reliant upon the 'Dashboard', it certainly suffered in terms of how sexy it looked in comparison. However, instead of simply building upon the limitations of the 'Media' tab already standard within the Dashboard, the extension that Media Center allows for is a brave and quite genius move. It takes literally 5 minutes to set up and from then on allows for seamless integration to my Desktop machine.

Let me once again state my utter surprise, Microsoft, the warrior guardians of Digital Rights previously, allowing us to stream high quality audio, movie films and pictures between our home entertainment devices? I'm one who remembers when it was near impossible to free up the rights of .wmv files just to move them from your Windows Media Player library! My surprise, and delight was further enhanced when I decided to explore this further. I did a little research and noted that the streaming video is required to be in MPEG format, no surprises there considering that it is MS based. Time to test, so I raced to and grasped the first file that matched the compatibility bill and ensured it was listed in my Media Center library on the PC when completed. Still not believing that this would work I booted up the trusty 360, browse to Media, Media Center and waited the short seconds for it to sync to my PC via the network. And there it was, located in the videos slider! A side note which interested me was that the first time I tried to run a couple of differing file formats I found that each individual codec would be downloaded from XBOX Live. Pleasingly these are held permanently so there is no repeat downloading each time you wish to watch a file. Whether the codecs would update as newer became available, that remains to be seen, my Googling returned no definite results. This is also interesting in the sense that evidently Microsoft has the ability to make a much wider spectrum of codecs available should it wish or be made to do so over time either by consumer demand or governmental (particularly in Europe) demands for fair and competitive behavior. It leads me to believe that as the XBOX becomes yet more pivotal in terms of a home entertainment unit, they will be forced to do something one way or the other.

On the subject of Home Entertainment and syncing multiple items it is now very easy via your home network to share from your Media Center, to other PC's or XBOX's you might have connected to it. With Vista, it detects when another 'Extender' has been discovered connected to the network - Extender refers essentially to a device which you could share media/resources with, and is simply a case of opening the firewall to allow that device exclusive access and then confirming an 8 digit code that will be churned out by the connecting device. Very easy, very useful and like I said very unlike the Microsoft I know. Needless to say, we now have 2 PC's, a laptop and 2 Xbox's each sharing from one anothers' Media Centers which gives access to a true array of audio and visual options let me tell you! I am still particularly surprised at the fact that from both Xbox's you can pick from the Media Centers of the PC's hooked up to the networks. Essentially you can pick a source, browse and stream what you want. The beauty being that with most modern wireless networks, they have such bandwidth is makes no impact at all, and I've noticed nothing detrimental. This raises an interesting future benefit perhaps, sharing with neighbours' wifis or by opening up the 'Shared Folders' to the Internet whereby you could allow friends etc to stream from distance and vice versa. A potential P2P minefield in terms of legality of audio/video, but you could in theory pool from a massive well of photos between family members etc which could rotate on your desktop/Xbox randomly - without request - and without any hassle.

It has massive potential in my opinion, and it is a fantastic product already, and the reason I'm writing about it is because it isn't widely used or adopted by many Vista users. It sits there relatively dormant for most people, and that is partly Microsoft's fault for not demonstrating its capabilities and simplicity to the wider "everyday" user market. Secondly it is probably down to the fact that MS products have previously been so well packaged but ultimately not nearly as good as a rivals. Which brings me to another point; this product is not original in the sense of media presentation and sharing, but what it does do is allow you to share it easily, impressively and with total ease within a single program. There are competitors, web based and applications you can get but nothing I've had had combined my media, other media I can get at, and sync it seamlessly to other home entertainment units in my house.

And now to the part I had been building up to. Now that I have finished polishing Microsoft's crown! (Who would have thought?).

Xbox users; what is the one thing missing from your dashboard? The one feature lacking? An Internet Browser! Again this may not be something new, but I once again drift onto my favourite hobby which is dissembling things I own to make them better, so if you want to browse the net from the comfort of your Xbox read on. If not, do something worthwhile and start syncing via Media Center!

First of all you need to have Windows Media Center on your PC and have it ready synced to your Xbox, obviously really. The you need to Google or hit the link for a program called MCEBrowser. This is a tiny little app designed by a chap called Anthony Park, he also does fine woodworking, bizarrely. Next I suggest ensuring your Media Center is not loaded on your 360, when I did this the first time I had left it running in the background and it failed to update, so jump back to the Dashboard for a few minutes. Once the MCEBrowser has downloaded to your PC, run it and install it as normal. This will have linked it into your Media Center, under 'Online Media', scroll left to 'Program Library', MCE Browser will be listed here. It is a simple case of launching the application and browsing the net from there. This is a half decent plugin, it is not in my opinion perfect. I have the Messenger addon hardware keyboard which makes entering things like URLS or typing into forms much much less laborious. Without it, it becomes tedious as anyone who has used the onscreen type-pad will know. It has a few decent functions and is pretty user friendly, other Media Center features such as music playing continues in the background whilst you browse and appears as a nice icon in the bottom left for skipping/pausing etc. The MCEBrowser does not provide any audio though, that's the only drawback, perhaps deliberate, but who knows. It is a useful little application if you are desperate to get yet more functionality out of your machine. A final concern I should put to bed is that of compromising your Xbox to viruses, Trojans etc. This is a non issue as far as I can see as the browser is run through Media Center which is based on your PC - it is still in essence streamed content. Therefore you cannot be putting your 360 at risk as what is displayed is done so remotely and not locally, and in any case the same security settings you have applied on your host machine will be applied so our antivirus and firewalls are still in place.


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