XBox 360 As A Windows Media Center Extension: Context is King
Now that I've committed to buying a 360, I'm exploring the website and learning a bit about all the stuff it does besides games. Someone told me Friday that it could act as a Media Center, but I didn't really understand what they were saying and thought it was sort of a future offering as I hadn't really seen anything in the reviews about that. Actually, the XBox will act as an XP Media Center *extension* - playing the audio and video that stored on your XP Media Center PC. That way the main processing and storage is done on the PC in your office or bedroom, but you consume the media on your TV and stereo system in your living room.
Wow. That's amazing.
Okay, so my first thought is simply that I wish the Media Center's TiVo-like functionality was already built in to the 360 since I don't have a Media Center PC and the 360 does have a hard drive already. It'd be nice to replace a few boxes near my TV (Game Machine, DVD Player and TiVo) with just one. Secondly, I'm not sure how exactly this all works. Does my cable box plug into the 360? How are you are able to change channels with it? Do you wire up the PC and then just streams media to the TV? I'm confused about that part.
But beyond this, I think this is an awesome feature of the 360! Computers that manage your media will never take off until you're easily able to consume your content in the place you normally do: i.e. the living room. The idea of having a full-fledged PC in the living room always seemed dumb to me (and just about everyone else) and how many people outside Japan use their PC's Monitor as their TV? This is the same problem with Apple's FrontRow stuff as well - until there's a way to send the output to your TV and Stereo, it's not going to very far. The 360 solves this problem by putting just enough power in the living room to display the media, and keeping the rest on your computer whereever that sits.
I have to say, this is scarily cool: Microsoft is getting *a lot* closer to owning that third screen in our lives. Windows is well on its way to becoming a sort of Home Media Server, sucking down content from the various music sites that use their DRM (including Yahoo!), streaming movie sites that like MovieLink, and managing your own ripped content, video and photos, etc. It's not like this is only for super-rich people either: XP Media Center PCs are out there for less than $500 from Dell (and can be laptops as well), and I'm sure as time goes by, it'll be default installation for all new Windows machines. Throw a few cheap 250GB hard drives in your PC, and man, you've got a lot of room for content without having to "hack" your system like TiVo. It just makes total sense...
The most amazing thing about this is how it controls context. Your PC remains a PC, your Video Game Console remains just that, but when they're put together, a third functionality emerges to help manage all your media. Maybe that can be seen as complexity (one box with a simplified interface might be better), but to me it seems like a pretty neat Trojan Horse for Microsoft's vision of the digital home.
I think I'll have to use it before I make any more judgements. Microsoft has a tendency to go in right directions with consumer electronics, but miss a lot of small details that make the experience painless and enjoyable, no? I'll want to see the 360's Media Center integration for myself before thinking about punting my TiVo, for sure. But still, I think the whole area is about to take off. Cool stuff.
Update: I missed this the first time around, but Chris Anderson has more info about the Media Extender stuff over on his Long Tail blog.