Sunday, March 14, 2010

Xbox: Wake up and be a real media center already!

Lately I've been amassing old sci-fi films.  For the most part,these stream from my mac mini to my Xbox with no problems.  But every once in a while, I run across a film encoded with DIV3.  Apparently, for whatever reason, the good folks at Microsoft decided that this particular codec shall not be found on an unmodified Xbox.  DIV3 movies play back directly on my mac without issue. They also play back on a Windows 7 machine without problem.  But Xbox - the only one of these machines intended to be hooked up to a TV, does not do DIV3.  What's with that?  Why is it that with Apple TV, WII and other media hub devices abounding, MS hasn't got their shit together and made the updates needed to ensure that Xbox is a media hub category killer?

Instead, they've fragmented their own strategy in this space. Enter Windows Media Center Extender.  This little update to Xbox does enable me to view DIV3 encoded files via the xBox.  But not easily and not well.

Setting up WMCE is tedious and sometimes fraught with difficulties.  Once completed, you might think to yourself that WMCE will become the new way that you'll access all your networked media.  Such is not the case.  The WMCE interface is noticeably slow, and it takes a good 30 seconds to get the ball rolling.  So, for any media that will play via the normal Xbox dashboard, it's much faster to stick with the older interface.  In addition to being slower, the media controls for the WMCE do not use the normal conventions for playing, pausing, skipping chapters, etc.  In fact, instead of utilizing the same basic UI conventions that all Xbox game and system interfaces share, it appears the designers of  WMCE went out of their way to create the least intuitive approach imaginable.  For example, it took me a good 5 minutes to find the play/pause button the first time I used it, and if I go a few months without opening WMCE, I spend another few minutes trying to recall the awkward configuration while the movie plays on in the background..

I really don't understand how the folks at MS could possibly decide that the Xbox should sport two ways of playing videos, and that each would use an entirely different UI configuration.   It can't be a question of stupidity because no one is that stupid.  And then there's the question of YouTube.  Why hasn't MS created an Xbox interface to playback youtube videos?  The only plausible explanation is that the company is deliberately trying to limit the success of Xbox as a media hub. 

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