The Reality Of The “Microsoft House”
My goal in this whole endeavour was deceptively simple. I wanted to centrally store my media and share it across my home network to my various PCs and mobile devices. If you believe the hype, this should be simple, but of course, it’s not. The purpose of this article is to give a true and reasonable account of what it’s actually like to try and “live the dream” of the ideals set out in the “Microsoft House” and why it’s not what we all have in our homes, unlike Microwaves, DVD players and yes, iPods.
The recently banned iPhone ads (Apple are liars, but we all knew that) are a great example of what should happen, contrasted with what actually happens.
To begin, let’s discuss why this is mostly all Microsoft’s fault. The reason most people don’t utilize the full potential of Windows is that they have enough of a job keeping the damn thing running in the first place. Having worked in a small computer shop, I can say from personal experience that it is simply amazing, the seemingly extraordinary lengths people will go to in order to harm, cripple and disable their PC. They don’t really mean to do it of course, but they are not educated enough to make sensible and informed choices. Even Windows Vista isn’t immune to the ever-ignorant masses, but as I said, this is Microsoft’s fault.
I’d like to make an assumption here, and do let me know if I’m wrong. You are running Windows XP or Vista with a single user account. This might be password protected or it might not, but it is your single administrative account which you use every day. Well, believe it or not, this is bad practice and leaves your PC open in ways that Microsoft assumes you’ve resolved.
You should have an Administrator account which you do not use, plus a standard user account which you use from day to day. This is not the only example, but it’s typical of “miss-use” of Windows and I wouldn’t be much of a Windows Nerd if I didn’t at least mention it.
Anyway, let’s assume I’m lucky and have a grip on Windows. It’s running fine on my circa 2005 PC, which is a member of my Windows Server Domain. I’ve taken a lot of crap for running a Domain at home, but the truth is, it’s simply the best way to run a network.
Like most people, I have an iPod and I use iTunes to store, stream and organize my audio and videos. I’m no movie pirate, but I do rip my DVDs to my PC in order to enjoy them on my iPod, and these are encoded to H.264 MP4s using DVD FAB and Nero 8. This is all ‘fine and dandy’ until you want to use any of these files outside of the iTunes ecosystem. This is not just a problem with Apple and it’s not all their fault. There is a much more fundamental flaw here.
I’m going to assume that you’re using a PC for all these shenanigans because at least 92% of you are. If you are an 8% Mac user, please don’t respond in the comments section about how much easier all of this is on a Mac, because it isn’t (in fact, it’s worse), and because it doesn’t apply to most people, no-one really cares about what you think. This article does discuss Windows, but it isn’t about Windows. It’s about standards. It’s not my fault that you may be using Betamax. Now then, where’s my soapbox…
The Horrid Open Box
You buy a toaster, put bread in it, and there’s your toast. If you can believe it, people actually bought Media-Centre PCs and expected to just plug them in and have them work in the same way. Codecs, video encoding, workgroup networking, extender device compatibility, DRM, comprehensive data backup…
These are just the rudiments which you don’t just have to know about, but really understand if you are going to make the “Microsoft Home” actually work. Again, let me point out that this would be true of any computer, irrespective of operating system or format. It is not like buying a toaster, and it needs to be. Unless you are an IT guy, you’re screwed. Many Media-Centre PCs come with a “TV-Style” remote control, which I think is just hilarious. It’s as if you’re just buying a DVD player or something, which you are absolutely not. There is a button on the Xbox 360 Media Remote called “Live TV”. Really!? Who do they think they’re kidding?
To this day, I have never found a meaningful way to use a computer to replace a Sky+ box. Sure, there are ways (convoluted, unreliable, flawed and illegal) to get live Sky TV on to your PC, but why do I have to jump through so many hoops to get there!? Where’s my legal Sky PCI card, complete with viewing card slot?
I was going to rail about the lack of common standards support on digital media devices here, but let’s not forget that up until this point, I’ve only been talking about the general, open, free-for-all mess of the common digital video standards. There is, of course, a darker side. Something much worse. Can you guess what it is? Yeah, I think you can…
Back in the bad old days, when the world was in black and white and the Zune was just a glint in Satan’s eye, Microsoft marketed something called “Plays For Sure”. Actually, “marketed” is a bit of a stretch, but the idea was that just like the VHS symbol of the ancient civilizations, you looked for this logo on portable devices and in purchased digital media, the idea being that it would be compatible and “play for sure” (do you see where they were going with this?).
Unfortunately, Plays For Sure was only adopted sparsely and not consistently by hardware manufacturers and instead of being a unified legion of common standards, it might as well have been called “Plays Windows Media Files”. Also, just because you had a digital video player that sported the “Plays For Sure” logo, that might only refer to WMA. If you actually had a commercial WMV file, the player still might not handle it. Honestly, leave it to Microsoft to take a good idea and screw it up. So what did people buy instead?
The Poisoned Apple
“It discourages independent thought, it is divisive, and it is dangerous”.
Actually, I’m quoting someone else here, who said that about something else entirely, but I can’t help thinking that it somewhat applies. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s talk about the damn iPod.
I used to be a big fan of the iPod, which is basically an Apple TV with a screen. I make this distinction, because media-streaming aside, an iPod is as insular and incompatible as an Apple TV and with a £40 (!) cable, an iPod IS an Apple TV. Now I will concede that there is a unique elegance and integration about Apple media hardware which is still (bizarrely) not found anywhere else. The iPod Touch has an amazing interface, and I still maintain that you really haven’t had full intuitive access to a movie until you’ve seen what Apple do with chapters on the iPod touch. Oh yes, it’s really that ace. The Apple TV is famous for “just working”, so it’s ideal, right?
I won’t waste your time by telling what you already know, about how purposefully crumby iTunes is on the PC and by the time we’re done with this article, trust me here, it no longer matters. But the iPod/Apple TV does still all boil-down to iTunes and more importantly in the context of video files, something called “AVC” or “H.264”. Some of you will know what I’m talking about here, and some of you won’t.
For those who don’t know, think of H.264 as the new MP3 for video. Smaller files, better quality. In the words of Daft Punk, it’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. At least, that’s true if you’re an iPod/Apple TV owner, and your only alternatives are MPEG-4 or MOV formats. There are better, less CPU intensive Codecs than H.264, but as an Apple device owner, you don’t get to utilize any of them.
iTunes has always been the binding element of Apple in the real world and without it, they’d still be a tin-pot company selling machines to media-types who design bus-stop posters and don’t know how to use computers. Would you be an iPod owner if you still had to use it with Music-Match Jukebox? (Not you, Mac owners, you don’t count, remember?) When you think of everything about the iPod you have to put up with, just for the privilege of using the organizational features of iTunes, I think you start to see my point. It’s all compromise. There must be a better way.
The Big-Ass Hard Disk
I really went round the houses with Media Sharing in XP and Vista, specifically with the Xbox 360 and I’m not ashamed to say that without exception, it’s absolutely horrible. I’ve talked about what happens when you try and play Apple iTunes H.264 .mp4 video files through the clunky Media Sharing Service on an Xbox 360 in a previous article, but even your vanilla movie files are not reliably and immediately accessible enough to make it an everyday tool like, for example, a toaster or…oh, I don’t know, a DVD player!?
This would have been where I did a wrap-up to the trilogy, basically telling you to copy all your videos to a USB external drive and strap it to your Xbox 360. It plays almost anything, doesn’t know what DRM is, you can take it with you round to your mate’s house. It’ll even work on his PC (or indeed Mac) if he doesn’t have an Xbox. It’s actually still not a bad idea (because it’s immediate, is as easy to use as a Sky+ box and when plugged into a device such as the Xbox 360, your computer doesn’t have to be on), but if you do that, you are now missing out.
In the third quarter of 2009 (educated guess), everything changes. Of course, for some of us at the coal face, that change has already happened.
The Solution Of Windows 7 Media Center
Are you ready for the highly-technical, convoluted how-to guide to streaming media around your home with Windows 7? OK then, here we go…
Connect your Xbox 360 to Windows Media Center, and then add the root of the relevant hard disk to Windows Media Center.
No file sharing, no workgroup networking, no format problems, in fact, no messing about with Windows at all. Even your mum could set it up. Every file is accessible, playable, easily findable, and pops-up like it’s got a pole up its ass. Windows will read your iTunes library and automatically prioritize files it finds in there within the audio portion of Windows Media Center (hereafter, referred to as WMC). Podcasts are segregated appropriately, and all album art and release notes are transposed correctly.
Unlike previous versions of WMC, the extender is dependent on what the PC can play natively, NOT what works with the Media Centre Extender on its own. I’ve tested compatibility exhaustively and can find only a few predictable formats which don’t work. These are:
- .mov (good, I’m pleased it doesn’t work, if you encode in QuickTime, you don’t deserve a computer)
- .flv (not yet, although from what I’ve heard, Flash may be coming, so that might very soon change..)
- .rm (obviously, who uses Real anymore?)
This is from my own experience, but everything else is just fine and dandy.
So what’s wrong with it? Well, not much. Windows 7 uses a non-hierarchical (almost) ad-hoc domain based protocol called “Homegroup”, which is what the next version of Microsoft Home Server will use and is the proper realization of “Quattro “, or as it’s should be known, “Domains for all of us!”.
When it tries to connect to a previous version of Windows such as Vista or for some sentimental reason, a Mac (might as well be Windows 3.11, because OSX’s networking capabilities are about the same), it falls back to Workgroup protocol, with all the fun and games that come with it. For some reason, straight media streaming outside of WMC is still conducted in the old workgroup world, at least on the Xbox 360. I hope this is a “nuance” of the Win 7 BETA because although there really is no reason not to use WMC anymore, a lot of people will choose not to do so and I don’t think they should be penalized for it.
When you first connect an Xbox 360 to Windows 7, it asks you if you want to upgrade the software on the Xbox. I’ll say from the get-go, you either do this sort of thing, or you don’t. There is no easy way of going back, Vista WMC will not work anymore, and there’s no straightforward way to rectify this. If you do install the upgrade on your brand new Xbox, don’t expect any sort of refund if anything goes wrong with the hardware, because by installing BETA software, you just invalidated the EULA. Fantastic, eh?
I suppose that all us WMC extender users will move to Windows 7 anyway eventually though, and as important as it is to mention that, the WMC upgrade is absolutely innocuous, and I will put my name and reputation to the fact that upgrading the WMC software on your Xbox 360 will, in and of itself, not brick it. As always, I encourage you to try.
The Windows 7 release of Windows Media Center is very important because, for the first time, we’re able to take the consumer-media offerings of Microsoft seriously. This isn’t just functional, and it gives me great pleasure to say with some authority, that if you want to extend content from your computer on to your TV, there is nothing simpler, more reliable, more compatible, or easier to set-up and use than Windows 7.
So if they aren’t as good at rich media, aren’t as easy to use and configure, and aren’t as compatible, I have to ask the question…Exactly what are Macs for? Well, they do run Windows.
I’ve been around PCs all my life and I’m an avid Windows enthusiast. I used to work in IT, but now simply enjoy it as a hobby; however I do still take an interest in the industry. I’m a compulsive tinkerer and have probably re-installed my machine more times than many normal people have switched theirs on. I’m a novice XBOX 360 gamer, mostly playing a mixture of driving and platform games, which I mostly suck at, possibly with the exception of Ridge Racer 6, which I simply don’t have the time to play enough of. I enjoy all things tech and am a big fan of Leo Laporte and his “TWIT” network. I have a soft spot for high-tech in small packages and still miss the MiniDisc, just because it was so damn cool. I’m also a bit of a retro/nostalgia junkie and still have 20-year-old copies of C+VG magazine which I thumb through from time to time. Outside of technology, I like scuba diving and playing the didgeridoo (no, not at the same time) and I run a didgeridoo club with my dad.